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Color MAtching Guide for Print-on-demand Products
Beginner's handbook Style & trends

Color Matching Guide for Print-on-Demand Products

By Reading Time: 7 minutes

First and foremost, you’re the designer in charge. You want your work to come out as you envisioned it, and don’t want to risk the printing software misrepresenting the colors you chose.

Second, color matching is crucial because you want to meet your customer’s expectations. Remember those “expectations vs. reality” online shopping memes? Imagine that happening to a customer with your products. Yikes.

And third, beautifully cohesive colors just look better and that’s another point why you should focus on color matching from design files to prints.

Here’s what we’ll go through to master the art of color matching:

  1. The basics of color matching
  1. Why printed colors look different from digital designs
  1. Steps to getting the print colors you want

1. The basics of color matching

The writer Roy T. Bennett noted: “It takes sunshine and rain to make a rainbow.” Same goes for color matching.

Before we wander into the world of color, let’s go through my glossary of color printing terminology so you can get a better grip on color matching.

Color design and printing glossary

  • Color model—the mathematical formula of a color. The numbers of the formula express what other colors a given color consists of.
A screenshot of Adobe Photoshop Color Picker with various color values.
  • RGB—a color model where the formula of a color is expressed in three primary colors: Red, Green, Blue. 

The RGB color model is based on the way how we see colors—with the help of light. Similarly, the RGB color model is used to display images on devices that emit light.

  • CMYK—a color model where the formula of a color is expressed in four primary colors: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key (black).

All printers use the CMYK color model. The printed colors are created by overlaying the four colors in CMYK.

The bluish color in the printed image on the left is a blend of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. The image on the right is what the color formation looks under a microscope.
  • Color space—a range of colors produced by specific color models like RGB, CMYK.

Each color model has its own color space and limitations to what it can display. The way color is displayed varies across devices too. For example, the colors you see on your phone screen will look slightly different than on tablets.

  • Color values—decimal and / or letter combinations used to represent colors.

Each color spaces have different values for displaying a color. The screenshot below shows how the same color is displayed for different color models. 

  • Color profile—the limit of how many and which colors are displayed within a color space.

Color profiles define the color values within a color space they were created in. For example, you take a photo of a tomato and then upload it to Instagram. Your phone will then pass the color profile information to Instagram, so your tomato photo is in the shade of red it was captured in. Most common color profiles are sRGB and Adobe RGB for the RGB color model, PSO Coated v3 and Fogra51 for CMYK.

At Printful, we recommend saving and uploading design files in the sRGB color profile, sRGB IEC61966-2.1 to be exact!

Our DTG printers work with an upgraded CMYK color space. We’ve added more ink colors, allowing us to achieve print colors that fall outside of the CMYK color range. The closest color space to our upgraded CMYK is the sRGB and that’s why we recommend it for print files.

Learn more: Everything You Need to Know to Prepare the Perfect Print File

  • Color gamut—a range of colors which can be represented within a given color space.

When you convert a digital design to a different color space than you designed it in, you alter its gamut. Some of your original colors can change to the closest available colors in the color space you converted it to.

The RGB color space has a broader color gamut than CMYK, so you can lose colors (especially bright neons) when converting a design created in RGB to CMYK.

An approximate preview of what our eyes can see and the colors recognized within the RGB and CMYK color spaces.
  • Color matching—a technique used for matching a color from a digital design file to a design printed on a product.

Color matching is usually done using a design software like Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop.

Now you know all the whats related to color matching and color design. You’re ready to understand the whys.

2. Why printed colors look different from digital designs

Never in a million years will your designs on screen match the ones on your printed product 100%. Yup.

There are various factors that contribute to color inconsistencies. Let’s go through them so you know what to look out for the next time you’re designing!

Design color spaces

CMYK is the color space that’s used for printing designs. RGB, on the other hand, is the color space used by most creators when designing print files and due to technicalities, it’s the color space we recommend uploading your design files in.

Most beginner or web design software supports only the RGB color space. Advanced design programs (see our blog on free Photoshop alternatives!) allow you to switch between the RGB and CMYK color spaces.

