What are the Benefits of Designing in RGB for CMYK Print?

I recently had a great discussion about the use an RGB colour setup when designing for CMYK print. I received various responses within my article Top Ten CD Cover Design Tips, whereby the talented designer’s Alex Charchar, LaurenMarie and Rob Cubbon joined the conversation

CMYK Image

I generally support the notion of designing in an RGB colour mode ― for print and web regarding imagery that is to be printed in CMYK. Some of you reading this may know what I’m talking about and agree wholeheartedly, yet I suspect that some of you would ask yourself:

Why would I ever design in RGB for printed material that will be printed in CMYK ― or even CMYKOG (Hexachrome®)?

Moreover, some may have heard about initially designing in RGB for print before, tried it ― and never did it again ― offering a statement such as this:

I tried designing in RGB ― but all the colours just turned out muddy when I converted it. That’s the last time I’m trying that again…

A valid point. But to prove my case, I will start at the beginning and explain why, in the majority of cases, I design in RGB in the initial design stages of print work. Of coarse I send my files off to the printers in CMYK, but this article is about how the initial file setup in an RGB colour profile can benefit designers.

You may ponder as to why anyone would design in RGB, when the final output is in CMYK. This is like saying:

Why should I mix the ingredients to make fresh cake, when I can go to the shops and buy one ready-made?

Well, the answer to this is quality. If you design in RGB, you have a larger colour gamut to work with, as well as many additional benefits:

Benefits of Designing in RGB


★ RGB File Sizes are about 25% smaller than CMYK

★ Many filters and functions are only available to use in an RGB colour mode in PhotoShop® and similar programs.

★ The RGB colour gamut is larger than CMYK

★ Working in RGB means that your images are web-ready with no colour conversion (as opposed to designing for print in CMYK and converting the colour to RGB for web-use).

To place the above list in a workable context, here is a simulation of how using RGB to design your printed material would have been more beneficial than CMYK (based on one of my previous comments in the aforementioned CD article):

…I setup my files as CMYK with a FOGRA 27 colour profile. After spending hours designing an 8-page CD Gatefold design, the client supplies me with some more photo files to be used. As they originated from a digital camera, they are in RGB. I place them in layers in Photoshop® and get to work. An hour later, I want to use certain filters on these layers — but I can’t, as many functions and filters are only available in RGB mode in PhotoShop®.

…After spending much work-around time editing these photos in separate RGB files and importing them back in, I transfer my PSD file onto my MacBook as I’m working on the move. As CMYK files are approximately 25% larger than RGB ones, my laptop starts to slow down, causing loss of productivity to myself.

…My client also informs me that this CD cover is to be used in an interactive digital booklet and used online in iTunes, etc. As the CMYK SWOP gamut is vastly smaller than the “additive” RGB gamut, some colour info will be lost on conversion to the “subtractive” CMYK one.

…Further down the line, I may also want to include images from my own scanner — again, from source RGB.

In conclusion, it’s always easier to work in RGB. Some colours may be lost when converting to CMYK, but that is what the “Preview in CMYK” option is for in PhotoShop®, so you can keep track of disastrous results from any conversions.

Are you convinced of the reasoning behind these benefits?  Next, I’ll take a look at the CMYK colour mode:

Benefits of Designing in CMYK


★ When designing in RGB, there will have to be a conversion to CMYK at a calculated time near the completion of an image. Sometimes, the colour of the image can change appearance due to this conversion. If you work directly in CMYK, there will be no such conversion ― and therefore, no colour loss.

★ er…

★ and….

Ok. That’s it. The only benefit (in most situations/generally) of working in CMYK is the colour control ― but a league of restraints counteracts this benefit.

Further Resouce:

How CMYK and RGB Colours Affect Printing Your Photos

If you have any questions about this article, please leave your comment below. I know some of the termanology I have used may be unknown to some, so just ask-away ― I’m always glad to help out…


51 thoughts on “What are the Benefits of Designing in RGB for CMYK Print?”

  1. Alex Charchar

    Haha, bring it on baby!

    I think you kind of argued my point for me there, Sir.

    Even if you’re working in RGB with CMYK preview on, you’re still designing to make what you’re presented look good — so you’re essentially designing for CMYK anyway

    And the lower colour pallet is a good thing, isn’t it? It means whatever you design, while it may have less colours than possible, is going to look the same no matter the medium.. make it look good in RGB and then making it look worse in CMYK means you’re giving the audience two different pieces of artwork..

    But i have to say, the point about the filters is a valid one, but really, how many do you use?

