Color modes: CMYK

The world of graphic design is chock-full of acronyms and jargon — RGB, spot color, bleeds, “Jif” (or “gif”), tint, additive, HSB, PMS. It can sometimes make your head spin.

Even if you’ve been at this for a while, you may find there are bits you never noticed or realized. And that happened to me not too long ago.

The way I see it, the design world is divided, at its broadest level, into two areas: print and screen. Now, there may be sub-categories (like packaging for print) or overlap (logo design/development, for example) every once in a while, but “things that can be output physically” vs. “things that we just look at on a screen” are to me the topmost layer. And each relies on different ways to achieve color.

From here on out I’m going to refer to anything that is viewed only on a screen — whether it’s a website, a phone app, animation or video — as “screen” design. I do this just for the sake of efficiency and brevity.

Screen design uses a color mode called RGB, and I’ll be covering that in a separate piece. Today, however, I want to focus on the print world, and specifically on CMYK.

A slightly different acronym for “CMYK” :-)

CMYK (also called “four-color process”, or just “process”) is the color mode with which anyone that works with and in print is familiar. CMYK is an acronym for the 4 plates used in process printing — Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and the “Key” color, Black (It’s called key because the other 3 plates are aligned — or “keyed” to the black plate. It’s common, although technically incorrect, to use the “k” in black as an easy way to identify the plates. Don’t worry, no one will really mind if you do).

CMYK is also called a “subtractive” color model. (By contrast, RGB, which is used for screen, is called an “additive” color model). For the longest time I had trouble understanding why one was called additive while the other subtractive. But a while back, as I was in the car, it all came together for me.

It all comes down to how “white” is achieved.

Imagine you have a sheet of paper, and on it all you can see is blackness. You’ve also been given 4 erasers. Each one has a letter on it — C, M, Y and K. If you were to take these erasers one by one, you would slowly remove all color from the paper. Take the K eraser, and suddenly all the black is removed from the page, leaving magenta, yellow and cyan.

You take the Y eraser, and all of a sudden all you’re left with is cyan and magenta. And so on. Eventually, all you’d be left with is a white sheet of paper. You’ve effectively removed — subtracted — all color from the page. In order to achieve different colors, you’re taking off more or less with one of these erasers.

There you have it. I’ll be shedding some light on how RGB looks at color in a separate piece.

Until next time…


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