The Complete Guide to Color for Printed Media

Posted by: Marsha Jones on Mar. 3rd, 2011
Color Modes Image

Color adds excitement and provokes emotion in our lives. Without color, the world would be a dull place. Understanding color is one more way you can improve your business image. Color conveys meaning. The colors you select for your business card create impact. As with every aspect of graphic design, there is more to understanding color than meets the eye.

The components of color that are important as it relates to printing involve two color modes. The information below will clear up confusion and assist you in designing and printing the perfect combination of colors for your business card. For specific information on color in general, see the Business Card Design Guide.

Color Modes

When you begin to do business with professional printers for your business documents, the world of color gets a lot larger. There are two color modes involved in migrating from desktop printers to commercial printers. Now you need to know the difference between something called RGB and something called CMYK.


We see three colors on devices such as cameras, computers, televisions, cell phones, monitors, etc. These three colors are Red, Green, and Blue—thus RGB. RGB is made up of beams of colored light where there is no reflection from a physical object. For example, light goes from the television directly to your eyes. On the other hand, when natural light hits objects, objects absorb it, but that which is not absorbed is reflected to our eyes as color.


There are four colors of ink needed to generate almost any color, which is often called a “four-color process” or “full color printing.” These four colors are Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key (black)—thus CMYK. These colors are used in commercial printing for books, magazines, labels, business cards, and more.

If you are printing business cards on a professional printer, color must be converted from RGB to CMYK. When this step is performed, some of the color brilliance as seen on a screen will always be lost. That’s the deal.

Converting to CMYK Color Mode

If you created an RGB file on your desktop that you plan to print using a four-color press, RGB files must be converted into CMYK color. The reason is that certain vibrant RGB colors that you can see on your monitor or camera cannot be replicated with standard CMYK inks. Additionally, there are many factors that affect color perception, especially as seen on your computer device:

  • Monitor types vary in how well they can display color and graphics.
  • Individual monitor settings such as brightness contrast can affect color accuracy.
  • In-room lighting can vary what you see on the screen.
  • Your own ability to perceive color may alter an image.

Keep in mind that images on your monitor will always look somewhat different from the final printed piece.

How to Convert Color Modes

To convert a desktop RGB file into CMYK mode, you have a couple of options. Your commercial printer can do this step for you, or you may be able to do it yourself depending on the software program you are using. This conversion can easily be done in most image editing or graphic arts programs. You will have more control over the final appearance of your printed document if you do the color conversion yourself.

See Figure 1—RGB to CMYK Conversion Chart which identifies common programs that include the options to convert files from RGB to CMYK. Some of these software programs do not have this capability.

Programs for Converting Color Modes

Best Color Options for Business Cards

Given what you read above about color, consider the following color options and variables when selecting appropriate colors for your professional business cards.

Color Options

There are many options for working with color when you are designing your business cards:

  • Rely on your commercial printer’s business card templates so you do not have to convert RGB to CMYK.
  • If you are creating your own business card design for a commercial printer, specify CMYK color builds that look a little lighter than you want, since the dots of ink expand on the press and reveal more pigment on paper than you see on your monitor.
  • Keep backgrounds light if you are using a black or dark colored typeface so that the text remains readable. Use a light colored typeface on a dark background.
  • Use the Color Wheel to select coordinating and complementary colors.
  • What you see on your screen and what you print are very different things.

Color Variables

The are many variables that affect your business card design. Here are a few:

  • Grey or cream-colored paper will change the color of all elements.
  • If you print on coated (glossy) paper, colors tend to be brighter.
  • Uncoated (matte) paper will absorb more ink and make the colors look a little bit duller.
  • If you print on vinyl, Plexiglas, plastic, or other nonstandard materials, inks vary in thickness as compared with inks used on paper.