    And also, RGB -> CMYK fiddles with adjustment layers, which means you’d need to flatten the artwork, save as a separate version then convert colour mode. all of a sudden that 25% file size difference doesn’t matter so much when you have an extra file sitting there and extra workflow anyway.

    CMYK to RGB (and new file) isn’t so bad as the RGB is going to be for screen, therefor lower res, lower file size.

    but, at the end of the day, that’s just my workflow (to a point, 99% print here), and whatever works best for each person is all that matters

    Alex Charchars last blog post..Links: Patterns, Dharma & Holi

  2. ProjectCenter

    You make a good point, a very good point.

  3. mike williams

    Great article, and something I’ve been trying to promote for a while! Having worked in a few agencies, I’ve always been taught by the production department that it is best to work in RGB and convert to CMYK at the very end.
    Most designers think if they are designing FOR print they should use CMYK, or FOR screen use RGB. Instead, they should be thinking if they are looking at color ON screen use RGB, and if they are checking color ON a print use CMYK. Therefore — while working on a screen keep the colors RGB and before sending the files to proof and print, convert to CMYK. You just cannot trust CMYK colors on a screen, period.
    (It seems many designers skip the costs of printed color proofing, which I think is one reason proper production processes are forgotten or lost.)

  4. David Airey

    Some interesting thoughts, Andrew. Thanks for sharing.

    My workflow is to design in CMYK, then transfer to RGB for web use. The Pantone chart provides more than enough colour for my needs, though I can appreciate that RGB is more appropriate for those working mainly for web.

    David Aireys last blog post..A path for our sins

  5. Andrew Kelsall

    @ Alex

    […] make it look good in RGB and then making it look worse in CMYK means you’re giving the audience two different pieces of artwork..

    I would disagree on this one. In my opinion, if you start off by working with a the ‘color-superior’ RGB image, yes, converting to CMYK will clip out-of-gamut colors. However, if I designed in CMYK from the get-go, any RGB conversion for online use would result in an even greater degree of color loss.

    When I’m designing, I use my LCD screen which utilizes RGB, so even designing in ‘preview CMYK’ is just a simulation anyway. Whichever way you look at it, it’s all simulation until a file is printed.

    Regarding filters, I use them quite often ― not in an in-your-face manner, but in very subtle ways, I use lighting effects and texture gradients often in my line of work.

    I suppose when it comes down to it, it’s all about what a designer is designing. I wrote this article on a perspective of designing large, graphically-intense, image-laden PhotoShop files. If, however, you’re designing mostly in Illustrator ― and doing logo work, CMYK may be a more valid option depending on workflow.

    Thanks for your input Alex. I do value your opinion and knowledge on the subject. I think our opinions and workflows differ based on the work we do. As I do a lot of large format work, the 25% reduction in file size for the initial design stages is, in itself, enough to sway me to RGB.

    @ ProjectCenter

    Are you referring to my article or the comment by Alex?

    @ Mike

    Yeah, I think there is some confusion over the issue. When I was at uni, I heard nothing on the subject. Then at some point, I was told to always work in CMYK. After learning for myself how constraining this was after producing some digital illustrations, I have for the past few years embraced the RGB-to-CMYK workflow.

    Admitently, is does require knowledge of color gamuts, but I feel that this method is very beneficial. However, if others designers work solely in CMYK, I’m not saying it is wrong. Each to his/her own and if the final printed product looks great ‘the process is in the eye of the …designer’ 😉

    It seems many designers skip the costs of printed color proofing, which I think is one reason proper production processes are forgotten or lost.

    I think I’m guilty on this one too. I rely mainly on the PDF workflow, but I rarely do work with massive print-runs.

    Thanks for leaving your thoughts Mike.

    @ David

    I assume the majority of your work is producing logo’s in Illustrator (?) If so, i’d say CMYK may work out better, as you’d be specifying Spot colors anyway.

    However, saving RGBs from CMYK files for web use will result in a major clipping of the color gamut in some cases. If you look at the image below, you can see that converting an image will clip vibrant blue and reds of your web images, making them looking dull unless you experiment with Photoshops’ saturation setting, etc.

    color gamut image

    If you see how small the CMYK gamut is, no wonder I like to start all my PSD files off in RGB. To me, it’s like starting a journey on the right foot. If you start in CMYK, your conversions will never reach the colors of the yellow boundary (above) unless the image is enhanced.

    Thanks for your comment David, keep up the good work.

  6. David Airey

    That’s right, Andrew — most of my work is creating logos in Illustrator, so spot colours are called for.

    The thing with converting from CMYK to RGB for web, then ‘brightening’ or adding contrast, is there’ll be a visible difference. If the client wants this, no worries, but if they want the colour to remain consistent, then the conversion doesn’t make an issue.

