How Do I Change the Color Mode in InDesign? Simple!

Selecting Color Mode in InDesign is based on what your intention is with the document. Are you printing it or is it going to be a digital file? Changing the Color Mode can be achieved in a couple of ways. In the article, we’ll look at how we do this.

The Color Mode can be changed in the Document Set up, in the Intent Drop Down, or in the Initial File – New – Intent. Here you can select Print for CMYK or Web for RGB.

Color Mode is an exceptionally important part of your document. Printing RGB colors is a big no-no. They look completely different than they would on screen. Let’s look at how we create the best file for the job at hand.

Intent: Print or Web

As you begin a new project in InDesign you will more than likely know if it is going to be printed or if it is for a Web or Digital File.

It’s crucial that your file is going to be printed and that the correct Color Mode is selected. All printed files are in a CMYK format. This is an ink-based process where all colors are made up of four print colors. Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black. Print shops use either digital printing (File-Print) or Offset printing (File – Film – Plates – Print). Either way, the material is made of at least four colors.

CMYK Breakdown

On the other hand, if you are creating something Web Based (never to be printed) then your file needs to be in RGB format. This is a screen-based makeup of Red, Green, and Blue. The color is generated from the light on your screen, so all devices use RGB no matter what brand or OS you are using.

RGB breakdown

Selecting the correct Color Mode is done in one of two ways. If you are creating a new file

File – New – Print – (CMYK)
File – New – Web – (RGB)

InDesign will default your color swatch to the correct Color Mode depending on the output format.
If you pick Print and then open your swatch panel all colors will be CMYK. And vice versa, if you choose Web all your swatch colors will be RGB. However, this is where it gets a little complicated.

It is also quite common for files to be both printed and used on web platforms or for digital marketing. The same file can be used but the color mode must be altered accordingly.

Other Colors in Your Swatch Panel

If you are working on a Print File – CMYK – and you open your Swatch Panel you may find that there are RGB colors displayed. They may have snuck in through placed images or imported text.

You can tell by the Color Mode box on the Right Hand Side of the swatches panel. Beside each color is either a 3-color panel (RGB) or a 4-color panel (CMYK).

Checking the Color Mode

It’s important that if you have any RGB in a CMYK file you change them to CMYK. This is easily done.

Click twice on the RGB color.
This will open an alternative color panel. In the Color Mode dropdown, select CMYK.

Checking if an Image is CMYK or RGB

This will change your RGB color to a CMYK makeup. The color will appear differently on screen but if you leave it as an RGB color it will print completely differently anyway. You can use the sliders to try and match the color as best you can.
Click OK and the box in the Swatches Panel will now display as four colors.

Checking if an Image is CMYK or RGB

This is also the case for CMYK colors changing to RGB.

The other colors you need to look out for are Spot Colors. These are Pantone Colors. A Pantone Color is a standardized color system that is made up of 13 colors not just 4. They are generally only used if you have a specific brand color (ie Coke Red) or if you wanted to print a Gold or Florescent Color.

How to check for Pantone Colors or Spot Colors
How to check for Pantone Colors

Spot color in a file will direct the printer to add an extra separation plate. And print this plate with this specific Pantone color. Unless it’s absolutely necessary I would advise against it as it adds more expense to your job.
You can convert all spot colors, as before, by clicking twice and selecting CMYK from the Color Mode Dropdown.

RGB / CMYK Images

The last thing that will affect your color mode in InDesign is your placed images. Print or Web selection will default your file, but InDesign will still allow RGB images to be placed in your file. You will need to check the Color Mode of your Images in the Info Panel. If they are incorrect you will have to convert them.

Determining whether a file is RGB or CMYK

Right Click and Scroll to Edit With (Photoshop).

Editing Images in Photoshop from Indesign

Photoshop will then launch. Here go to Mode and select CMYK. If you find more than one image on a page with RGB, select them all by holding Shift and then Right Click. It’s a quicker way of Editing. Close, Save, and return to InDesign. All files will then update to CMYK.

Exporting Your File in the Correct Color Mode

The last belt and braces are when you are exporting the file.

Export Instructions for Print

Select PDF/X-1a preset. This will override all RGB to CMYK. Well, why bother converting them in Photoshop, I hear you say? You can’t be 100% sure that your images will appear correctly with this method so I would always advise on running your images through Photoshop Color change first. Printed RGB images appear dull and flat.

Export High Quality Print File

There is no better output than having all files and all colors as they should be for the particular end job, be it Print or Web.

I wrote an article recently on PDF export problems – PDF Won’t Export InDesign. Here’s how to fix it! – you might find it useful.

Related Articles

If you are also using Illustrator you can check out this article about color changes in Illustrator – Why Are My Colors Changing in Illustrator?

If you are curious about other Design issues, check out the FAQ category

Tara Cunningham

My name is Tara. I am a Graphic Designer for the last 25+ years. Designing everything from Wedding stationery to Magazines. I have been using Adobe products since I was in college and know all the tips and tricks that make life a little easier when completing a project. Hopefully you will find the answer to your question on

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