Generating a PDF that Uses CMYK Colors

by Allen Wyatt
(last updated September 25, 2021)

John has typeset a book in Word. When he generates a PDF from the Word document, it is created using RGB colors. What he needs, however, is for the PDF to use CMYK colors. John wonders if there is a way to instruct Word to create the PDF using CMYK colors.

Before attempting an answer, please find a quiet space in your home or office, dim the lights, assume a lotus position, and repeat after me as you breathe deeply: "Word is not a page layout program. Word is not a page layout program. Word is not..."

With that mantra firmly in mind, if you are determined to do your typesetting using Word, there are many compromises, hacks, and tweaks you'll typically need to accept and/or implement. How Word transfers your images to the PDF file is one of those compromises, as Word doesn't allow you to define how colors should be rendered—there is no way to do it in Word. You simply "get what you get," which is a short way of saying you'll get the images in RGB format, not CMYK.

Instead, you'll need to look past Word and work with the PDF it generates. It is possible to load the PDF file into Adobe Acrobat and do an RGB to CMYK conversion in that program. (How to do this is beyond the scope of Word-oriented tip, however.) Understand that any such conversion will, in all likelihood, change how your images look. (More on that in a moment.)

If you have Adobe Acrobat installed on your system, you could also try a "hybrid approach" to creating your PDF. Once you installed Acrobat, you should have noticed that a new printer driver, named "Adobe PDF," was installed on your system. Within Word, you could print your document using this printer. After specifying to use the Adobe PDF printer, click the Printer Properties option, which displays the properties dialog box for the printer. Here you'll find many more options for creating the PDF than what you can find natively in Word. Which options you should choose in the dialog box depends on what output devices your commercial printer is using, so you'll want to check out their specifications as you create the actual PDF in this manner.

If you'd rather not start getting cozy with the Adobe suite of programs (Acrobat, Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign), you could trying doing your typesetting in Publisher. It allows you to generate PDF files that use CMYK, and Microsoft actually suggests using it for typesetting instead of relying on Word.

A while ago I mentioned that converting your images from an RGB color model to CMYK could change how your images look. This is because both color models render colors differently. Technically, RGB is an additive color model, while CMYK is a subtractive color model. It is possible to get far off into the weeds, technically, but suffice it to say that since colors are rendered differently in each model, images can look different in each one. (I have a son who is a graphic designer and who runs a print shop. He encounters this issue all the time when printing customer-supplied graphic files that are in RGB format.)

If you want some more detail in the RGB-vs.-CMYK area, you might find this article helpful:

It was written originally in 2012, but it contains a lot of great information. Note that it includes some very helpful instructions on how to specify and convert color models in programs such as Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign. That's because those are the primary programs used by graphic designers as they are working with images and (in the case of InDesign) typesetting materials. And it is because it is sometimes necessary to go back and do the conversion to CMYK on the actual images, individually, before they are placed into your Word document.

In case you cannot tell, there can be quite a bit that is required to get a document ready for a commercial printer. For this reason, you'll want to work closely with the printer early in your development process. Some commercial printers primarily work with graphic design professionals, and others will work with non-professionals. If your commercial printer is the latter, they may have developed extensive, step-by-step instructions to help you get the best results. Here's an online source created by such a company:

I don't provide this to suggest that this company be used as your commercial printer. Instead, I provide it as a good example of educative material that is designed to help non-professionals produce files that the commercial printer can use to get the best output possible. I also provide it as an example of what you might be able to find available from your chosen printer.

WordTips is your source for cost-effective Microsoft Word training. (Microsoft Word is the most popular word processing software in the world.) This tip (11304) applies to Microsoft Word 2007, 2010, 2013, 2016, 2019, and Word in Office 365.

Author Bio

Allen Wyatt

With more than 50 non-fiction books and numerous magazine articles to his credit, Allen Wyatt is an internationally recognized author. He is president of Sharon Parq Associates, a computer and publishing services company. ...


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