Basic Graphic Design & Color Theory

Color theory / basic graphic design / DIY graphic design / Hire a Designer / RGB / CMYK

I wanted to write a few posts that as simply as possible, explain color and color theory as it pertains to graphic design.

Color theory can be a complex subject. So my attempt is to not provide a comprehensive discussion, but one that can help non-designers, small business owners and entrepreneurs have the confidence to either DIY their own graphic design or discuss their needs with a graphic designer they’ve hired to do the work for them.

To fully understand color theory as it pertains to graphic design, its important to realize that one reason it might be so confusing to the non-designer is that there are actually two basic models of color we are talking about – subtractive and additive. The one you should use will depend upon the type of graphic design you need.

The Subtractive Model

The subtractive model is the model you are probably most familiar with. The RYB model and the CMY models (discussed below) are known as SUBTRACTIVE models because of the way color is perceived in the physical world.

To put it very simply, in the physical world light is absorbed and reflected off objects. What is reflected off a particular object is the color what we actually perceive. So in very simplified terms, we see a red apple as red because the apple is absorbs all the colors in the spectrum EXCEPT red. The apple reflects red and that is what our eyes perceive.

The RYB Model or Red-Yellow-Blue

Almost everyone has seen a color wheel. Even if you’re not an artist, in grade school you probably had the opportunity to paint and mix paints togethers. You’ve probably heard of primary colors, secondary colors, and tertiary colors. This is known as the RYB color model.

The color wheel Primary colors - these colors are referred to as primary because they can not be created. Secondary colors - created by mixing two primary colors together. Tertiary colors are created by mixing a primary and secondary color together.

RYB model or red, yellow, blue

The CMY or CMYK Model

A second subtractive model is the CMY (or CMYK) model. It is used in PRINT design and probably easy to understand as it closely resembles the RYB model discussed above. C = cyan. M = magenta. Y = yellow. B = Black.

When a design is printed, the colors operate on the subtractive model, or REFLECTED light. When cyan and magenta overlap, it produces blue. Cyan and yellow produce red. Yellow and cyan produces green. All three overlap to produce black. However in the printing process, it is nearly impossible to produce a pure black. Thus the fourth color of black or “K” is used when we refer to print design.

It’s important to understand that when creating a design for PRINT, you must choose the CMYK model for your color management. More about that in a minute.

The Additive Model

The additive model is also known more commonly as RGB (Red-Green-Blue). Just like the subtractive model, the additive model uses 3 primary colors to produce a large selection of other colors. The additive model is used in digital displays – computer monitors, smart phones, televisions, etc. Light passes through the image (object) instead of reflecting OFF the object (subtractive model).

With the additive model, the more colors that are overlaid or overlap one another, the LIGHTER the resulting color. In the subtractive model you have the opposite. The more colors that are overlaid, or overlap or mixed together, the DARKER the resulting color.

RGB or Red-Green-Blue

It’s important to know that when producing a design for digital graphics (as opposed to print graphics) you should choose the RGB model in whatever application you’re using to create the design.

It’s also important to understand that a design produced in RGB will inherently be much brighter with a larger color spectrum or gamut of colors than a design produced in CMYK. Consequently, you should not move back and forth between the two models when designing because you’ll probably lose some ( or a lot) of the color spectrum and brightness of your design each time you change to CMYK.

Not everyone designs this way. But some people like to design in RGB even when designing for print. If you do this, its important to switch to CMYK mode before sending the design to the printer. When you do this you’ll notice the design will appear more dull and less bright. There isn’t anything you’ve done wrong. There simply aren’t as many colors in the CMYK spectrum as there are the RGB.

This is another reason why you should never send a design to the printers in RGB mode. It must be converted to CMYK before printing, either by the designer or the printer. The resulting printed design will probably be a slight disappointment and appear much duller and less bright than the design you sent off in RGB mode.

Don’t believe me? The image below shows two gradients. However, its actually the exact same gradient, both created in Photoshop. The top gradient was created in RGB mode and the bottom in CMYK mode. Big difference! Yes?

What Are Your Takeaways?

Color theory can be a very complex subject. We take color for granted but trying to describe it and simplify the theories and models around the subject of color can be very difficult. Trust me.

As a non-designer either DIYing your own designs your take-aways are:

  • Know what you’re producing the design for. How will it be viewed? Digitally on the web? Or in print? Choose the correct color management or color mode depending on the purpose of the final design. Digital designs should be created in RGB mode. Print designs should be created in CMYK mode.
  • Do not switch back and forth between RGB and CMYK when creating and designing your project. You’ll lose color values and your work will appear more dull and less bright than it should.
  • Do not send a design created in RGB to the printers. If you’ve designed in RGB, before sending to be printed you should switch to CMYK mode. However this should only be done ONCE.
  • Know that when switching from RGB to CMKY, your work will probably appear less bright and more dull. That’s because there are fewer colors in in the CMYK color spectrum than in the RGB color spectrum. You didn’t necessarily do anything wrong but there probably isn’t anything you can do to “fix” it either.

As a small business owner who has hired a graphic designer to create the design for you, your take-aways are:

  • Your designer will need to know the final purpose of your design – print or digital. As you can see, she needs to know whether to design and deliver your project in RGB or CMYK.
  • If you’ve hired a designer for a print job, understand that the final project may not be as bright as you expected. For example, if  she is designing something for you that will be used in both print and digitally, it is likely that the resulting designs for print will appear duller than the ones she is delivering for web use. It isn’t necessarily anything the designer has done “wrong.” It is simply the nature of the two color models.
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