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CMYK – What it Means and How to Use it Properly

Today’s post is me going back to my basics, but I feel it’s a timely post that will come in handy for a lot of people now and in the future. Before I get going on explaining exactly what CMYK is and why you should know, let me tell you a bit about me and why I know about this stuff.

Though it feels like a million years ago, I managed to obtain a graphic design degree. I fought for a number of years to get there, but in the end, I feel like it was worth every struggle. I learned a LOT, and most of those things, I still use today. Okay, ALL of those things, I still use today. I admitted it.

My professors were stringent on a couple of rules:

1. Photoshop is primarily an image editing program.

2. Do not design logos in the RGB color space.

3. Never be late with a project.

4. Dump everything unnecessary in your file so it’s a smaller size when output.

5. Don’t mix more than two fonts, and they darn well better be from different families.

6. Comic Sans. Just don’t do it. If you do, you better have foolproof logic to back up your choice.

7. Never more than two colors plus black in a logo design.

Okay, that was more than a couple of things, but these are (a few of) the ones that were hammered home like a nail in the framework of a house. If you broke a rule, you lost a grade point. Yeah, it was pretty intense.

Why? Because there’s a reason behind each one. What we’re focused on today is just one of those reasons. Grab your coffee or tea and let’s dive into CMYK.

CMYK stands for cyan, magenta, yellow, and black—the four process colors of a printing press. This is important to know because if you design in RGB (red, green, blue), your colors will have to be changed to CMYK before your design can be printed, and those color spaces are so far apart it’s crazy. RGB is created with light (on your screens). CMYK is created with ink (on your merch). Because of the way they’re created, you NEVER get the exact same hue when changing between the two.

Are you following? Good. Let’s continue.

Photoshop primarily uses the RGB color space, and when you create in that program, you’re creating with pixels. When enlarged, images created with pixels get blurry and appear out of focus. Now, you can use CMYK in Photoshop, but you’re still creating with pixels unless you use smart objects, and even that tool has limits to what it can do.

InDesign creates with lines and primarily uses the CMYK color space. When you use lines, scaling possibility is infinite. You can take your creation as large or small as you wish with no loss of quality. I’d go into more detail on why, but this is a high-level informational post only. Guidelines, if you will. InDesign is the industry standard when it comes to logo design for this exact reason.

While you can still use the RGB color space in InDesign to create, you’ll still have to have whatever gets printed changed to the CMYK color space, and because of that, you’ll lose your chosen colors. As I said above, they NEVER convert exactly the same way. Ink isn’t light, and while it can get close, they aren’t the same thing.

PMS colors are also an option here, and they’re a good idea if you’re designing for a large company, because specific colors can be copyrighted (Coca~Cola’s red and Tennessee Volunteers’ orange, for example). Though you have to be super careful not to use more than two. Printing costs can go through the roof if you do. Each of those colors have to be loaded into the press before the run, and they can’t all be run at the same time. One run costs a set amount of money.

Okay, I get why I need to use CMYK or PMS colors now, but why shouldn’t I use more than two colors plus black when designing?

It all comes down to cost. Each of those colors in the CMYK color space is one pass through a printing press, as I said above. Each pass costs you extra. If you can design a one-color logo, you’re doing a great job. That company won’t have to pay as much to have merch printed as a company with a two-color logo. Because each of the colors are on their own run and require no mixing, a solid C, M, Y, or K, or a common spot color (PMS), is usually the cheapest option.

If you’re going to put yourself out there as a designer of logos or other things for companies, be sure you understand the difference between RGB and CMYK. You’ll save the art department a ton of headaches down the road and provide more value to the people who hired you.

This is why things may seem a little “off” when they’re printed from your beautiful artwork. Now, there are printers that handle RGB quite well, and the changeover is barely noticeable, but if you learn to design things that will be printed in CMYK, you’ll be better off in the long run.

Think I’m full of it? Head on over to a place that prints logos on merch. See how many colors they allow, and see if the cost goes up for more than one. You may be shocked.

That’s all for this article. If you have questions, feel free to reach out, and be sure and check out some of our other articles for great how to tips or to learn the history of IT things. I hope this was helpful in some small way.


Jo Michaels

Marketing Coordinator

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