Solutions to CMYK Conversion Problems

Happy hump day, inkheads! Today’s regularly scheduled blog post about sexy summer flyers is going on the backburner by request of our operations manager, Alex. As much as I’d love to inspire your creative designs, Alex asked me to explain a very common printing issue that came up with a customer yesterday. The seasoned ink veterans among you may not need to hear this piece of advice, but the newbies should gather ’round the campfire for a little lesson/technical printing tutorial.

RGB to CMYK color conversion made simple

The color conversion nightmare

Our story begins with a frantic phone call from a customer. Alex spoke with a local designer working with a small business about a color issue on her business cards. It seemed her printed cards did not match the colors in her artwork…at all.

The color management vortex


She submitted a layered Photoshop file, which we don’t recommend for several reasons I won’t get into right now because layers aren’t relevant to the main point. Anyway, Alex did some digging and discovered the root of her ink problems—-the file started out in RGB color mode, and that’s how the file appeared in our system. That means our prepress department converted to CMYK after the fact!

What’s wrong with this printed picture?

Our file requirements page explains that we’re not responsible for color shifts as a result of RGB to CMYK conversion, so it’s super important to set up your files correctly. Just so you know, we don’t cover color because most matching issues stem from client files, not our production process.

Now that may sound a little scary. I’ll be the first to admit that prepress prep can be crazy confusing. Still, don’t let the possibilities of printing errors get the best of your marketing campaigns. Remember, our customer service department is here to help. If you have any questions about file prep from setting up bleeds in Illustrator to using our free online design tool, feel free to get in touch. We want you to have a successful project in your hands as much as you do, and we’ll do everything in our power to make the order process painless.

That said, let’s get back to the ink issue in our customer’s story. The color shift came as a surprise because the customer never saw her business cards in CMYK before they went to print. A prepress proof may have saved the day, yet she didn’t request the pdf proof option with her order. Besides, there’s no guarantee should would have caught the difference. Surely she’s a busy lady, which means she probably wouldn’t have set aside time to give the business card proof a proper inspection. So what can she (or you for that matter) do next time to solve the problem before it occurs?

3 CMYK conversion solutions

Enough about the problem—let’s find a solution that works for you, and hopefully, you’ll never find yourself in this customer’s shoes. I’m going to offer our best suggestions below.

  • Always design in CMYK color mode from the start

Start in CMYK

Forgive me for sounding like Captain Obvious here, but doesn’t it make sense to start your print design in CMYK color mode since our press uses 4 color process? I mean, you don’t design a website in CMYK first, and then convert to RGB, right? Of course, you can always download one of our free printing templates. That way you won’t have to worry about file formatting period.

  • Flatten your file before you convert

Flatten files in Photoshop

All right, I realize that you’re not always in control of files from start to finish. While you’d never design a print product in RGB color mode, you may inherit an incorrect file from another designer or a client. Before you report this print design crime to the CMYK police, make sure to flatten your file. Converting a layered file to CMYK might not produce the consistent results you want. Flattening the file ensures consistent changes to the entire image color profile as opposed to that of the individual layers.

  • Avoid image effects and transparencies
  • Don't use image effects

Here’s one thing you need to know about the flattening trick I mentioned above—it won’t always work due to image effects. What kind of effects will get you in trouble? Basically anything that modifies a layer’s color profile, such as changing the blend mode, applying filters, or using transparencies. You can flatten transparencies in Illustrator separately, but that won’t prevent the problem I’m referring to because you’ve still altered colors within the layer. Your best bet would be to leave the layer styles n stuff out of your print designs altogether.

How to convert files in CMYK color mode

If you’ve never designed for print before, you might not even be aware that CMYK exists in the first place. I’m pretty sure most folks who send us RGB files simply don’t realize there are technical differences between print vs web design. I blame the lack of printing education in art schools and college graphic design programs. At any rate, here’s how to convert your work from RGB to CMYK in the popular Adobe Creative Suite programs.


How to convert to CMYK in Photoshop

From the main menu, go to Image> Mode> CMYK Color


Convert to CMYK in Illustrator

From the main menu, go to File> Document Color Mode> CMYK Color


Press quality PDF in InDesign

Since InDesign is primarily a print design tool, you’d think the default settings would be in CMYK. Alas, even this well known layout program can cause color-induced headaches. Most of the time, you’ll be importing RGB images into InDesign, and many designers convert photos in PS or vectors in AI before placing them in ID. Here’s an alternative InDesign workflow method wherein the final conversion occurs during PDF setup with press quality settings. Be sure to read the comments on that article as I think the first one in particular makes good points about problems with rich black and blues.

Photoshop Elements, GIMP, Word, Publisher, Canva, etc.

Let’s say you don’t have access to the professional tools listed above. I wish I had an easy answer for folks in this sticky situation, however, I don’t. These programs outside of the Adobe Creative Suite don’t have CMYK capabilities, so please be aware that any non-professional design software may cause color management problems, not solve them.