If you’re working within the RGB color space and upload that design for printing, our printing software will convert it to the CMYK color space it supports. That’s the risky step where your design can lose some colors it originally had.

The CMYK color space recognizes a smaller range of colors than RGB. If your design has colors outside of the CMYK color space, then our printing software matches those colors to the closest ones in the CMYK color space.

The original photo taken within the RGB color space is on the left. The photo on the right is the same one, converted into the CMYK color space.

To take color matching in your hands, design within the CMYK color space and then convert to RGB yourself, without losing any colors. Or, if your software doesn’t support the CMYK color space, use an online RGB to CMYK converter to check which colors of your design are out of CMYK color space and adjust those.

Tip! Try out the rgb2cmyk.org color space converter. Select the output format as .jpg and set the CMYK profile to SWOP2006.

Types of fabric

Your print outcome varies depending on the fabric you choose to print on. Printful has plenty of options to pick from, like:

  • 100% cotton
  • Poly blends (50% cotton/50% polyester)
  • Tri-blends (50% polyester/25% cotton/25% rayon or 50% polyester/37% ring-spun combed cotton/13% rayon)

We tested how DTG prints show up on different fabric. Fabric made of 100% cotton has a tight weave and, for that reason, it’s the best choice to show off your design in its full opacity. Thicker 100% fabric is more likely to absorb ink, so the final print can have a bit of a faded effect.

Fabric made of poly and tri-blend has a looser weave and, for that reason, it’s the best choice to show off your designs in a faded / vintage kind of vibe.

The differences between prints on 100% cotton (left) and tri-blend fabrics (right).

If you like your designs to have a faded color palette, go for products with blended fabric. If you want that maximum opacity, choose products with 100% cotton.

Learn More: The Ultimate Guide to Types of Fabric

Fabric colors

The same color will look different depending on the color of the fabric your design is printed on.

At Printful, we print a white underbase layer beneath prints on colored and dark garments to keep the designs vibrant and colorful. When choosing the right colors for your design, I’d even suggest going with darker shades for lighter colored fabrics to get a more vibrant design.

Let’s go through the steps you can do to assure your design comes out exactly as you envisioned it!

3. Steps to getting the print colors you want

The ideal scenario to get the perfect print color is a combination of actions. I’ll sort these steps, starting with the easiest and most important one.

Avoid neon colors in RGB or create design files in CMYK

Remember that neon colors and deeply saturated shades exist in the RGB color space, but our printers support the narrower, neon-less CMYK space.

For the best color quality, you have two routes:

1. Create design files in RGB and steer clear of neons and saturated shades as they simply won’t print!

2. Create design files in CMYK and experiment with neons and saturated shades.

Here’s how to create designs with CMYK:

  1. When you start designing, choose the CMYK color space.

The settings for switching to this color space is different for each design software. I suggest you do a quick Google search—”switching to CMYK in [the program you use]”.

  1. When you finish designing, save your work in the RGB color space.

For the best possible color accuracy for your design, convert the file to sRGB color profile, sRGB IEC61966-2.1 to be exact. Most editing programs have this color profile as default. If yours doesn’t, don’t worry—the regular RGB color space will also work.

Order product samples

Getting your own product samples is a must to assure your designs come out great. It’s an investment that lets you check design placement and color, and overall product quality. Plus, you can use samples for creating top-notch product photos and videos, or use them in giveaways.

How to order product samples:

  1. Log into your Printful Dashboard
  2. Click New Order, choose your store, and click Sample order
  3. Choose your products and place an order
A screenshot of placing a sample product order via Printful.

You can place 1 sample order per month, with a maximum of 3 items when you sign up with Printful. When you complete other milestones, like reach a certain threshold in accumulated sales, you get more sample orders. Read more about Printful’s sample orders.

Create and order your own custom color swatches

By creating your own color swatches, you can test only the colors you plan to design with.  If your designs or brand colors are monotone, wonderful—prepare a design file with all the colors of gray, red, pink, yellow—whatever! And once you check those colors, you won’t have to test each and every design you create with them.

