Anyone in the print media industry knows that after you’ve ticked off all the boxes in your graphic design checklist, there’s a crucial decision to make: choosing between digital printing vs. offset printing.
When discussing the differences between offset and digital printing, volume typically comes to mind. Offset printing is known to be ideal for high-volume printing jobs, whereas digital is more suited for short runs. But their differences don’t stop there.
In this article, we’ll talk in-depth about the differences between digital printing vs. offset printing, including their individual benefits and drawbacks. We’ll also tackle the factors that will influence your decision and help you choose what’s best for your project. By the end of this article, you’ll get the best sense of both digital printing and offset printing so you can choose which one to use for your project.
Major Differences Between Offset Printing and Digital Printing
The main technological difference between the two printing techniques (offset printing vs. digital printing) is in how images get transferred onto the substrate. It is also this major difference that influences the cost of printing jobs, which gets passed on directly to printing customers.
Offset printing uses engraved metal plates that deposit ink onto the substrate. The metal plates — one plate for every color used in the CMYK color model — need to be etched and applied to rubber blankets or rollers that directly transfer the ink directly onto the substrate. The offset press generally needs to run for several minutes on “scrap” sheets of paper to ensure proper inking of the plates. This acts as a warm-up method for the offset press.
The initial setup cost for offset printing is significantly more expensive and time-consuming than digital printing. Your choice of substrate or printing material depends on the outcome you want for your project.
Digital printing, on the other hand, uses electrostatic rollers to apply toner and add full color onto the substrate. The rollers, called “drums,” use an electrostatic charge to attract toner and apply it onto the sheet. It is then passed through a high-heat unit to fuse onto the paper.
As opposed to offset printing that requires a considerable amount of setup time, digital printing can easily print out one sheet of paper with minimal setup. Most businesses today that print in volume and don’t change their content opt for offset printing. On the other hand, businesses that constant change print content and do frequent, quick runs choose digital printers.
Other differences between offset printing and digital printing include:
- Sheet size – Offset printing generally runs presses that are 29-inch and 40-inch sheets. Digital printing usually runs smaller sheet sizes, commonly 19-inch sheets with some machines going up to 29 inches. The increase in size occasionally allows for offset printing to cater to jobs that aren’t possible on smaller sheets such as posters, certain kinds of brochures, books requiring large covers, and other types of print media.
- Color representation – Offset presses provide certain color controls that are superior to digital printing. For instance, printing Pantone colors is more precise on offset presses as they actually use Pantone ink. This makes offset printing crucial for large corporate brands where color consistency is worth a significant amount of money.
- Turnaround time – As digital printing requires smaller setup time, it offers incredible turnaround times. Some shops even offer same-day or next-day printing.
Want a more in-depth exploration of the differences between offset vs. digital printing? Head over to the next sections.
What is offset printing?
We’ll start with the old-school option: offset printing.
Offset printing, often called lithography, is the most common type of printing for high-volume commercial projects. If you’ve ever seen videos on Youtube featuring newspapers running through big metal rolls, that’s a perfect example of offset printing.
Here’s how offset printing works:
- The printer burns the designs onto the plates – one plate for every color. Typically, the colors from the CYMK model are used: cyan, magenta, yellow, and key color black. Aside from the four primary printing colors, offset printing also lets you use custom colors such as Pantone.
- The designs are then transferred from the metal plates onto rubber rolls. The different ink colrs are spread onto the rubber, with the paper run between them. The paper goes through all the rubber rolls, layering on the colors, to achieve the final images.
If you want a more in-depth explanation of the entire process, head over to our post dedicated to offset printing.
What is offset printing used for?
Common uses of offset printing include:
- Creative printed materials for consumer goods
What about digital printing – how does it work?
If the printing industry were a high school movie, offset printing’s the popular class favorite but digital printing is the new cool kid in town.
When digital printing first came to the scene, it saw how much effort it took to get offset printing to do its job, and said, “Hell, we’re gonna have none of that.” That’s why this method skips all the mechanical steps involving proofs, plates, and rubber beds. It simply applies designs directly to the printing surface, either with powdered toner or liquid ink (check out our article on digital printing for a deeper look into the entire process).
The inkjet or LaserJet printer you have at home that’s beside your computer? That’s an example of a digital printer. Large commercial printing companies have ones that are bigger, faster, and more precise, but it’s basically the same concept.
Uses of digital printing:
- Desktop publishing
Inexpensive home and office printing is made possible due to digital processes that eliminate the requirement for printing plates.
- Variable data printing
Using print files driven by the database to personalize printed materials.
- Print on demand
Digital printing is used to personalize printing like photo books, children’s books, or any other short run books with varying binding techniques and page quantities.
