How to Achieve Colour Consistency (and Why it Matters)


Posted on July 3rd, by Andrew Kelsall in Color Theory. Comments Off

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Do you want to achieve a solid colour consistency? Why does it matter? In this post, I include an email conversation with another designer named Mark (content used with permission), who asked my advice of some colour issues. I’m not an absolute authority on the issue, but I’ve tried to answer his questions as I know best. Feel free to contribute your expertise at the end of the post…

achieve a solid colour consistency image header

An Email Conversation with Mark:

Hi Andrew,

Apologies for emailing you out of the blue but I often visit your website to read your articles and after reading lots on the CMYK or RGB (as a starting point) debate wanted to ask you about your thoughts on a couple of things…

I do a bit of freelance and have been doing logo design contests for a while now. Initially I started off designing in RGB but then changed to CMYK, thinking it would be a better approach to minimise colour shifts if there is to be a ‘consistent’ colour scheme across web & print. Please note that I am ruling out Pantone Colours for this discussion.

I use SpyderPro4 for colour calibration and have the CS6 Creative Suite, using CMYK Coated FROGRA39 working space and (at the moment) sRGB.

My Reply • I once used a SpyderPro, then realised they aren’t that essential in my opinion, so I sold it! I use the same colour spaces as you, too.

Having read up a bit on sRGB and Adobe RGB, and without going into too much detail as I’m sure you are fully aware, the sRGB seems to be the better choice as it’s more ‘everywhere’ and accurate for web – so for ‘consistency’ there seemed good logic for designing in RGB (sRGB) until the end and then converting to CMYK (as mentioned in one of your posts) fro print.

My Reply • Yes, if you use sRGB when a large part of the work will be used on the web, it can make sense. However, there’s nothing wrong in designing in CMYK and converting to sRGB for web use. Sometimes, it’s a decision made regarding how colour-accurate and consistent the printed material should be, rather than the web work. As you’ve read in my RGB/CMYK post, theres no right/wrong way. It depends on the designer.

Here comes a bit of a side-track, [apologies]…

So, here’s what I did…
1. Opened an RGB document (sRGB working space), created a circle and made it 100% Cyan (bear with me), which was then translated to RGB(27,157,217)
When looking back at the CMYK colour numbers, these had changed to 75%Cyan , 22%M aganeta – totally expecting a change there because I know not all CMYK colours fall within the sRGB working space.
2. Exported as PNG
3. Placed PNG back into document
4. Using the colour picker, sampled the circle from the PNG and it returned a completely different colour (see sRGB image below):

sRGB Colour Illustration:

Monitor RGB color image

My Reply • Hmmm, I see why you are so confused! It appears to me that because you converted the circle to a CMYK working space, this changed the colour/tone of the blue because the PNG format ONLY supports the RGB 24-bit gamuts. So, no wonder it was translated into another blue. If you are saving files in PNG, remember this is web-only and not designed for print. In these cases, its better to stick with RGB throughout the entire design process. If print files are required from the same files, convert after all is done and dusted. Make sense? I may be wrong here, but it’s just a hunch…

Just for curiosity I did the same in CMYK mode and results were similar (see CMYK image below). I should note, relevant or not, that each image attached was saved for web with Convert to sRGB ticked.

CMYK Colour Illustration:

CMYK Colour Blue

My Reply • I think that converting to sRGB from both RGB and CMYK sources will still yield different results.

So I looked into this a bit further and set my RGB working space to MonitorRGB – my calibrated screen. I went through the same method and the results showed no colour shifts (see Monitor RGB image below) but there is a difference when comparing the same starting blue in MonitorRGB and sRGB.

Monitor RGB Colour Illustration:

sRGB Colours

Now I guess this is an issue with how the colour picker in Illustrator is working and when searching around the forums realised I’m definitely not the only one who noticed this. So, to the side track question – by using Monitor RGB (colour calibrated), which seems to pick the right colour, am I essentially trapping myself in my own colour bubble?

My Reply • To be honest here – I don’t know. I only ever use my calibrated mac screen as this stuff confuses a lot of designers. I think a pro printer know a lot more on these issues rather than us designers in many cases.

Now back to the main point…

I appreciate colour scheme consistency across web & print will never be perfect so what is the best approach to keep colours shifts to a minimum?

· If I start in RGB mode (say, using sRGB, ensuring no colours go out of gamut) and get to my final design, is it best to stop there save the design as e.g. My-Design-RGB.ai then…
· Save a copy as My-Design-CMYK.ai, open the copy and convert to CMYK (then round-up all the colour numbers for good measure)
· Save and close both files and provide both at the end of the project – a web and a print version.

My Reply • In regards to the above, and in my experience, I don’t chop-and-change colour setups while designing. I will do any colour conversion right at the end of the design process, and after PSD files have been flattened. Also, I always use CMYK files in InDesign as it’s a print program (yeah, you can do RGB PDF stuff in there too, but it’s primary focus is print).

Basically, is using the sRGB working space using only colours that are not out of gamut the closest anyone is likely to get to a ‘consistent’ colour scheme across print and web?

My Reply • My understanding is that sRGB colours will appear on any decent monitor or device these days. Obviously, if you are designing mainly for print on a certain project, CMYK may be the way to go, although there are some things you can’t do in CMYK in photoshop. I think that yes, sRBG IEC61966-2.1 maybe the way to go for colour consistency, but I’m not an absolute authority on the issue. I just use my experience in the field as a guide.

