CMYK is dead. Long live CMYK!

Posted on July 12th, 2008 | Permalink

The temperature scrolling by on the bank marquee isn’t that low, but nonetheless the harsh wind seems icy cold as it cuts through your jacket, causing an involuntary shiver. Clouds loom menacingly over the tall buildings of the city, releasing a light drizzle onto the crowded streets as if to herald the approaching downpour. People scurry to and fro, attempting to finish their errands before the coming storm leaves them either stranded indoors or miserable out in the weather. Your stride quickens as well, then breaks as you notice someone hunched over in the shadows of an alley, trying to keep the rain off of a cardboard sign that reads “please help a CMYK color space put out of a job by that whippersnapper RGB”.

This scenario is of course far from realistic. I mean, it’s obvious he never would have properly capitalized “CMYK” and “RGB” without also capitalizing “please”, and there’s no way he would have had enough cardboard to write that long of a sentence. But seriously, don’t let yourself be fooled by those who think that CMYK is dead. As long as us designers want our work printed, we will need CMYK, and if we want to ensure that our work is printed well, we will need to understand it.

By nature, CMYK has a much more limited range of colors than RGB, because it’s designed for ink and paper. The colors you see on the printed page are a result of the light around you shining down on the ink, and the ink absorbing everything but the color you’re supposed to see and reflecting the rest into your eye. Since ink and paper aren’t perfect, they cannot always perfectly reflect even the colors they’re supposed to, leaving you with a much smaller choice of colors to work with on the press. This presents a problem for me as a designer, who works on a computer monitor that creates and shines exactly the right RGB colors straight into my eye. If I try to send all those colors to the press, and it will print what it can, leaving the rest looking unacceptably drab and dreary at best.

So then, somewhere along the line the job must be converted from RGB to the more limited CMYK. I could send my RGB files to the printer and let him convert it, hoping that he will know what I intended those colors to look like and will get acceptably close. I could also have my design software convert to CMYK as I save my file for the printer, trusting that my powerful software was worth all the money I paid for it and will know exactly how I want those colors to be converted. Sadly, both of these approaches are unreliable in practice, because neither the printer nor my design software knows for sure what I intended the job to look like, so neither is qualified to make the tough decisions when colors don’t match up between RGB and CMYK.

As a designer who cares about the look of my end product, I must be the one to convert my job to CMYK. To do this, I must learn how CMYK behaves and what its limitations are, and adjust for those behaviors and limitations. As the son of a skilled pressman, I was privileged to learn many of the ins and outs of CMYK at the dinner table, and in my next article will attempt to pass some of that experience on to you, sans the Greek lamb and potatoes.


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