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Why do my print colours look different to what's on screen?

At some point, you’ve probably faced the headache of colours not looking as bright on your printout or brochure as they did on screen. There is a simple answer to this conundrum, and hopefully, this will help explain it.

Answering your question

The differences between RGB and CMYK are the main culprit for your colours looking different on screen compared to the printed version.

RGB’s additive colour process means it produces colours and brightness that CMYK just can’t reproduce. So if you’ve chosen a colour that isn’t in the range CMYK can print, unfortunately, this means it will come out much duller than what you see on screen.

Understanding RGB and CMYK

You may have noticed, we love colour. We’re lucky to work with some really energetic brands and colour is a great way to help convey this energy. However, it also involves a certain amount of consideration. How does the company communicate with its audience? Is it mainly using digital methods via a website or social media, or printed materials like brochures and leaflets?

If digital is the main platform, RGB offers a much wider and vibrant colour choice. The drawback is when printed, the vibrancy of these colours often can’t be reproduced in CMYK. But what the hell does that all mean?

Ketchup, Catsup gif

RGB (Additive colour)

RGB is an acronym for Red, Green, Blue and is the colour system used on computer displays, TV’s, mobile phones, we’ll pretty much anything that has a screen. RGB is an additive type of colour mode and when Red, Green and Blue combine in various amounts they make all the colours we can see with the human eye and more— about 9,777,216 more.

How does it work?

First, you start with black. Whatever colour you add to black, makes the darkness brighter.

Red, green and blue colours on black

Combining Red and Green makes a brighter colour again—Yellow.

Red and green combining to make yellow

Blue and Red, creates Magenta.

Blue and red combining to make magenta

Green and Blue makes Cyan.

Green and blue combining to make cyan

When all three combine, you get White.

Red, Green and blue combining to make white

CMYK (Subtractive colour)

CMYK is an acronym for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Key (Black is referred to as the Key colour hence the ‘K’). This colour system is used for printing and combines these four colours in varying percentages to create printed imagery. CMYK is a subtractive type of colour process, meaning unlike RGB, when colours are combined light is removed or absorbed making the colours darker instead of brighter. This results in a much smaller colour gamut—in fact, it’s nearly half that of RGB.

How does it work.

As a complete flip to RGB, CMYK starts with white. Whatever colour you add to white makes it darker rather than brighter.

Cyan, magenta and yellow colours on white

Combining Cyan and Magenta makes Blue.

Cyan and magenta combining to make blue

Combining Cyan and Yellow makes Green.

Cyan and yellow combining to make green

Combining Yellow and Magenta makes Red.

Yellow and magenta combining to make red

When all three colours are combined, well you don’t get black but more of a muddy brown. This is where the key(black) colour comes in to help create the darker shadows.

Cyan, magenta and yellow combining to make black

Making the right choice

It’s all about picking the right colours for the right process. When choosing colours for a brand or a piece of design, it’s important to know how it’s going to be used or the method it will be displayed, as I mentioned earlier.

So, if you’re a digitally focused company who rarely needs printed materials—if any—RGB offers the best range of colours to help you stand out without having to worry about how it prints. Companies relying more heavily on printed materials like brochures and catalogues etc, CMYK is the better choice to make sure your colours look as awesome as they should and not dull as dishwater.

The Pantone solution

There is one solution—albeit a potentially pricey one—for printing bright colours that more closely match RGB and that’s to use Pantone colours. Pantone colours (also known as spot colours) are specially formulated inks that have a unique colour. These are generally much brighter than CMYK and also include fluorescent and metallic colours. The drawback is cost. Using Pantone colours means you need to have your stuff Lithographically printed (Litho printing), a process using printing plates applied to rollers which transfers the image to the paper. For large print runs of 1000s, this is great. However, for small print runs this isn’t cost effective and digital printing is the best option meaning you’re back to square one.

Photo of lithographic printing
Litho printing in action

The problem is your company requirements are rarely so black and white and budget is always a factor. So what's the solution if you rely on both digital and print? The safest option is to find colours that print the way you want them, that also look great in RGB. This can be a little more limiting in colour choice, however, there is another approach.

Our approach

Instead of feeling stuck in an either/or merry-go-round, you can have the best of both worlds. Our approach to choosing colour is to offer the best solution for all outputs—colour pallets for print AND colour pallets for digital. This enables your brand to look its best whatever the application.

Now, I’m not saying these colours should be different ends of the spectrum—colour forms a huge part of brand recognition. What I’m saying is, if you want a punchy blue for your brand that works in RGB but doesn’t in CMYK, you don’t have to make sacrifices, find the closest suitable match in CMYK and define this as the print version of your brand colour. This isn’t a cop-out, this is finding the right solution for the right output.

Defined pallets in action

Image showing how FlyForms colours work in RGB and CMYK

To give you a better idea of how this works, I've used FlyForm as a demonstration. As a brand who required both digital and printed communications, we defined colour pallets to suit both. The RGB is inevitably much brighter and punchier on screen, whereas the CMYK pallet looks dull on screen. This is how we would expect CMYK to look as it's not formulated to look good on screen. When it comes to printing, however, that's CMYK's time to shine and the 'dull' colours don't look so dull anymore. It's the case of 'you wouldn't use a spoon to cut bread', there is a right tool—or colour mode—for the right job.

Hopefully, this sheds some light on why colours behave differently between screen and print and will hopefully result in fewer colour related headaches!