This is a blog post I wrote for a client in the offset printing industry explaining the differences between offset and digital printing. I have about 7 years of experience working in the printing industry and plenty of expertise from which I drew for this piece.

For most of your printing needs, either offset or digital printing will be best suited. However, there is no single and simple answer to the question which of these two most common printing technologies is better. While it is true that the right choice of printing method for your project can save you time, money and stress, you will have to decide on a case-by-case basis whether offset or digital printing is best suited for your needs.

Offset printing is the traditional and conventional online printing method and has changed very little in the past century. Digital printing is a sector with rapidly evolving technology and new technical advancements every year, so there is a constant growth of new options and features for commercial printing. It has also introduced some confusion for customers and graphic designers on what is possible, better or best practise. Since the right choice of printing method depends on several factors specific to the job or product you want to create, and understanding of the advantages or disadvantages of digital and offset printing is definitely helpful. In the following, we will give you an overview of what you need to know to decide on digital vs offset.

To the untrained eye, a finished print product of either offset or digital printing can look very similar. As a rule of thumb, some people say that offset printing will offer better quality, but that is only true for some aspects, for example when you do one print run this month and another one month later and need both to look exactly identical. Rather than focusing on quality alone, the choice between the two methods boils down to factors such as material available, time, cost, finishing and custom options.

What Is Offset Printing And How Does It Work?

Offset printing derives its name from the fact that the printing technique is not direct. The ink for the image is transferred (“offset”) from a printing plate onto rubber and only then to the printing surface. The so-called lithographic process is based on the repulsion of oil and water: the image to be printed is burned on a plate. Printing areas are colored in with ink from rollers, while areas not to be printed attract a water-based film. After inking, the image is transferred onto either sheets of paper or a continuous roll or wheel of paper.

Jakob writes - digital vs offset printing

An offset printing machine.

Traditionally, offset printing uses four-color printing machines with a series of four ink rollers, one for each specified ink: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black. These four colors comprise the color space commonly known as CMYK. In addition, special colors such as Pantone or PMS colors can be applied as needed. Offset machines can also have one or two rollers for just one or two color prints and grayscale, or more than four to add special colors, such as gold or silver or even a special finishing, like a varnish or glossy coat.

Offset Printing Pros

  • High image quality: It takes time to set up an offset printing machine, but this in turn guarantees a continuous quality. You can expect the first and last sheet of an entire print run to look identical. With a professional offset printer, you can also do a follow-up print run and expect identical results under the same parameters.
  • In the past, offset printing required making a film from your design to create a printing plate. Today, most offset printers use a computer-to-plate system, which further speeds up the process and has increased quality even more.
  • Colors: Offset printing is able to print true colors. That means you can select a Pantone or HKS color from a color swatch and know exactly what the result will look like. This can be a must when working with clients that use special colors for their logo or branding which simply cannot be off by even a bit. In addition, offset printing allows for special finishing or varnish to be applied as the last stage.
  • Offset printing works with a wide range of materials and printing surfaces, including paper, wood, cloth, metal, leather, rough paper, plastic and PVC as well as thick cardboard or super thin materials (“bible paper”). Offset printing can create products such as PVC business cards, scratch cards or even scratch’n’sniff cards.
  • In offset printing, the unit cost goes down as the quantity goes up, often dramatically. This is due to the initial setup of the machine and the requirement of plates. Between print jobs, the machine has to be washed if different colors are used. A larger print run will allow for more cost-effectiveness. For large print runs, offset printing will generally beat the price of digital printing, especially for products such as business cards, flyers, cheap poster printing or promotional material.
  • An offset printer is generally also well-equipped for the further processing of your print job, meaning trimming, collating, folding, binding, stamping or embossing your print product.

Offset Printing Cons

  • Not suited for small print runs, unless you’re willing to assume a relatively high cost for the making of the plates and machine set up. Depending on the type of print product, a minimum number might be 500 or 1,000 (for products such a business cards or flyers).
  • Due to setup and maintenance, the turnaround of offset print jobs may be longer than their digital counterpart. For urgent jobs, digital may be best, but if you have 24 hours, offset provides the highest quality results.

What Is Digital Printing And How Does It Work

Digital printing describes printing methods where digital images or data (your print file) are processed by a computer and sent directly to the printer. This can be an inkjet or laser printer, or even a thermal printer with special paper or printing wax, which are sometimes used for photos. Whereas inkjet and thermal printers directly print on the media, laser printers commonly use a transfer ribbon and static electricity to transfer the toner onto the paper, after which it is fixated using heat. The static electricity and heat are the reason sheets can leave the laser printer charged and slightly warped.

Digital printing does not require the numerous setup steps of offset printing, as there are no plates involved. Laser and inkjet printers use a four-color-matching process and the CMYK color space. Color laser printers typically have one toner cartridge per color, whereas high quality inkjet printers used for fine art prints often have a variety of nuances, for example light Cyan or photo black.

Fine Art Printing

Jakob writes - digital vs offset printing

A large format digital printer using ink.

Fine art printing is a noteworthy subset of digital printing. An image or file is directly transferred to an inkjekt printer. Machines are usually suited for large format and feed from a roll of material, though individual sheets are also possible. The materials for fine art printing include traditional and nontraditional media. It is possible to use fade-resistant, pigment-based or solvent-based inks and print in archival quality. Typical materials are various photo papers, watercolor paper, treated or untreated canvas, rice paper, substrate-based paper (containing metals), and cloth or fabric.

