Screen vs print; and the whole ‘they look different’ thing

Colours look different on screens in comparison to how they look in print. It’s one of those frustrating ‘they just do!’ things we have to deal with every day. But though us printers know this, it doesn’t help our customers when a mismatch in expectations arises. So we thought we’d explain a little bit about what’s going on… and how we deal with the challenges this quirk presents to us all.

It’s the RGB vs CMYK thing

RGB is what screens use. It stands for Red, Green, and Blue. And it is combinations of these three colours that you’re seeing on you look at a screen. Behind the scenes, what’s happening is that the screen itself is black, but when light is shone from the behind the screen the RGB colour mix creates what you see.

CMYK, on the other hand, relates to the colour of the inks used in printing. It stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and blacK. CMYK inks work by effectively soaking up the light from white paper so their colour shows.

Thus, already you can see that the two terms refer to completely different phenomena, with different qualities, and a different process enabling the human eye to see the colours created.

One of the key challenges with screens is that the way they display is subject to a whole raft of settings and calibrations. The same picture can look very different on two separate screens. And when you print an RGB picture, the colours will often take you by surprise. But, most importantly, there’s actually no such thing as ‘correct’ here in screen-world; these differences just ‘are’.

However, printers too have a whole raft of ‘settings’ that affect how something prints. Think laser vs inkjet, different solvents, a wild mix of possible processes to lay down the CMYK inks, and different coatings on paper, and you’ll start to get a feel for what we’re talking about. And as a result, RGB and CMYK simply don’t work well together!

Proof is in the print

So, this brings us to a critical aspect of our business; proofs. You can’t rely on screen colours to show accurate colour references. Thus at Braunston Print we strongly discourage people from checking proofs on phones and tablets, as these are even more diverse than PC screens. CMYK colours can look muted on an RGB screen in comparison to how vibrant they are when they print, and RGB colours can look vibrant on a screen and muted when they print. Ideally, therefore, you want to see a printed proof before signing the design off to print.

A case in hand

To illustrate what we’re saying, here’s a real-life example we’ve experienced with a customer recently; though fortunately the problem became apparent at the printed proof stage.

When we printed the proofs for him to check, he kept complaining the colour wasn’t right. He was creating artwork on his screen and passing us the files. Having stumbled a couple of times and realising what was going on, we tried converting his RGB files in to CMYK before we printed, but the colour was still wrong. We were seeing a bluey-grey colour on screen and on print, but that wasn’t what he wanted. He eventually came in with his laptop to show us the colour he thought he was using in his design. His was most definitely A LOT greener. However, because of the settings on his laptop, the colour references he was providing were for the bluey-grey colour… it was his screen that was calibrated strangely.

Obviously, we were able to sort the problem once we realised what was going on. But this story serves as a great example of what we’re talking about here.

So what’s the solution?

The solution is two-fold.

CMYK RGB & Pantone
  1. Always get a printed proof if colour accuracy is important. Sounds tedious, but really… don’t take a shortcut and miss this bit out.
  2. Use pantone references in your designs if you can.  We have printed CMYK charts that you can use to pick the colours you want. Though we will ask you to accept that any digital proofs might not look right on screen.

So, if you’re worried about how colours will look when you send us your files, or you need a little help in working things out… please just give us a call. We’re much happier correcting things at the beginning than biting our nails at the end!