Understanding File Types and Color Profiles: RGB vs. CMYK

At the end of every project, we provide our clients with a comprehensive library of brand assets to utilize moving forward. Whether its a piece of print collateral or a digital asset, we want to make sure that our clients have the proper file types for both print and digital formats and know when and where to use them.

So what is the difference between RGB and CMYK, and what file types use these color profiles? As a quick reference, the RGB color mode is best for digital work, while CMYK is used for print products. Don’t be confused by these acronyms! We’re going to explain what the RGB and CMYK color modes are, highlighting the difference between additive and subtractive colors, and when it’s best to use each.

What is RGB?

RGB (Red, Green, and Blue) is the color space for digital images. Whether it’s your website, social media images, or a piece of collateral that will be shared digitally, you’re going to want to use this color profile if your design is supposed to be displayed on any kind of screen. This color profile uses red, green, and blue to create various colors. A light source within a device creates any color you need by mixing these colors and varying their intensity. This is known as additive color profile: all colors begin as black darkness and then red, green, and blue light is added on top of each other to brighten it and create specific colors. Digital screens (like those utilized by computers, tablets, or phones) use these three colors in various combinations to create the images you see on your screen. Using a CMYK image on a digital screen could give you some unexpected results that make your colors seem inconsistent.

RGB File Types:

JPG or JPEG files are a common RGB file-type and have a nice balance between file size and quality, and they’re readable almost anywhere across devices.

PSD files are the native documents created in Adobe Photoshop. This type of file contains layers that make modifying the image much easier to handle.

PNG files support transparency and are better for graphics that need to be superimposed over others.

Along with the SVG (Scalabale Vector Grahpics), JPG and PNG profiles are perfect for website optimization.

What is CMYK?

CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key/Black) is the color space for printed materials. Use a CMYK color profile for any project design that will be physically printed. A printing press creates images by combining these colors to varying degrees with physical ink. This is known as subtractive color profile: all colors start as blank white, and each layer of ink reduces the initial brightness to create the preferred color. When all the colors are mixed together, they create pure black. CMYK printing is also known as 4-color-process printing and is the most common method used for printed pieces of collateral. Like using a CMYK color profile in a digital application, using a file with an RGB color profile for a printed piece of collateral will cause color inconsistencies.

CMYK File Types:

PDF files are ideal when a CMYK color profile is needed because they are compatible with most programs. This is by far the best universal file type for sharing designs.

AI files are the native documents created in Adobe Illustrator and maintain their editability. Adobe Illustrator is the industry standard for creating vector-based, scalable designs and therefore, is more than likely the program in which your logo or design assets were originally created.

EPS files are also vector-based and scalable. They are ideal to work with because they are compatible with other vector programs—this file is more of a universal file type (much like the PDF) that can be used to open vector-based artwork in any design editor, not just the more common Adobe products.

Knowing when to use each color profile and file type gives you greater control over how the final color looks, ensuring brand consistency across every touchpoint.