Digital Printing Pros

  • Shorter turnaround: Depending on the size of your print job, you can expect a finished product fairly quickly. Digital print professionals use high-volume laser printers, and walk-in places can offer you same-day service for a variety of products and print jobs. For products such as business cards or flyers, any quantity below 500 units is typically considered well-suited for digital printing. So are quantities below 10 units for poster printing.
  • Digital printing is the go-to method for on-demand printing, especially when only a small number or just a single unit of a product is needed. Digital printing can also be used to quickly produce dummies before an offset print run. For fine art prints, digital inkjet reproductions can be printed (and sold) individually according to demand. An individual color correction for each piece becomes possible, as well as artists owning and operating their own inkjet printers.
  • Fine art printing offers artists new possibilities for mixed-media work. They print on materials such as canvas and further treat or work on the surface, making each print an “original.” Fine art printing also offers reproductions of “archival quality” or “museum quality.”
  • Cost: digital printing allows for cheaper low volume printing, both with laser or inkjet printers. Depending on volume, product and material, there are certain constellations where digital printing is able to offer a cheaper total cost than offset printing.
  • Time: compared to offset printing, the setup cost per print job is minimal. Digital printing is able to produce a first printed sheet within minutes and it is possible to make on-the-fly adjustments to correct colors.
  • Variable data: With digital printing, it becomes possible to customize each printed product. For example, you can insert successive numbers on tickets, print an address on letters, postcards or stickers and further customize print products. Variable data printing is generally used for marketing, customer relationship management and advertising.

Digital Printing Cons

  • Cost: Digital printing generally has a higher cost per unit compared to offset printing. This is somewhat offset by the setup costs, and very often, by the time factor. Digital printing is a fast solution. In fine art inkjet printing, reproductions or prints are also more expensive on a per-print basis.
  • Limited Size: A digital laser printer can only accommodate individual sheets of about 19 inch by 13 inch. Large format inkjet printers commonly use rolls between 36 inches and 44 inches in width. Recently, industrial-sized inkjet machines can create prints up to 126in x 126in.
  • Material: because digital laser printing uses heat to fixate the toner on the paper, a certain warping effect can occur. Generally, this is more for the printer to worry about, but it introduces limitation on the material. The weight of paper can range between 60g/m² (.2oz/ft²) and 300g/m² (.98oz/ft²), while some machines are able to print on 350g/m² (1.15oz/ft²) or even 400g/m² (1.31oz/ft²) stock. Digital printing is not only limited to paper and can print on adhesives or some durable material, but the choice of options is more limited than for offset printing. For best results, laser printers require a smooth surface of the material.
  • In digital printing, not every print is the same. In large print runs, a difference or shift can occur, and results can vary depending on paper, machine calibration and even humidity. It requires a skilled printer to ensure quality and continuous results. It is also more difficult to produce two identical print runs on different machines or even the same machine. The varying factor often becomes apparent in large areas of a single color. With offset printing, you can expect a homogeneous single color, but digital printing often displays a certain cloudy effect.
  • Colors: Digital printing can only print grayscale or CMYK colors and is not able print true special colors such as Pantone, PMS Colors or HKS colors. It is possible to achieve a close match, but digital printing is thus ruled out if a client requires an absolute Pantone match, for example. Digital printing cannot print colors such as gold, silver, or even white. At the same time, the color of the material will definitely influence the final result, which is especially true for laser printers. A yellow paper will give the final image a slight yellow tint, for example. It is therefore not possible to print on black or dark paper.
    Lower quality: this is a debatable point, as high quality laser printers are able to achieve high quality results. The fact is that in digital printing, the print data has to pass through the RIP, the raster image processor, where it is converted to bitmap. With low quality printers, you will be able to see a pixelated effect, but high quality machines use dedicated RIPs for great results. However, there are limits regarding the minimum size of text or thickness of lines.
  • Further processing: digital printing can produce flyers or bindings just as well as offset printing. However, certain limitations might apply, depending on the material. When a flyer is folded many times, the printed toner can break at the folds, which can be unsightly especially in large areas printed in a single color. Offset printing does not have this problem.

    Jakob writes - digital vs offset printing

    Digital printing can only print grayscale or CMYK colors and is not able print true special colors such as Pantone, PMS Colors or HKS colors

Digital VS Offset Printing: How To Choose Your Method

As you can see from the advantages and disadvantages of digital vs offset printing, there is no single option that is best for all use cases. Instead, you will have to decide anew every time which printing method is better suited for what you are trying to achieve. You will have to weigh the many different factors, such as price, quantity, timing, size and material. As general advice, work backwards from the type of print product you want to create, taking your budget and timeline into account. Also involve your printer as early as possible so you can clarify any doubts regarding the necessary print files.

Your print professional and the following checklist will help you decide on the right method for your individual print job:

  • Quantity: How many units will you need? Offset printing offers lower unit costs with increasing quantities and will always be your choice for large runs of business cards, flyers or simply promotional material. Very short runs can be much more cost-effective with digital printing, while larger quantities are likely to have a lower unit cost with offset printing.
  • Material: As a rule of thumb, offset printing offers you more choices and flexibility and is able to create some products or print on materials that digital print simply cannot achieve. Digital print is continually catching up there and fine art printing offers great choices as well, so you will have to decide what your needs are.
  • Color: If your needs can be realized within the CMYK color space, digital printing is still in the race. If you must have special colors, offset printing becomes a necessity. On the other hand, if you only need a single color or two colors, offset printing might be more cost-effective.
  • Turnaround: If you need it fast, digital printing can offer quicker delivery, although many offset printers provide 24 or 48 hour service at a surcharge.
  • Customization: Only digital printing is able to personalize each individual unit. It is a very affordable way to customize marketing materials, direct mail pieces, letters and postcards. Printers know this, of course, and are often able to offer mixed solutions: a large print run for thousands of postcards, for example, can be offset printed and then customized digitally, if necessary.

This article first appeared on the Chilliprinting blog, where you can also read other examples of my work.