Design Quickie – RGB vs. CMYK

You have created a raster or vector graphics file and you have to decide the color space for your design to inhabit, but you have no idea whether to use RGB or CMYK color space. This quick guide should help you decide.

1. What is your design intention, and what process is this design for?

The most important deciding factor in what color space to use is the process that you final design will be used for. Some processes are limited by only being able to accommodate designs of only one particular color space. For example web design uses only RGB files and print design uses only CMYK files. Depending on color space, the final product’s color can be drastically different from what you design. Inks simply can’t replicate the range of colors created by the LCDs in you computer monitor, smart phone, or television screen. In the example below the CMYK image has less contrast and a smaller range of colors.

The best practices of designing for a specific process includes using the correct color space. That includes linked images, text links from pdfs, and all other elements of your final design. This can be done by accessing the file menu in vector based programs or the edit menu in raster based programs.

2. Why does this matter?

So your design is finished, and your customer has approved your pdf or other submittals. That means whatever you have made is good regardless of color space, right?

Technically Yes, but there is a huge caveat. If you provide the file in wrong color space you will look at best lazy or inexperienced, and at worst incompetent. Chances are your customer is going to take that design to either a printer/prepress house for print use, or a digital design studio for web site use. They will be able to fix whatever you have fouled up, it’s literally part of their jobs. This will cost time and that time will be charged to your client, causing them to incur an unexpected cost that may or may not fit in to their budget. Most design houses charge upwards of $100 an hour for access to their services. Not only have you provided them with a product they can’t use without alteration, but they have to sift through the files and find all the areas they need to fix for their process.

It would be like ordering a pizza and having the delivery guy show up with a ball of raw dough, sauce, and a pile of toppings. You could finish dressing the pizza and cook it in your own oven, but it defeats the purpose of having it professionally prepared. 

3. Solutions

You have really one of three choices. The first is to to the work yourself to make sure all of the elements of your design are created in the proper color space. If you are able this is the best option as it saves the customer money and smooths out the process. Customers like it when the creation process is effortless for them. That’s one of the reasons they are willing to pay you in the first place. Happy customers make positive referrals and leave positive reviews. This is ultimately what you want if you plan to design professionally.

The second option is of course to not care and ignore the color space as part of your design. If you are dealing with a family friend or a close acquaintance this option is probably fine. If you are advertising yourself as a competent commercial designer for freelance work, this is probably going to lead to some fairly uncomfortable conversations with your customer about expectations and follow through. People in the business of design are going to know how base level these issues are, and rightly or not assume you are not a competent designer. That’s generally not a desirable outcome.

The third option is to be honest about the shortcomings of your design. Generally customers are most interested in the processing advancing smoothly regardless of what hurdles they need to jump in order to get to an acceptable final product. If they are told in advance that the design may need additional work once they give it to whomever they decide to use for the final production, there are no surprises. If this is the path you want to follow the best practice is to not use terms like “production ready”, “print ready”, “web ready” etc. to describe your artwork. Design is visual, and as long as the design meets their visual requirements, most customers will consider your work to be complete and acceptable.