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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: 8 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 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, SWOP V2 and Fogra39 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.

  • 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.

Fabric colors

The same color will look different depending on the color of the fabric your design is printed on. In the image below, compare the orange color from the top on the black garment, and the same color on the white.

Printful direct-to-garment (DTG) printing color swatches on black and white fabrics.

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!

Hack! Use this CMYK color code chart to find the colors within the CMYK color space. Once you find the color you like, use an online CMYK to RGB color code converter and then input the final RGB value into your design software.

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.

Watch our video on print colors to see a real-life walkthrough of color matching on Adobe Photoshop.

Have you already tried color matching as we did on our video? Let me know how your design turned out!

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 2 items when you sign up with Printful. When you’ve integrated an ecommerce platform, you get 2 sample orders per month, with a maximum of 3 items per order. Read more about Printful’s sample orders.

Order Printful color swatches

Our color swatches have RGB color values next to them so you can use those when you choose the color for your designs.

Printful’s White Glossy Mug with a color swatch printed on it.

You can order these color examples as sample orders too! Here’s how to order Printful color swatches:

  1. Log into your Printful Dashboard.
  2. Click New Order, choose your store and click Sample order.
  3. Choose the products you want to test out with Printful color swatches and complete the order.
A screenshot of placing a sample order for Printful color swatches.

To make sure the RGB values on the color swatches are easy to read, go for products with 12×16 inch print areas. Color swatches are available for the following Printful products:

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!

Una enjoys digging deep into marketing psychology and being overly attached to her 19 houseplants.

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    1. Una Savcenko Post author

      Hi Liz! 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 it 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!

  1. CoconutWater

    The Boston Police image is backwards, or the caption is wrong. No way can the CMYK version be more saturated than the RGB one

    1. Una Savcenko Post author

      Hi! Thanks for pointing that out, I corrected. The RGB image is the more saturated one and that’s the image on the left.

  2. Anatoliy

    Какие рекомендуемые размеры файла на футболке и других продуктах ?
    Какие максимальные и минимальные размеры файла на футболке и других продуктах ?

    1. Una Savcenko Post author

      Hi Anatoliy! It’s best to check these sizes for each product individually. For example, front prints for most t-shirts are 12” x 16” sizes, phone cases have print sizes 2.93” x 6.1”. I advise you to head to our products page, click on the product you want to see the print size of, then below the product photo, click on the File guidelines tab and there you have it!

  3. PK Roy

    Hi, I am very amazed by the information of this blog and I am glad I had a look over the blog. Thank you so much for sharing such great information and get a chance to learn something useful.

  4. CB

    Does Printful offer swatch library files for use in Adobe design products? When designing a white shirt, would be nice to use a swatch file with the recommended colors and a different file for when working on colored shirts. If swatches are not available, an image that has acceptable colors would be a time saver. One could use Adobe tools to pick the right color and then go back to working on the design. It works save time for product creators and ensure the right colors are used. Thank you.

    1. Una Savcenko Post author

      Hey there, Printful doesn’t offer swatch library files for use in Adobe design products. You can, however, use our downloadable swatch files for white and colored t-shirts. Here’s the zip file with our color swatches (an automatic download will start once you click on the link). Hope they save you some time when designing!

      1. Lauren

        This would be awesome to have for the All Over Print items too (like leggings and rashguards). Can the same swatches be used on these items?

        1. Daniela Bergmane

          Hey Simone, we’re not entirely sure, however, you can always download and check—it’s always best to check it before to see how it looks on the actual product.

  5. Ziad

    Hello

    Powerful blog article with tons of information but a bit overwhelming and complex honestly for the non designer.

    My question is very simple

    I don’t design I buy designs from various platforms and print them as is without any modifications for most of the time.

    I download my design files in PNG and PSD among other vector formats.

    Do I need to worry about any of the above issues?

    Or I can go ahead and print as is?

    Thanks

    1. Una Savcenko Post author

      Hey, Ziad! Thanks for the feedback 🙂
      In a nutshell, you can print your PNG and PSD files as is. The file formats won’t directly impact the design outcome in terms of color. However, there are a couple of things you should note.
      We recommend submitting print files in PNG as they can’t be editable and there is less room for error when our printing software processes it. We do also accept print files in PSD, but our printer software may interpret some file metrics differently as it’s an editable file, so the design outcome might look a bit different too.

  6. Maria

    Very useful!
    So, there are basically two conversions: CMYK (online) to sRGB (in software) back CMYK on your printers. It won’t affect the quality of the image?

    Also, what colour model your mock up generator uses?

    1. Una Savcenko Post author

      Hi, Maria!
      Converting color spaces won’t affect the sharpness of your image if that’s what you meant by quality.
      If by the quality you mean the way your colors will turn out, then those can only change noticeably if you’ve used out of gamut colors in your files.

      To answer your question about our Mockup Generator—it uses the sRGB color profile.

      Happy you enjoyed my post 🙂

  7. Simon

    Hi Una

    Great post – very useful! I have a quick question:

    I print my artwork on your enhanced matte posters and my latest prints appear slightly darker – as if the paper absorbed more ink than I expected. Any suggestions on what controls to use in Photoshop to offset that gain? (Brightness? Transparency?)

    Happy to run tests but wondering what you and your team suggest.

    Thanks!

    1. Una Savcenko Post author

      Hi Simon,

      Printed designs on products will always look a bit darker than they appear on screens. All products, including posters, don’t emit light which would brighten the printed design. Screens, on the other hand, do emit light and thus make any color appear brighter.

      Our in-house designers suggest making the design a bit lighter by using Brightness or Levels settings in Photoshop.

      And I’m happy you found my blog useful:-) Best of luck!

  8. Audrey

    Hi, I’m creating my designs with Canva. Do I have to do any modifications to the colour settings? If so, how can I do this? My designs are mostly in black and white but it can happen that I have some colours other than black and white.
    Thank you!

    1. Una Savcenko Post author

      Hi Audrey,
      When designing in Canva, you don’t have to adjust any color settings. Keep designing as you used to! 🙂 Canva supports the sRGB color space which we recommend for submitting design files.

      If you go with colors other than black and white, keep in mind to avoid bright neons and saturated tones.

    1. Una Savcenko Post author

      Hey Shiran,
      I took a look at the designs you shared, they’ll print out just fine! Generally, designs with gradients keep their colors when printed with our DTG method. One thing to keep in mind while designing—darker tones in designs might print out a bit darker and have a “flatter look”. Hope that helps!

  9. Aram

    Hello, Where can I find the file for the phone case color charts, I am trying to find it in the printful website. However, I only found the shirts color chart. Is there a link you can send me where I can download it please.

    Thank you so much for your help !

    1. Una Savcenko Post author

      Hi Aram! Currently, we have color swatch files for shirts only. If you want a color swatch file for phone cases, I’d suggest you create a custom one. You can read how to do that in this blog, section Create and order your own custom color swatches.

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