    Cheers for including that colour chart in your comment. I’d not seen that before, and it’s definitely a good’un.

    David Aireys last blog post..A path for our sins

  7. christian

    Andrew, interesting read. I usually tell people the opposite – however, you make valid points. I am starting to think there really is no reason not to design in RGB considering the vast range of color I have seen from submitting the SAME CMYK print ready files to different printers and the very different results I get.

    Check out this post: http://printedproof.com/printing/1-print-file-3-printers-3-different-results/

    following you on twitter for updates…


    christians last blog post..The CopierSupplyStore for Great savings on Toner

  8. mike williams

    Good point that you and David are making about the distinction between working in RGB for raster images vs. spot colors for solid vector graphics. One unrelated side point for anyone spec’ing Pantone process colors – if using CS programs, be sure to choose the newer “Pantone Color Bridge CMYK” palette, and NOT the older “Pantone Solid to Process” palette. (Same warning for using old solid to process swatchbooks versus the newer color bridge swatchbooks). The Solid to process charts are out of date and many of the color builds have changed a surprising amount.

    I’m really looking forward to reading any more of your posts about color gamuts, especially any thoughts you have about implementing color profiles for more accuracy.

  9. Andrew Kelsall

    @ David

    The way I see it, there’s always going to be a visible difference anyway, as [and obviously] screens are back-lit and paper just reflects or absorbs light. Personally, I like web images to use the maximum amount of Gamut possible, as it’s going to look brighter, clearer and generally more graceful on screen anyway.

    Although I do prefer to see design work printed, like you have mentioned in one of your previous posts. I’ll go into more detail on the Gamuts article when I get around to writing it.

    […] yeah, that’s the first time I have used an image in a comment ― the honour goes to you David, you must be special 😉

    @ Christian

    I checked out your link, but I have a question: What color profile did you save the files in? If it was just “Generic”, this would explain the color disparity. Also, even if the files were saved in a suitable color profile, the three printer services may have been using different printers ― or the same type, but different models. It’s a great concept for a post, but I feel there are too many variables to make a proper comparison. There is one thing I do agree though ― I’ve heard nothing that great about VistaPrint.

    Thanks for commenting Christian, I’ve just followed you back 🙂

    @ Mike

    Thanks for the Pantone® tip, I wasn’t aware of that ― although when I specify them, I never use the libraries, as I look in my swatchbook, choose one and manually enter it. I normally use the Guide “Formula Guide : Coated/Uncoated” (which even includes metalics and fluorescents).

    I will look into the issue though, as I plan to write an article of Pantones in the near future, so thanks for the heads-up.

  10. christian

    Yeah – regardless of the color profiles each printer is different and will produce different results. especially online printers, they are known for fast turn and cheap prices. That was the point I was trying to make.

    Thanks for the follow. Look forward to your posts and twitts

    christians last blog post..The CopierSupplyStore for Great savings on Toner

  11. Andrew Kelsall

    No worries Christian, I see your point. I tend to stay away from the cheap online printers too. I normally use a great company caled RCS. I order online, but they have all the latest printing presses and color proofing, etc. Great for if you’re in the UK!

  12. Jennifer Farley

    Hi Andrew

    Like yourself I do everything in RGB and then convert any print stuff to CMYK. I personally find it easier to have all the options available in Photoshop and even if I’m designing a logo in Illustrator I’ve just gotten in the (maybe bad) habit of starting new documents in RGB.

    Jennifer Farleys last blog post..Photoshop Tip: Moving The Background Layer

  13. Andrew Kelsall

    Hi Jennifer,

    I like your statement “…easier to have all the options available”. In my opinion, if you start in RGB, you can always “dumb-down” when saving to CMYK―but you still have the richness of a wider gamut for re-using an image for online use.

  14. David Airey

    You’re right, Andrew — there’s almost always be a visible difference in print depending on the printer you choose.

    When I was starting out a few years back, I created a logo in RGB, and the client loved it. They were then left a little disappointed after I converted to CMYK for print use (a particular green wasn’t as vivid). For my purposes, using CMYK from the start makes sense, but we can each have different preferences.

    David Aireys last blog post..Sex, Lies and Photoshop

  15. Andrew Kelsall

    Hi David,

    Was the logo vector or image based? I work with the following rules for general use:

    ★ Bitmap Image File for eventual Print > RGB : Adobe RGB Color Profile.
    ★ Bitmap Image File for Web > RGB : sRGB IEC 61966-2.1
    ★ Vector File saved for PhotoShop® import > RGB : sRGB IEC 61966-2.1 or Adobe RGB depending on final output
    ★ Vector File for print > CMYK (normally FOGRA 27 C/U)

    …so I do agree with logo and vector files being saved as CMYK. The only time I would consider RGB is if the logo was produced solely for the web.

