October 3, 2023

CMYK vs RGB: Why you need to know the difference for your merch.

Do the terms RGB and CMYK immediately bring a sense of dread and confusion?

Don’t worry, you’re not alone.

RGB and CMYK can be most easily understood when related to real world use cases. We’ll break down the two different color standards and not only when to use them, but where.

RGB stands for the primary colors of light: Red, Green, and Blue. RGB is used for any kind of screen or technology that emits light to project colors and imagery such as monitors, TV’s, and Digital Cameras. RGB is known as an additive process because they add or combine to create the individual colors.

CMYK stands for the primary colors of pigment: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black. CMYK colors are created by removing light and each additional color is absorbed to produce the desired color. This is why CMYK is known as a subtractive process because the color is created by removing light.

A good comparison for the difference between RGB and CMYK is to think of the way that monitors emit light and paper absorbs light. RGB is additive and CMYK is subtractive.

So what? Why does this matter?

Good question. When we’re talking about merch, knowing the difference between RGB and CMYK is imperative for your designs to print the way you want. CMYK colors are the physical inks that are used on the garments and RGB are the colors of your design represented on a monitor.

People often notice RGB and CMYK when they need to convert a design from RGB to CMYK to prepare the file for print and become frustrated when the colors of their design have changed.


The RGB spectrum has a greater range of vivid and vibrant colors than what CMYK can render. Because the RGB colors are greater than what CMYK can physically create, converting a file to CMYK will adapt the design to the closest manufacturable colors to best match the RGB file.

The effects of the two color standards are most apparent when they are rendered next to each other.

(RGB-left and CMYK-right)

Changing the design to CMYK mode shows you a closer resemblance of what the final print will look like when it’s printed on a shirt or other physical product.

When printing for shirts or other merch, you will notice a big difference when you’re trying to achieve a bright neon green, yellow, blue or red. Any neon looking colors on your screen definitely tend to print darker or muted and don’t pop as much as they did on your screen. You may need to do some trial an error to achieve the perfect tone you’re looking to get in your final printed products.

To summarize, RGBs range of colors are used for monitors and websites and CMYK is used for real world printing.

Next time you begin a new design project, make sure to check the color profiles of your file to ensure they are formatted for the intended result.

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