Why is Adobe Illustrator Changing Your Colors?

The color scheme of a graphic design is one of its most important aspects. Even the slightest alteration in the shade or hue of a single color can change the entire perception of an artwork. Which is why it is so maddening for graphic designers when industry-standard design software, like Adobe Illustrator, for instance, changes colors of art files seemingly on their own and without any rhyme or reason.

Most of the time when Adobe Illustrator changes your colors it is due to compatibility issues between the RGB and CMYK color models. Other instances of unwanted color changes can usually be attributed to settings in Illustrator’s color management system, such as scheme and mode.

Whether it is the long-anticipated launch of a company website or a series of public-facing printed collateral, a lot is riding on the graphic design elements of these types of projects, and having an impactful color scheme is key to the overall success of a campaign. Read on to learn about the potential pitfalls of Adobe Illustrator changing your colors, and more importantly, how to avoid them.

Is Adobe Illustrator Changing Your Colors? Here’s Why

A mere peek through support forums and Adobe Illustrator help sites is all it takes to see that many graphic designers of all skill levels, ranging from newbies fresh out of design school to seasoned veterans who have seen it all, have at some point experienced the frustration and bewilderment of Illustrator changing color values. In some cases, the changes are subtle but in others, they are glaring and striking.

While it is easy to attribute this problem to a software glitch or a coding miscue in the Adobe Illustrator platform itself, there are a number of reasons why colors appear to be changed from the designer’s original scheme. The majority of color discrepancies in Adobe Illustrator can be attributed to improper color management settings, starting with a common mistake relating to two common color models.

Minding Your Color Gamuts – RGB vs CMYK

One of the first concepts that graphic designers learn is color scheming and there are four primary color models upon which this is based. Color models are often categorized by the range of colors (known as a gamut) that they encompass, and this is how they stack up from the largest spectrum to the smallest:

  • Visible color gamut – this is the largest color spectrum perceptible to the human eye
  • RGB color gamut – comprises the largest portion of the visible color gamut
  • Pantone color gamut – this is a proprietary color matching system that is widely used in the printing industry
  • CMYK – of the four major color gamuts, this has by far the smallest range of colors

A side-by-side comparison of the RGB and CMYK gamuts shows how differently they appear, particularly when bright colors in the RGB color space are converted to the CMYK color space. These variances are significant in terms of how Adobe Illustrator manages color modes for various types of art files.

Here are some important things to keep in mind regarding color gamuts and problems that can arise in Adobe Illustrator:

  • In some cases, the problem of Illustrator changing your colors can be traced to the program’s color mode being set to RGB instead of CMYK. By switching this document setting back to CMYK, color values can be easily restored.
  • In other cases, the changes you see in your original colors when using Adobe Illustrator are the software’s way of letting you know that the color specifications you entered are out of gamut, or outside the scope of the CMYK color model.
  • In other words, Illustrator’s color management system has determined that the color as specified cannot be properly displayed or printed and it is “suggesting” an alternative (which is the off color you see).

It is important to note that the two color models not only appear different but are also suited for different types of applications. As a general rule,

  • RGB (which stands for red, green, blue) is better suited for websites and digital modes of communication because it is a color model that transmits light (as in a computer monitor)
  • CMYK (which stands for cyan, magenta, yellow, and key black) is typically the preferred color model for printed materials because these mediums utilized colored or tinted inks and dyes

Thus, the differences between RGM and CMYK run deeper than their appearance and these attributes can complicate matters when working on art files in Adobe Illustrator.

Be Mindful of the Color Management Settings in Illustrator

After investing so much time and effort into your work, finding that your color schemes have been changed by Illustrator without your knowledge can be a frustrating and disheartening experience (not to mention one that can possibly earn you the ire of your client or boss).

Fortunately, there are ways to minimize the chances of unwanted color changes from happening, to catch them early on in the design process, and to prevent them from recurring over and over again. Here are some key color management tips to remember when using Adobe Illustrator:

  • One important tip to keep in mind as far as color management on Adobe Illustrator is concerned is to keep your warning notifications turned on. This way, if any color settings are inadvertently changed (either by you or the program) you will be notified so that you can make the appropriate corrections.
  • Knowing how to restore default Adobe Illustrator preferences, including your color management settings, as well as saving proven preference profiles in a safe place in case you need to reuse them (e.g., a client you worked for in the past has another project for you and wants to use the same color palette as before)
  • Familiarize yourself with Adobe Illustrator’s color settings menu, particularly parameters that are easily overlooked but can have a dramatic effect on your project’s color scheme, such as having the color management feature turned off or set to the wrong option like Emulating Illustrator 6

Although it can take a bit of detective work to get to the roots of your particular color-related issue in Adobe Illustrator, most problems can be rectified in short order by selecting the right color model or adjusting a few color management settings.


No project in the business world, graphic design or otherwise, goes absolutely according to plan. Mistakes and setbacks happen. But with a little bit of knowledge and forethought, you can be sure that submitting artwork to your boss or client with the wrong colors substituted by Adobe Illustrator will not be one of them.