  16. David Airey

    It was vector, as per usual. It’s funny, the majority of my clients have enough knowledge of design to create their own raster images for web.

    David Aireys last blog post..Sex, Lies and Photoshop

  17. Andrew Kelsall

    When I asked if the logo vector or image based, I did so because even though most logos are vector-based ― which is obviously professional and standard, I am aware that some clients, for reasons of their own, like to have logos that contain photographic imagery.

    I can’t imagine you designing a logo such as that, David. They aren’t scalable for one as you well know. I am no way way am I suggesting that you would do this. I was considering the possibility of professional logos that potentially contain raster images…

    It just got me thinking about the Bernard Mathews logo, with the image that is contained in it. Do you think this is an actual image or vector-traced image? I’m not sure…

    color gamut image

  18. David Airey

    No worries, Andrew. I didn’t think you were suggesting that.

    As for the Bernard Matthews logo, it looks like an illustration, and for me, that’s not good in logo design, whether it’s vector based or not.

    David Aireys last blog post..Sex, Lies and Photoshop

  19. Andrew Kelsall

    … I assume the red part is vector, and the illustration an image, but yeah, I agree it’s not a good logo, but its just familiar to me.

    Anyway, it’s been a great discussion David. I’m off to bed early for once as I’m knackered, been busy in the garden amongst other things. Oh yeah, I did some design work too 😉

  20. Robin

    Really good article, eagerly awaiting the follow up.

    Can you suggest a website/tutorial where I can learn an effective workflow to converting RBG to CMYK? As think I want to try working from a RGB as the starting point of my print designs.

    Robins last blog post..10 reasons your business needs a website.

  21. Andrew Kelsall

    Evening Robin,

    I can’t think of any offhand, but PSD Tuts @ http://psd.tutsplus.com/ would be a great place to find this information. If I do find one in particular, I’ll email you the Link.

    Thanks for commenting, hope you like the follow-up when I get around to writing it 🙂

  22. kaaliss

    hum…. what??! O_o

    I know that rules are made to be broken, but in this case, i won’t stop working in CMYK for print and in RGB for screen. Screen renders 3 colors, printers print in 4 colors.
    RGB to CMYK conversion is a color-destructor. but hey, I’m always open to new workflow and habits.

    Can’t say I’ll try :S

    kaalisss last blog post..Branding/Malaysian Food Information & Traceability

  23. Andrew Kelsall

    Hi Kaaliss,

    I wouldn’t say designing for CMYK print is a rule I’m trying to promote―I just believe, in my own opinion and experience, that there are many benefits of doing so. Each to their own of coarse 🙂

    I agree, RGB to CMYK conversion is a color-destructor―but the “destructive result” will be within the same color-gamut than if you were to design in CMYK anyway.

    I think by Saturday, hopefully, I should have completed my article on color profiles. I will raise some more points about the RGB/CMYK issue then if you would like some more info on the subject.

    Thanks for commenting…

  24. Brian

    For me, it’s just part of my regular non-destructive workflow. I’ve tried to convince others to work this way, but they don’t seem to understand what the benefits are.

    Thank you for shedding some light on this subject. I’m going to be sure to pass this on to some people who remain unconvinced.

    Also, thanks for commenting on our blog.

    Brians last blog post..The 7 Deadly Sins of Print Production

  25. Esther

    Are there any benefits to starting in CMYK and then converting to RGB (e.g., preparing a file for web design)? Thanks! Great article…

  26. Andrew Kelsall

    Hi Esther,

    Not really, because many colors will be clipped, except for maybe yellows and hue blues. I would just work from an RGB 2.1 profile from the get-go.

    The only exception would be if you were designing a really, really color critical piece of photographic work for print, whereby the main color is an extreme yellow, which isn’t in the range of any RGB gamut.

    Hope this helps.

  27. Kristof

    The ONLY benefit to designing in RGB is speed — but only if you’re creating a rough comp to present concepts — that’s it.

    Other than that, there is NO benefit to designing in RGB.

    The wider color gamut in RGB is exactly why you shouldn’t design with it for 4c ouput. The colors can’t be printed.

    No matter what you create in RGB, in the end, it still has to be converted to CMYK and the color conversion won’t look the same. In fact, it can be disgustingly muted.

  28. Andrew Kelsall

    @ Kristof

    No matter what you create in RGB, in the end, it still has to be converted to CMYK and the color conversion won’t look the same. In fact, it can be disgustingly muted.

