CMYK: Why You Should Use It for Print Jobs

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For many, designing for print is a simple process. But it’s actually quite easy to make mistakes that can affect the quality of your final printouts. And since ink, toner, and certain printing paper come at a high price, these errors can cost you a pretty penny.


But before you think that cheaper remanufactured ink cartridges are to blame for poor quality prints and additional expenses, check the color profile first. Indeed, common issues with color fidelity can be traced to incorrect settings. The problem is that things like cameras, photo-editing software, and printers have different color profiles by default.

What’s more, people often stick to their standard settings without much thought, which can result in subpar prints. To avoid this, it’s best to know which type of profile you should use in different situations.

There are two main color modes we use today: RGB and CMYK. Both profiles offer advantages depending on the output you want. But when it comes to print jobs, CMYK is the way to go.

What is CMYK?

CMYK is a type of color model used in color printing. It is also used to describe the printing process itself. The acronym CMYK stands for four ink colors: cyan, magenta, yellow, and key, with key referring to the color black. Functionally, this color model subtracts brightness from white. This means that the more ink you mix in, the darker the colors get. Hence, when you combine all the CMYK colors, it forms a non-reflective imperfect black.

For greater understanding, let’s compare CMYK with RGB, which stands for red, green, and blue. RGB is an additive color system that uses different colored lights to project images. In this system, the more colors you add in, the brighter and more vibrant a design will be.  So when combined or maximized, RGB colors produce white.

In the end, these key differences dictate the most ideal situations for using both color models.  But which one is for which?

RGB for digital art, CMYK for print

If you are reading this on a computer screen or on your smartphone, then you are already viewing RGB colors. These colors come in 16-bit flavors, with components having more than 60,000 levels of brightness. This results in high resolution and hues that even human eyes have difficulty perceiving. The wide color system RGB provides makes it the perfect profile to use in digital art or for works intended for the web. With this model, you can edit, filter, and manipulate colors without losing perceptual image quality.

But for print media—be it magazines, brochures, or books—the CMYK model is the standard. This is because prints are made with ink, not light. When viewing printed materials, our eyes rely on the pure colors without any emitted light. To reflect these colors, printers rely on subtractive hues that absorb light.  This is why traditional print pressing methods used cyan, magenta, yellow, and black to achieve colors. To this day, modern printing devices operate using the same color model.

A few notes to keep in mind

Because of the difference between RGB and CMYK, you’ll often find that your final printed output looks different from how it appeared on screen. This is normal because what looks good on a monitor isn’t always as impressive in printed form. Plus, current CMYK inks can’t recreate the entire color range of the RGB system just yet. In those cases, the CMYK model will try to use the closest-fitting hue instead.

If you want to minimize this color gap, make sure that you photo-editing software is in CMYK mode. This ensures that you’ll have a more accurate idea of how your work will look when printed. Keep in mind, though, that since additive and subtractive colors are too different, a computer monitor is incapable of showing “true” CMYK colors.


Vishal Gaikar

Article by Vishal

Meet Vishal Gaikar, the tech wizard hailing from Pune, India, who's on a mission to decode the digital universe one blog post at a time. When he's not tinkering with gadgets or diving deep into the digital realm, you can find him concocting the perfect cup of chai or plotting his next adventure. Follow his tech escapades on Twitter and buckle up for a wild ride through the world of innovation and geekery!

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