August 13, 2014 at 10:07 am

PDFs Appearing in a Different Color? CMYK vs RGB

PDFs Appearing in a Different Color? CMYK vs RGB

Screen Shot 2014-08-13 at 9.55.27 AM
The past couple of months I’ve been viewing more and more of my designs on my phone, many of which are in PDF format. Something that kept happening, which I found very troubling, was the PDFs appearing in a different color. Quite honestly, different is an understatement—the colors would resemble those of a black light party – neon versions of the colors I’d chosen in my design. After giving this problem some thought I realized I wasn’t using my knowledge from my Digital Color Theory class to its full potential. So, from here I’ll be taking it back two semesters to share some helpful information from my class. 

Giving a Definition to CMYK & RGB

477748253Rather than boring you with color through the ages talk, I just want to cover the definitions of two important color processes: CMYK and RGB. The printing process uses CMYK by combining small dots of cyan, magenta, yellow and black to create new colors. This process is a “subtractive color model” meaning that the ink used “subtracts” brightness from a white background.

RGB is used in photography, TV, and computers and is known as an “additive color model”. When combinations of RGB light are added together, a broad ranger of colors can be made. Similar to the ink dots used in the CMYK process, RGB is made up of pixels.

So, What was my Problem?

From these two very basic descriptions of CMYK and RGB they seem quite similar, but they are actually incredibly different. This huge difference is why my CMYK-based PDFs would look so crazy on my phone. These two color models have their own very specific color ranges, which is why they have trouble converting themselves between devices.

The Solution

The answer is simple and I’m pretty embarrassed to say that it took me so long to figure it out. When you’re working in an Adobe program simply make sure you’re in RGB color mode if you’re making something exclusively used for the web. For Illustrator: File > Document Color Mode and for Photoshop: Image > Mode. My advice to you? Always make sure that you’re using the right color format for any graphics work that you’re doing. That means CMYK for printing and RGB for photography or anything that will appear in a digital format.

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