    I’m primarily talking about Photoshop Files that have a base photographic element here. So, if certain colors become Muted, there’re going to become muted anyway. I simply propose that the RGB>CMYK conversion happens as late as possible.

    Whichever way you work, the conversion WILL take place anyway. All photo-files are source RGB—theres no such thing as a CMYK camera, as you know.

    The wider color gamut in RGB is exactly why you shouldn’t design with it for 4c ouput. The colors can’t be printed.

    This, in my opinion, is exactly why you should wait until the layered Photoshop is complete. The huge benefit is that the image can be re-used on the web with only a slight loss to the color gamut when converting from, say, Adobe RGB (1998) > sRGB 2.1 (which is a slightly more compressed color space).

    For print, this file can be converted to CMYK, yes, with color degradation—that would be apparent anyway from the camera RGB profile to a CMYK profile. The method I suggest enables a more coherent statergy towards the possibilities of mult-image use from Web to print.

  29. natalia

    I thought designing in RGB and convert to CMYK at the last moment when working with photographs (and of course make color corrections if needed) was a standard methodology. I learned at the university to work that way and from the technical point of view it makes sense.

    Bringing to the table this kind of discussions is good for everybody, there are many great comments here, I like to know how other designers work, so congrats for the article, Andrew!
    .-= natalia´s last blog ..Hartija, framework CSS para media print =-.

  30. Andrew Kelsall


    I would have thought it was a standard methodology too, however, I think there is a mindset out there which screams “CMYK, CMYK” as soon as a print project comes along.

    I agree, things like this need discussion to aid in great solutions for all designers. Thanks for your valuable input 🙂

  31. Sam Haltom

    good article and a work flow that I usually follow… also note that if you are using hi-res pdfs to submit to the printer instead of native files you can get away with not converting images to cmyk. Acrobat converts RGB images to CMYK automatically for the final pdf. You just have to make sure all the colors in your ID pallet have been converted to CMYK so that the pdf does not retain any spot colors. And this way you don’t have to archive all those images converted from RGB to CMYK. BUT… it is important to print a hard copy proof of the final pdf to make sure the color difference that you get because of the limited color gamut in CMYK is still pleasing. This is particularly important with converted spot colors as there can be dramatic color shifts for some PMS colors.

  32. Andrew Kelsall


    Thanks for the info, I wasn’t aware of the PDF colour issue. Always willing to learn 🙂

  33. Mike

    Great points. I find myself switching back and forth for some reason but I do primarily use RGB. Interesting enough is that I work for a direct marketing company, we have full in-house capabilities. We have a 4 color offset, but primarily use our 4 Xerox Igens and a new HP Indigo 7000. What we have found is that we actually leave our files in RGB color modes and let the digital presses convert the profiles, the colors on the RGB files actually come out more vibrant than the CMYK files. Obviously Traditional offset won’t work that way but its always good to check with the vendor, you never know what kind of things they have discovered from all the different jobs and tests they run.

  34. Andrew Kelsall

    @Mike→ I’ve had work printed before on an Indigo Press on special papers, and I must say the the results were stunning. No. Amazing. It’s great how far digital printing technologies have progressed.

    You’ve given me some great advice there Mike. I was totally unaware that you can send files in an RGB colour mode and let the digital presses convert the profile. Thanks for sharing your knowledge…

  35. Mike

    We’re excited to start using the Indigo, we just got it a couple of weeks ago. I still need to learn a lot about its capabilities but spot colors on a digital press will be an awesome ability to have . I can’t say that everybody who runs a digital press will allow RGB, but I know that through the years of trying to keep our digital print quality as high as possible we are always testing new things, its constant trial and error. There’s still always issues with large areas of solid color and other things that traditional offset just does better, but its definitely getting there.

  36. behzad

    I was looking for an article like this. It reconfirms my use of RGB to CMYK.

  37. Andrew Kelsall

    Mike → I hope the Indigo press works out for you 🙂

    Shanna → Thanks for the resource link.

    behzad → I’m glad it could help.

    Thanks all for your comments…

  38. Ant

    You people are off your rockers. There may be some benefits to designing in RGB but the end color product will always be CMYK, so for color, all you’re doing is hoping your color is going to be converted. Some may not be converted well, then what? You’ll have to go in and either pick another color or be happy with the choice given.. seems backwards to me.. I like to know the colors I’m going to be able to print.

    If it makes you all feel better having a large selection to pick from knowing though that you really can’t get those colors, be my guest.

    I’m a designer AND printer.

  39. DesignFacet

    Your missing the boat. The very monitor that your working from is made from RGB. So really what you see on screen will be RGB even if you switch to show colors in CMYK.