Here’s how to create custom color swatches:

  1. Choose the product you’ll test your color swatches on and check the product’s recommended file dimensions.
  2. Open the design software you use and start a new design with your product’s recommended file dimensions.
  3. Draw whichever shapes you like, fill them in with your chosen colors and add their color values.
  4. Save your design file in the RGB color space and choose the .png file format.

And you’re done! Upload your custom color swatch on Printful and place a sample order with your design. Once you get your product, you can then decide which colors work and which don’t.

Here’s a custom color swatch our designers created (they offer graphic design services too!). Our designers tested particular RGB color values and went with this weird shape because why not.

An example of how you can customize your own color swatches.

And here’s how the custom swatch printed out. We chose to print on the Bella + Canvas 3001 t-shirt in Soft Cream.

Custom color swatches printed out on a creamy t-shirt.

Have you ever created a custom color swatch before? Let me know in the comment section below.

The power of color matching is in your hands

As I said before, you’re the designer in charge. Now you have all this knowledge on color matching and designing for print-on-demand products—time to use it!

I want to hear back from you—what’s your main takeaway from this blog post? What did you find interesting and which design tips will you try out next time you’re in the zone?

Happy designing!

Read Next: DTG vs. Screen Printing: Choosing the Right Apparel Printing Method for You

Una specializes in third-party logistics and knows Printful's Warehousing & Fulfillment services from A to Z. She enjoys digging deep into marketing psychology and developing her creative writing skills.

Comments

  1. Nicholas Marx

    You have instructed to design in CMYK, then convert to sRGB before uploading to Printful only for your machines to convert it back into CMYK for printing? Do I understand that correctly?

    Can’t we just do everything in CMYK? Both the designing and uploading to printful?

    1. Esther Everson

      Hey, Nicholas! We suggest making your designs in sRGB because it has a wider, more vibrant color range (aka gamut) compared to CMYK.
      Yes, our DTG printers print in CMYK but we work with an upgraded CMYK color space where we’ve added more ink colors, allowing us to achieve print colors that normally fall outside of the CMYK color range. Because of this process, we can achieve the closest result to your original design.

      1. Jason

        Hi Esther, by upgraded CMYK color space do you mean Hexachrome CMYKOG (Cyan, magenta, yellow, key, orange, green)? Or some other combination? Thanks

      2. Kunal

        But if we have the optoon to design in the CMYK colour space, should we not? You don’t have to worry about the colour ranges of RBG vs CMYK. Please just tell us if we work in CMYK and upload a CMYK file, is that ok with you or not?

        1. Esther Everson

          Hey, Kunal! I already replied to your other comment but wanted to answer here as well. To get the best outcome for your prints, use sRGB for your files since sRGB is the color profile our printers use. sRGB uses more colors than standard RGB. For best possible accuracy use the sRGB color profile sRGB IEC61966-2.1.

    1. Esther Everson

      Hey, Ilias! You should be able to download our color swatches here. However, you can always find the download link under each product that offers the DTG technique–just go to the desired product, choose the ”File guidelines” tab, and under the ”DTG disclaimers” you’ll find the download option for color swatches.

  2. Scott

    Keep in mind though that they can’t do any fluorescent colors and will print closest color (Which is nothing close) and refuse to refund you.

    1. Esther Everson

      Hey, Scott! I’m sorry if you’ve run into such a situation before. However, we do have DTG disclaimers placed under each product. We can’t guarantee 100% color accuracy if your files aren’t adjusted using our color swatches.

  3. Patrick

    Hello! I am trying to find a good Pantone set that can work well with your upgraded CMYK printers. Of course, the standard Solid Coated swatches are stuck within the CMYK gamut and won’t take advantage of your printer’s capabilities. However I have come across the “Extended Gamut Coated” range that includes Orange, Green and Violet as process colours in addition to the basic CMYK, allowing a wider range of colour options. Would this gamut be achievable by your printer to retain colour accuracy?

