Color Modes: RGB vs CMYK vs HEX

Mike Arnebeck


Colors play a significant role in design, marketing and brand identity. Understanding the different color modes is essential for anyone working with visual content because it determines how colors are displayed and reproduced in different mediums. Let’s talk about RGB, CMYK, and HEX color modes, their differences and when it is better to use one over the other.


RGB stands for Red, Green and Blue. This color mode is used for electronic displays such as computer monitors, televisions and mobile devices. It employs additive color mixing, combining varying intensities of red, green, and blue light to create a wide range of colors. RGB relies on numerical values ranging from 0 to 255 for each primary color, resulting in millions of possible shades, which is ideal for digital platforms. When combined at their maximum intensities, it produces white light. Though RGB provides a broader gamut of vibrant colors, it should not be used for printed materials because the printed colors will appear different than how they look on the screen.


CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black (or Key) – the four ink colors used in most commercial printing processes. This color mode is used for print design such as magazines, newspapers, and other physical materials. It employs subtractive color mixing where successive layers of cyan, magenta, yellow and black inks are applied to a white background. The varying levels of these inks produce a wide spectrum of colors. CMYK uses a percentage value for each of the four colors to ensure consistent printing results. When all the colors are combined at their maximum concentrations, they produce black. CMYK has a narrower color gamut compared to RGB, resulting in slightly less vibrant colors on digital screens, but it is ideal for projects destined for physical mediums.


HEX stands for Hexadecimal. HEX is very similar to RGB as it is used for electronic display but is most prevalent in web design and development. It represents colors using a combination of six alphanumeric characters, ranging from 0 to 9 and A to F, specifying the intensity of red, green, and blue. HEX codes begin with a hashtag (#) followed by the six-digit code, which allows precise color reproduction across various digital platforms. HEX is a concise and efficient way to specify colors in HTML and CSS and is universally recognized and supported by web browsers making it ideal for maintaining accurate colors for web-based applications.

Understanding the differences between RGB, CMYK, and HEX color modes is crucial for achieving accurate and consistent color representation in both electronic and print media. RGB works best for digital displays, but in a print project, it may result in the colors appearing different from what you see on your screen. CMYK ensures faithful color reproduction in printing, but on digital platforms may result in inaccurate or washed-out colors. In contrast, HEX color codes are invaluable for web-based projects. By grasping the nuances of these color modes, you can enhance your visual creations, effectively communicate your intended color choices and maintain the integrity and visual impact of your design across diverse mediums and various formats.


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