After my reply above, here is the followup email and answers:

Hi Andrew,

Thanks for getting back to me. I think I entered the maze of confusion on this one and didn’t find my way out until a few days later. And even then I’m not sure I came out in the right place.

I revisited 100% Cyan in Illustrator (from below) and things started to make more sense. Having noticed the #RGB value as #009EE3 – I nudged the value up to #019EE3 and that made it clearer to me about the colour shift, a numerical representation of the boundary between the RGB space and the CMYK values outside of it.

So, after that, I’ve settled for designing in CMYK and colour proofing in sRGB mode as I go along – unless the project has a need for more than just solid colours then I’ll design in sRGB.

With my objective to maintain a consistent colour scheme across web & print, would you say this is a suitable process?

My reply • You’ve already read my article x which has an extensive discussion about this, but yeah, I suppose consistency is key. If you decide to design in sRGB or CMYK, always think of the end output first. If all work you do is split between web and print, I don’t see any major issues in designing in sRGB—UNLESS it is essential that you have to display out-of-gamut colours in a prominent way I suppose.

There is one other thing that is puzzling me and I wonder if you have come across it? When proofing the colours in CMYK (with the same profile I’m working in) the ‘simulate black ink’ option in Illustrator fades the on-screen colours with a K value (more so as the value gets higher).  If I’m already designing using accurate blacks, is this an unnecessary step?  I’ve had some business cards printed recently and it does look to me that they look like the colours from the working space and not the ‘proof’ when comparing the two – although it is difficult to be certain!

My Reply • I also use the ‘simulate black ink’ option in Illustrator, too. You’d be surprised how many times I’ve spotted that I’m using flat blacks and rich blacks without knowing it. I think that Illustrator simulates the black in all colours it’s used in, and not just the actual black.

After my reply above, here is the 3rd email and answers:

Hi Andrew,

First and foremost, thanks for actually taking the time out to get back to me, much appreciated.

I knew that PNG and JPG did not support the CMYK colour space but it was the colour shift from creating these from a CMYK working space when using certain colours that surprised me and prompted me to get in touch.

Knowing that the RGB working space contains a lot more colours than the CMYK working space, I naively thought all CMYK colours would convert into an RGB colour with no significant loss in colour.

My Reply • Case and point—this is why I often design in RGB when web work is required from the same file!

You can read a lot in forums where a designer has created something in RGB with bright blues and greens then sent to print only for the end product to come back much duller to their disappointment, because the colour selection was ‘out of gamut’.  However, I’ve not stumbled upon anything the other way around, e.g. “My logo has a lovely cyan colour in print but on the website it’s not so, erm… cyan!!”

Take the two examples below in a CMYK working space:

1. 100% Cyan in Illustrator (as mentioned before) is shown as having the #RGB value as #009EE3 but nudging the value up to #019EE3 the CMYK was converted to (75,22,0,0) [rounding down] which was a significant shift. Note: After rounding down the #RGB value becomes #1C9CD8.

2. (3,6,100,0) Yellow & a bit in Illustrator is shown as having the #RGB value as #FEE100 so nudging the value up to #FEE101 the CMYK was converted to (3,6,91,0) [rounding down] which is still a shift but not such a noticeable one. Note: After rounding down the #RGB value becomes #FEE208.

Converting the CMYK document into a RGB document, in particular the sRGB working space, the Cyan is now #199BD8 and the Yellow is #FFE208 so minimal and probably safe to say unnoticeable shifts in each.

If I export to PNG from 100%C in CMYK document and then place the PNG in an sRGB document, the colour shift is very noticeable and the result is an even flatter, less vibrant cyan which kind of supports 1 above and the possible conclusion below.

So a possible logical conclusion from this (for those preferring to work in CMYK from the outset) is for a consistent colour scheme across web & print, proof colours with the sRGB  working space as you go along [stating the obvious] and take care to check your #RGB values as the presence of a 00 pair* in the hexadecimal colour code could create a bigger shift than you’d expect when you export to PNG or save to web etc. *I’m not sure if this applies at the other end with an FF pair.

However, if I open the PNG from the CMYK document in Google Chrome, the colour looks pretty much like 100% Cyan so this seems to fail the conclusion (although if I take a screen print and place it back in illustrator it becomes that duller colours once more).

I think I’m going to work on the basis of this conclusion for now with the aim to provide a consistent colour scheme across print and web and then if the web version needs to be glossier or jazzed up, I can take the base CMYK design, switch to sRGB and get to work. And then see what bounces back from the blog…

My Reply • Again, to be honest Mark you’ve got me a little confused here, too. The only thing I can suggest in regards to the colour inconsistencies is that sRGB has a different gamut to the standard Adobe RGB, so maybe the RGB picker doesn’t reflect the sRGB values in the profile correctly.

Be good to hear your thoughts on all this, Thanks again and have a great weekend, Mark.

Conclusion & Advice Needed from You!

I’d just like to thank Mark for asking me about this, but as stated in the post, my knowledge on the whole colour consistency issue has limits. If you know more about this than Mark or myself, or have any other related matter to share, feel free to leave your comments below…


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