Down with CMYK!

All you graphic designers out there, I’m about to rock your world. Your professors, art directors, and magazines have been telling you wrong all these years about CMYK. Here’s the real scoop.

Starting your print documents in CMYK is bad. Really bad. It’s like starting a web image as a JPEG. Let’s think about this.

  • CMYK has an vastly inferior color gamut to RGB
  • CMYK takes up more file size
  • RGB is considerably faster at processing
  • Most Photoshop filters and adjustments don’t work in CMYK, or work unpredictably
  • If you want to adapt this image for web later on (which these days is likely), you’ll wish it was in RGB
  • Besides gamut restrictions, you’re not getting an accurate portrayal of the actual printed output, anyway
  • These days, your output probably won’t even be in pure CMYK, but hexachrome, which can probably do more with your RGB file than with CMYK.
  • CMYK therefore is lossy, causing irreversible damage to your future workflow

The truth is, CMYK mode isn’t much more than a tool to help the designer visualize the restrictions of CMYK. I suspect that CMYK probably holds a slightly better gradation of colors even if the gamut is clipped, but then again, if it’s that big of a deal, you could use 16 bit RGB instead. But even though it’s a helpful tool, it’s also destroying any future prospects of your image being used elsewhere in the real world. Simply put, print is dying and web is much more important these days, so it seems fair to assume that you shouldn’t prematurely limit yourself to a CMYK color space, for fear of shooting yourself in the foot later on.

So then, what is CMYK good for? Well, again, it’s like a JPEG. You should save it in that format once you are completely done, and do not overwrite your source files. In other words, keep the RGB PSD file, and render your CMYK print version to PSD or TIFF (TIFF is a dying format though these days). CMYK should be the last thing on your list before saving for print.

“But converting my RGB image to CMYK will make my image all muddy looking!”
Only if you’re a beginner designer and don’t know what colors can and can’t fit the gamut. And at any rate, it’s more or less an optical illusion; It’ll be fine when it’s printed–it wouldn’t have been able to use those bright RGB colors anyway, so get over it.

“But this will affect my subtle gradations and other visual benefits of starting in CMYK.”
Look– your end user and/or client won’t notice these subtleties, and they won’t give a crap either, unless you’re designing for National Geographic, or an art magazine, or something. Use 16 bit color if you want slightly better gradients. And anyway, you actually can visualize how it’ll look in CMYK without actually using CMYK mode. Check out “View → Proof Colors” in Photoshop. You’re welcome. 🙂

“But I have to know how it will look in print!”
Do you think web designers need to know how JPEG artifacts or PNG color banding will look while they’re designing the image? Do you think they mess with color profiles or calibration to try to get the colors exact on every web browser? Those would all be an exercise in futility. Your colors will never be 100% the same for everyone. We know this, and it doesn’t bother us. It shouldn’t bother you either.

I know the truth hurts, but these days there is almost never a good reason to start in CMYK. Don’t sabotage your workflow. Work smart–use RGB and only switch modes towards the end. Or better yet, if your final work is in InDesign, you can let InDesign do the final color conversion instead of doing it to every image in Photoshop.

Happy Photoshopping.

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