From Monitor to Paper: Why Colors Change Onscreen to Offscreen

Furia Rubel Communications, Inc.

Your company has rebranded with a beautiful new logo and website. All of the new branded colors look great online, but when you begin rolling out the brand with new stationery and business cards, you notice the colors on the printed pieces do not match the vibrant colors you selected onscreen. All too often this scenario plays out with clients whose designers have not thought about the end product across all media, including print.

Why don’t onscreen colors look the same on paper?


There are two categories of color: onscreen and offscreen. Onscreen colors are colors used on a screen such as computer monitor, television, and digital cameras. These are broken down into three colors: red, green and blue (RGB). All colors are made by blending these three colors. RGB colors are additive, meaning they grow brighter as you blend them or increase their intensity. The combination of RGB light creates white.

Offscreen colors, those that are printed with ink on paper, are created with four colors: cyan, magenta, yellow and black (CMYK). Black is represented by the letter K. These are the inks used in 4-color process printing. These four colors are combined to create most colors. CMYK colors are subtractive, meaning the colors get darker as they are blended together. The combination of equal amounts of CMY creates black, but not a true black due to the impurities of the inks. Therefore, K (black) is added to the other three colors in printing.

The reason that onscreen colors look different offscreen is because some colors onscreen cannot be reproduced with CMYK printing. These colors are called “out of gamut.” Example colors are metallics and fluorescents. The RGB color space has a much wider range of discernible colors than CMYK. As a result, many intense values of RGB colors such as orange, green and blue tend to darken and look dull and dirty when moved to CMYK. However, reds tend to reproduce well.

Spot colors

When colors cannot be reproduced using CMYK, a spot color (or PMS color) can be introduced to the mix. A spot color is a premixed ink that is used when a color is outside of the CMYK color gamut such as metallics, very bright colors, or other colors that cannot be simulated with the CMYK ink palette. Often corporations print their logos using spot or PMS color so as not to stray far from the brand. However, when printing a spot color, a separate plate needs to be added to the press which increases print costs. It is also worth noting that when advertising, most publications will not reproduce spot color on your ads and will require a CMYK breakdown.

Other factors that affect print colors

Print color is affected by more than the RGB to CMYK conversion. Paper plays a big factor in color reproduction. A bright white stock will create a more vibrant color compared to a dull white stock. Uncoated paper is more porous than coated paper stock, so the ink tends to seep in causing a softer image. Printing on uncoated paper stock tends to reproduce colors darker than coated. For example, newspaper is a cheaper, uncoated stock and the images print darker than the originals. Coated paper stock is sealed with a coating, so the ink sits on top instead of soaking into the paper. As a result, the image can look crisper and more defined on a coated stock. A designer should take this into account when selecting business cards and stationery.

It is also worthy to note that there are two types of printing methods. Offset printing is the traditional method where four separate metal plates are used to transfer images onto a rubber blanket: the images are then rolled onto a sheet of paper. This method is used for larger print runs due to cost. Typically, the color used in offset printing reproduces very well and offset printing allows the use of additional inks if a PMS color is utilized.

Another printing method is digital printing. While an extra PMS color cannot always be used, the color reproduction is very good. Printing digitally is inexpensive for small runs; however, sheet size may be limited depending on the size of the digital printer.


When crafting a new brand, the designer should present color options for onscreen (web and television) as well as offscreen for printed material. This will ensure that you are happy with color recreation in all media. Looking at designs onscreen alone can be deceiving. Oftentimes what looks great on the computer monitor comes out completely different when it is transferred into a physical printed piece.

Pantone offers color chips that provide RGB to CMYK color breakdowns and shows the difference between the two colors side by side. Pantone also offers chips on coated versus uncoated paper stock to show the difference in the color representation on paper. These tools are helpful in setting up files. The ideal option is for a designer to request a press proof of the printed piece to see exactly how it will reproduce before the final printing run.

Written by:

Furia Rubel Communications, Inc.

Furia Rubel Communications, Inc. on:

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