Why did my blue design print out purple? How come my black color looks dingy brown? This looked great on my screen, why does the print look so bad? Anyone who has worked with graphic design layouts and printing has asked one or more of these questions.

That awesome design was sent to print, and when you opened the box of brochures you were shocked to find that your pretty blue ocean graphic looks more like grape kool-aid. What happened? Let’s take a few minutes to answer some color questions!

“Use CMYK for print and RGB for screen”
The first step to solving color issues is to understand the difference between color modes. While there are more than three color modes, here are the important ones that you need to be familiar with:


This abbreviation stands for Red, Green, Blue. The most important thing to remember about this color mode is that it is to be used for screen display. Red, green, and blue are the three core colors that a screen or monitor uses to display an image. Anything that it displays is simply a mixture of those 3 colors. Are you designing that graphic for a website? Create the artwork in RGB color mode.


Also known as “process color”, “four color”, or “full color”, this abbreviation stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black. The crucial understanding here is that CMYK is the color mode used for full-color printing. When a full-color commercial printer processes artwork for printing, it creates a mixture of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black inks, creating a layer of each colored ink on the paper. The final result is a photo-realistic print. Are you creating artwork that is going to be printed on a press? Make sure to create the artwork in CMYK color mode.


Also referred to as “Spot” or “Pantone” color, this abbreviation stands for “Pantone Matching System.” While not used in most church settings, it’s important to be familiar with this color mode. A PMS color mode uses specific color codes from a universally recognized collection of colors known as the “Pantone” colors. This color mode is used in printing applications where exact color consistency is required. It is generally more expensive and less flexible than CMYK process color.

Now, let’s get to those color questions and solve some common issues:

Why did my blue design print out purple? If the Cyan and Magenta values of your blue are too close, it often results in a purple shift, even though it looks fine on screen. To solve this, use a low amount of magenta whenever using high amounts of cyan to avoid this. Make sure there is at least a 30% difference between your Cyan and Magenta values.


How come this deep red printed out kind of brown? Deep reds can be tricky in process color. To minimize the chance of the brown / red disaster, use a brighter red shade in your artwork, keeping in mind that colors always print darker on paper than they are on your screen.

Why is my black design printing as a dingy brown or scary dark green? Black process color can be especially difficult to manage. While it looks like deep black on screen, if the CMYK color mix is not correct, the final results will have muddy color shifts. To avoid these shifts, make sure your blacks use only the K value in the CMYK spectrum. Even at 100% K value, the black color will not be super dark, and may appear more as a deep charcoal gray. The answer to this is to use a calculated amount of CMY color along with your K to achieve what is called “rich black.” We recommend a mix of C=60% M=40% Y=40% K=100% to achieve rich black.


The color on my latest batch of letterhead is slightly different than the ones I had printed last year, even though I used the same printer and sent them the same files. Is this a printer error? Many variables can affect the final output with a commercial printer. Paper stock can vary between shipments, ink mixtures and types can change slightly, and print runs made early in the day might be a little lighter in ink concentration as the equipment is still reaching optimum operation. You will not achieve perfect process matching between different printers or even print runs with the same printer. If this is not acceptable, you may wish to move to a more expensive spot color arrangement.

Can I just use spot color to achieve accurate colors across all my design products? Yes, but you will lose the ability to mix inks in a full-color process. Spot color uses exact matching, but it does not mix the colors. You will lose a lot of flexibility in your design. See example below.


ProChurch Power Tip

Most commercial printers require artwork to be in CMYK color mode. If you are printing artwork that was created in RGB, make sure to convert to CMYK first using Photoshop or a similar image editor. In Photoshop, simply choose “Image > Mode > CMYK Color” from the main menu.