Offset vs. Digital Printing

By April 10, 2015 Studio News No Comments

Printing is complex, and I’m not a professional printer who knows all of the technical details of each and every machine, but I do send a lot of work to the printer, and this is what I’ve learned over the past decade or so.

Digital printing is great for small runs—typically quantities of 750 or less. Brochures, small perfect bound books, saddle stitched brochures, post cards, variable printing, etc. Digital printing is quick, and affordable compared to printing a similar small project on an offset press. The process allows the designer and client to print a more reasonable­—and some would argue—sustainable quantity, that avoids overprinting a piece that ultimately ends up in the landfill. Plus, if you need to print a second run, the setup charges are minimal in comparison to offset.

Colors on a digital press are typically limited to CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black) so no spot colors (Pantone, etc.) Paper options are fairly open with a preference for digitally calibrated sheets, but digital presses are often limited in size, maxing out at 13”x19”.

If you hit the jackpot, your printer will have a 29.5” digital press—swoon!

In my opinion, every tiny detail about a digital press affects its final product. For instance, the difference between Canon, Xerox and HP of similar machines can produce dramatically different results. So a designer will need to look at a variety of samples printed on different printers throughout their career and find a digital press that they like the results, and gravitate towards it.

A major pet peeve of mine is when the toner sits on top of the paper in a big sloppy heap. It can make dark hair look unnaturally heavy and fake, and you can physically feel the layers of toner, ruining the final look of the end product.

I’ve determined that I personally have a thing for HP Indigo presses. For me, they are the best merge of digital convenience with a sophisticated finish similar to offset. To the untrained eye, I think it would be really difficult to tell the difference. Of course, you have to find the right printing company and pressman to assure that will get the results that you seek. A seasoned pressman will know the machine so well, they can push and pull the machine’s settings to achieve desired results.

Offset printing (also referred to as traditional printing or offset lithography) produces very high quality results, can handle large sheets, various substrates, large quantities, multiple spot colors, varnishes, various types of inks (water, soy, traditional)—just about anything you can think of. An offset press allows the ink of a printed piece to bond with the paper, rather than sit on top of a sheet like toner based digital systems can. The paper absorbs a bit of the ink and creates a sophisticated, gorgeous finish whether you are printing on coated or uncoated stock.

Good offset printing is an incredibly powerful creative tool.

Almost all professional print shops will have Heidelberg presses—the industry standard in offset printing. What this means is that there are fewer unexpected results when printing offset versus digital, since its not so dependent on the make and model of the press, but more dependent on the experience of the pressmen and customer service representative.

Offset printing pros:
+ High-quality image replication
+ Wide variety of substrates (paper, wood, cloth, metal, leather, plastic)
+ Larger runs/high volume
+ Larger size
+ Spot colors
+ Specialty printing techniques and varnishes
+ Price per unit goes down as quantity increases

– More setup time
– Press time/press check
– Longer turn-around time
– Drying time

Digital pros:
+ Cost-effective for smaller runs
+ Variable printing (custom names, mailing addresses)
+ Fast turn-around times
+ Consistent prints throughout run
+ Less waste
+ No drying time for ink
+ Accurate proofing

– Size limitations
– No Pantone colors (PMS), but matching can be close
– Print quality can vary greatly from machine to machine, and isn’t as refined as offset printing
– Potential for ink cracking on folds

So, should I print digital or offset?
Well, that depends on what your end goals are, project specifications and budget. A great printer rep will be able to help you navigate the subtle differences in a job that can push a digital job into an offset project and vice versa. With a little experience, a designer will get a sense of how a project will need to be printed.