    1. Esther Everson

      Hey, Patrick! I’m afraid I won’t be able to comment about the “Extended Gamut Coated” range, however, keep in mind that our printers use an sRGB color profile. To get the best outcome for your prints, use sRGB for your files, or more specifically sRGB IEC61966-2.1. Most editing programs default to this color profile. We’ve also just added more color swatches to our Design Maker so that our customers can really expand their designs. You’re also always welcome to order a sample order with printed swatches so that you know what to expect in the future. Hope this helps!

  4. Kunal

    I was hoping to get some clarification on this. If I am working with Adobe Illustrator. Is it ok to work in the CMYK profile (since it offers more variety of colours) and then export as an sRBG file to upload to Printful? Or can we work in sRGB profile, and export it as a CMYK file for upload. I am a little confused when you ask to upload as an RBG which you will convert to CMYK. Why not let us upload as CMYK in the first place then?

    1. Esther Everson

      Hey, Kunal! To get the best outcome for your prints, use sRGB for your files. sRGB is the color profile our printers use. sRGB uses more colors than standard RGB. For best possible accuracy use the sRGB color profile sRGB IEC61966-2.1. Most editing programs default to this color profile. Always check the profile and color-correct if necessary.

      1. Lee

        Hi,

        Can you please clarify. It’s just I also have a photo quality inkjet printer at home and I specifically use pantone colour swatches in my graphic design work. When printing a specific Pantone colour using RGB values the colour is way off but similar on-screen, where as if I use CMYK values for the same pantone swatch for print its much more true to colour when printed as the colour on the screen. I.e RGB for online viewing and CYMK for output printing. To clarify, do you mean its best to use an RGB workspace with CYMK colours values? I think Im confusing myself now

        Thanks

        1. Esther Everson

          Hey, Lee!
          I’m sorry for all of the confusion. I’ll try to clarify – All industry printers work within CMYK color space. The DTG printers that we use here at Printful also came with the CMYK color space limitation but we’ve upgraded them over the years. We’ve added more ink colors and that allowed us to achieve print colors that fall outside of the CMYK color range. The closest color space to our upgraded CMYK is the sRGB and that’s why we recommend it!

  5. Colin Burch

    Hi, still a little uncertain on the color matching. Our dilemma is we are trying to use some acrylic artwork we have created and scanned for our Printful designs. I understand about the RGB vs CMYK color spaces.

    If I convert RGB to CMYK using a tool like RGB2CMYK.org is the output most likely to match the Printful final result. We see some significant changes in colors (blue sky, for example) and are looking for best way to preview so we can see if the result is acceptable.

    1. Esther Everson

      Hey, Colin! For the best results, the final version of your print file should be saved in the sRGB color profile sRGB IEC61966-2.1. Whenever in doubt, you can find File guidelines for each product on our Product Catalog.

  6. Niki

    Hi there! I’m making a swatch set of Printful’s “Print Area Background” colors in my design app. Can you provide a list of the color names and their RGB values? I’d be happy to share the AI swatch set when I’m done.

    1. Esther Everson

      Hey, Niki! All of the color codes for background colors are seen on the Design Maker when moving your cursor on each color swatch.

  7. Dave Baun

    I am a photographer using Printful primarily for canvas prints as well as matte and lustre paper. I have ordered a few test prints and have had a few issues and concerns with them. Only one has come out as expected, another was acceptable but a bit different and another was not acceptable at all and a reprint was provided. It came out a bit better but still not as I expected. I have been reluctant to add any new images to my store in the past two months because I don’t know what to expect.

    I was referred to this article to help but I am left feeling more confused. I had converted a bunch of my images to CMYK and was about to upload them. I use Lightroom to edit and used Photoshop to convert to CMYK and they looked fine, but when I opened one in Preview (iOS) it look very dull and flat.

    Who can afford to order a test print of every image before going live in the their store, and on top of that wait a month to get them? Is there a guide anywhere that helps with how to process images for printing on canvas and paper. What file formats to use from the start?

    I was hopeful when joining Printful but I feel like I’ve gotten nowhere in the six months I’ve been using the service.

    Any guidance or help would be appreciated.

    Thanks,
    Dave

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