Design, Color  /  10.15.15  / 2-min read

RGB and CMYK (OMG, IDK): Understanding Color in Design

Simply put, RGB and CMYK refer to color. CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key. “Key” is a term that hails from the early days of printing. Its origins are a bit opaque, but let’s focus on what it stands for: black. The letters RGB stand for Red, Green, and Blue. If that’s difficult to remember, just use this handy mnemonic sentence to help you: Cthulhu Mystifies Young Kings, Revealing Gaunt Beliefs. There, isn’t that easier?

Here in the creative department, we get asked a lot of questions: “Can you crop this photo for me?” Sure can! “Can you create an image for my next blog post?” No problem! “Can you photoshop my face onto this kitten body?” No, Devan. And please stop asking us. There’s one question we often get from coworkers and clients alike: “What the heck is CMYK and RGB? Is it a new indie-chillwave-shoegazing-pop duo?”

Well, we completely understand why you’re caught in that gray area. Now, let’s get science-y! *puts on white lab coat, grabs beaker*


Similar to how Meghan Trainor is all about that bass, color is all about that light. More specifically, it’s all about objects emitting or reflecting light, and it’s the absorption or emission of light which tells your peepers which color is what. CMYK is what’s known as a subtractive color model. Slap some pigment on a surface and it absorbs (or subtracts) certain wavelengths of light so your eyes perceive a specific color. The CMYK process (often referred to as the four-color process) allows us to create a large number of colors on the printed page. RGB, on the other hand, is an additive color model. It mixes light to create specific colors, and, with this model, we’re able to produce a much greater spectrum of color than we are with the CMYK process. Anything more science-y than that and I’ll have to get out the Bunsen burner, and we just don’t have the permits.





By now I’m sure you’re thinking, “Hey, this science stuff is all great fun at parties, but how does this affect me in the workplace?” So, let’s talk about the functions of each color model.

We already know that CMYK is used in the printing process. Picture your favorite magazines in the rack next to the cashier at your local grocery store—they’re printed using the four-color process. In fact, next time you’re waiting in line to pay for that Orange Crush and those Red Vines, pull out your magnifying glass, get really close to one of those magazines and you’ll be able to see the individual cyan, magenta, yellow, and black dots.


RGB, however, is used for digital purposes. Think of all those wonderful colors on your favorite websites like and To better understand how this affects you, think back to when you tried to print that totally adorable photo you took of your dog asleep on your yoga mat last week, and the colors didn’t look the way they did on your screen. This is because your digital camera saves pictures in an RGB format and your printer has a tough time translating the millions of RGB colors into CMYK. The same principle is true every time you need to get a brochure or poster printed, and you want the colors to match that of your website or videos. Someone has to make all the necessary adjustments so the colors and images match once printed. In fact, color matching can be so tricky at times that a vast color-matching system called Pantone was created to aid in the process.


There’s a lot to understanding color, and how it relates to print pieces, video, and the web. Trying to cover it all in a single blog post would be a fool’s errand and I’d surely end up blue in the face.


Make sure you check back for future WAP! entries, as we’re sure to expand on this topic. In the meantime, let this post give you a bit of a head start in the color department. Now, get out there and impress your friends with your newfound knowledge! They’ll be green with envy. Yay! *freeze frame jump*


Words About Pictures (WAP!) is an ongoing blog post series designed to help our clients (that’s you!) better understand the many creative quirks or qualms they might encounter during a project.

Marc Checket

Art Director

Marc is an art director at Calypso. He meets with partners to help determine and execute their visual needs. He is an expert in graphic design, video production, and dad jokes.

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