Design Situations: RGB? CMYK? WTH!?!?

(“Design Situations” is an ongoing section of “Keeping Up With Barrage” in which Principal and Creative Director of Barrage Design Group, Adam Poser, addresses real-life design questions and problems for the non-designer.  If  you have a question or situation that you would like Adam to address, contact him at adposer@barragedesign.)

The Situation:

The company you work for is a sponsor for a local community sports event.  As part of your sponsorship package, the logo of your company is going to be displayed on banners around the field.  Now you’re on the phone with the service that creates the banners and he is asking for the company logo in CMYK, not RGB, format.  Having no idea what they are talking about, you inform them you’ll get that to them as soon as possible.  Immediately after hanging up, you frantically go to your favorite search engine to figure out what those acronyms mean.

The Explanation:

First, take a deep breath.

Done?  Okay, let’s begin.

When someone talks about RGB and CMYK they are referring to the two color models used to determine an array of colors for various outputs.  While the issue can be complex, understanding the basics are typically enough to help solve your problem.  Let’s begin by looking at the RGB color model:

RGB – The letters RGB refer to the three colors that are used in the color model, Red, Green and Blue.

RGB is an additive color model, meaning that the three colors, red, green and blue are mixed together to create a wide range of colors.   To illustrate this concept, refer to Figure 1.1 for an example of the RGB color model.


Figure 1.1 - RGB Color Model


You should be aware that the RGB color model is primarily used for displaying images in electronic devices such as phones, televisions and computers.  Any graphics found on your electronic device are going to be based on the RGB color model.


CMYK – As with RGB, the letters in CMYK also refer to the colors that make up the model, Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black.  The K stands for Key and has to do with the printing process.

In contrast to the additive process that the RGB color model uses, CMYK is a subtractive color model.  As the inks are added together, less light is able to be reflected and the brightness is reduced, thus describing why it is called subtractive.  When Cyan, Magenta and Yellow are mixed together, Black is the resulting color.  As with the RGB color model, refer to Figure 1.2 for an example of the CMYK color model.



Figure 1.2 - CMYK Color Model


The CMYK color model is primarily used for printing, using a method called Halftoning. Halftoning allows for a wider range of color options by printing varying size dots of the primary color, combining them with the white paper to trick the eye into seeing a different color.

The Solution:

Now that you understand the differences between RGB and CMYK, you’re ready to deliver the file you promised.  If your company had their logo professionally created, the design firm should have delivered the logo in a vector based drawing program (Adobe Illustrator, seen as an .ai file,  is one of the most common and what we use at Barrage Design Group) as well as a PDF file containing both the color and the grayscale versions of the logo.  Some logos are created in programs such as Adobe Photoshop (seen as a .psd file), which are serviceable, but not ideal for logos.  Whichever program was used to create the company logo, you need to locate the correct files and pass them along to the design company.


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