CMYK & RGB: The Basics of Colour in Graphics Design

by | Branding, Web Design

In the world of graphic design, there are two colour models that most graphic designers use: CMYK and RGB.

While they share some similarities, there are also key differences between the two models that make them suitable for specific applications. In this article, we will explore the similarities and differences between CMYK and RGB, and when to use each model.

CMYK & RGB: What Are They?

Unlike physical painting, there is no paint or “ink” for each different colour in the field of graphic design. However, with a mix of a few primary colours at different intensities, you will nonetheless produce millions of colours.

CMYK and RGB do exactly just that; they are colour models designers utilise to create a wide range of colours.

They both rely on primary colours to create other colours. In the case of CMYK, the primary colours are cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (CMYK), while for RGB, the primary colours are red, green, and blue (RGB).

You can see the usage of these 2 colour modes all around us. The bright pink (combination of magenta and yellow) brochure from Foodpanda or the blazing yellow (combination of red and green) Instagram posts from Digi Malaysia. 

By combining different degrees of these primary colours, designers can create millions of different colours.

Differences between CMYK and RGB

The main thing you should understand about colour in graphic design is the differences between the 2 colour models.

Colour Scheme Mechanism

One of the key differences between CMYK and RGB is the way they are used.

CMYK is a subtractive colour model, and it creates colour on print by removing wavelengths of light. When you print on paper, the ink absorbs certain wavelengths of light, creating the colours we see.

A combination of any of the 4 primitive colours of CMYK at different degrees produces various colours.

Naturally, when you mix all 4 colours, you will get the black colour.

In contrast, RGB is an additive colour model, where designers create colours by adding light. This is only possible with digital media.

When a pixel is illuminated with light, it emits certain wavelengths of light, creating the colours we see.

If you combine all three colours at the maximum intensity, it will produce the white colour. A black colour combination, on the other hand, will be the absence of the three primitive colours.

Colour Gamut

Another critical difference between the two models is their colour gamut. A colour gamut refers to the range of colours that can be created within a colour model.

RGB has a larger colour gamut than CMYK. Hence, the RGB colour mode can produce a wider range of colour combinations than the CMYK colour model.

It is partially the reason why the colour appears to be more vibrant and sharp on screen than in print.

Your electronic display shows a visual with an RGB colour model. However, when it is printed on paper, your printer will resort to the CMYK colour model to produce the colour.

In this case, the colour will only be as close as possible to your electronic display.

Colour Accuracy

One practical difference between the two models is in the way they handle colour accuracy. 

Although RGB has a better colour gamut, CMYK is a more accurate colour model for printing. 

People mostly refer to colour accuracy as how well the colour model can match what they see on print media and most other offline branding materials. Since CMYK is based on the physical properties of ink and paper, it is more accurate than RGBl.

Designers can use colour swatches and charts to ensure that the colours they choose will print accurately.

Moreover, you will also run into the issue of colour inaccuracy across different digital devices with the RGB colour model.


Each colour model has its pros and cons. However, it does not matter which is an overall better option.

As we have seen, most designers use CMYK and RGB in different contexts.

Choosing the right model for the right medium can make a big difference in the outcome.

Here are some guidelines to help you choose the right model for your project:


Use CMYK for print media, such as your brochure design, business cards, flyer design, posters, etc. When designing for print, it is important to use a CMYK colour profile to ensure colour accuracy.

Keep in mind that colours may look different on a computer monitor than they do in print. Therefore, it is important to print out proofs to check colour accuracy before finalising your design.

The recommended file formats for your visual work that uses CMYK are PDF, EPS, and Ai.


Since the RGB colour model suffers from colour inaccuracy when printing, it is reserved for all the visuals in your online branding materials.

Use RGB for digital media, such as websites, social media graphics, and digital ads. When designing for digital media, use an RGB colour profile and remember that colours may look different on different devices.

Hence, ensure that you test your design on a variety of devices and screens.

Since the RGB colour model exists mostly in digital forms, the recommended file formats are JPEG, PNG, and GIF. 

In conclusion, CMYK and RGB are two colour models used in graphic design to create a wide range of colours. Whether you are an SME or a big corporation residing in Malaysia, having a basic understanding of these 2 colour models can help you with your corporate design

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