Often used for banner advertising in trade shows, conferences, events and even personalized direct mail campaigns.
Digital printing has made it possible for people to retouch and color correct their photos before printing.
Advantages of offset printing vs. digital printing
- Production of larger volumes of quality material. For high-volume printing jobs, offset printing is more cost-effective. Yes, it costs a lot of money at the start, but once you’ve invested funds into creating the plates and the materials are ready to go, you’ll be spending less on large volume offset printing jobs than a digital print.
Why? It’s because the more you print with offset, the lesser you pay. For instance, a 100,000 copy job will most likely cost the same as a 10,000 copy job. The low cost alone is a sufficient incentive.
- Superior image quality. You can definitely rely on offset printing for crisp and clean images free of spots and streaks.
- Better color fidelity. As there are various custom colors and inks available, offset printing is the most ideal for packaging material, branding designs, and overall high-quality printing. Because it can mix custom color inks for each job, the accuracy of the colors and the balance in design are simply spot-on.
- Variety of materials. Offset printing works well equally on almost any type of material, be it paper, fabric, or leather. You can get as creative as you want with your printing projects.
Disadvantages of offset printing vs. digital printing
- Low-volume jobs will cost you more. If you only need a few thousand copies, you’ll still need to pay big bucks.
- Longer timetable. Since plates need to be created, offset printing cannot be rushed. You’ll need to plan ahead of time.
- No room for mistakes. If you don’t catch an error such as typos, it’ll be harder to fix and you’ll have to start the entire process all over again.
Advantages of digital printing vs. offset printing
- Faster turnaround time. All you need to do is to hook it up with your computer or any other device and you’re good to go.
- Identical prints. There’s less risk in odd variations caused by ink and water imbalances.
- Cheaper for low volume printing jobs. You only need to print 100 copies? You only pay for 100 copies.
- Room for mistakes. Spotted a typo? Just edit it and then print again. You don’t need start all over.
Drawbacks of digital printing vs. offset printing
- Less versatility. Unlike with offset printing, there’s fewer materials that digital printers can print on.
- Lower color quality. Compared to offset jobs that use custom or specially mixed inks, digital printing uses standard inks that aren’t an exact match of the colors. While digital is improving with blended inks, the inks still aren’t as accurate as offset’s custom mixes. The colors are also less sharp and crisp.
- High cost for large volume jobs. The more printing you’ll need, the more you pay.
How to Choose Between Offset and Digital Printing
Is one printing technique better than the other? We can’t really say for sure. Both methods have their own pros and cons, so it ultimately depends on the requirements of your project.
To help you determine the best method for you, here’s a rundown of questions you need to ask yourself when deciding between digital printing vs. offset printing.
Volume: how big is my project?
If your project is big enough to cover the upfront costs — let’s say over 1,500 copies — then offset printing is the way to go. You’ll achieve fantastic-looking prints that will cost less than a digital printing job.
Time: do you have a deadline?
If you’re in a hurry and your printing job is urgent, opt for digital. When you have a rush project, nothing beats the speed of digital printing. In fact, if necessary, you can have business cards or flyers in minutes with a digital press.
Offset printing just cannot be done last-minute. Press setup can take quite some time.
Material: what are you printing on?
As previously stated, offset printing allows you to print on more materials than digital. So if you’re hoping to create some unique business cards on plastic or metal, or some other unconventional marketing handouts, offset printing gives you more flexible options to run away with your creativity.
Additionally, finishing options such as embossing, foil stamping, special coatings, etc. are better suited for items printed using offset presses. Inks and toners used in digital printers aren’t as receptive to heat and pressure of embossing or foil stamping, nor to special finishes such as varnishes and UV coatings.
Proofs: do you need to see samples first?
If you need printed samples of your project before taking the plunge, digital printing has the upper hand. In offset printing, to get a color proof, you’ll have to execute the hardest parts of the project (setting up plates and ink) which can be expensive.
Color: what kind, how much, and how accurate?
Does your printing job need splashes of color? If you only need the four basic CMYK colors, digital is the most cost-effective solution.
However, if clean and accurate color is absolutely vital, opt for offset printing. Offset printers will help you achieve perfect color matches while digital printers will only give you their best approximations of the colors.
Digital equipment manufacturers are constantly trying to improve the color quality of digital output but offset printing remains in producing more consistent colors.
Offset vs. Digital Printing? It Depends on Your Project
If you’re thinking of using posters, business cards, brochures, and other printed materials as part of your marketing strategy, you already know that you need to come up with eye-catching designs, compelling copy, and a clean layout. But what’s also important is choosing between offset vs. digital printing.
All in all, it’s wise to look over the differences between digital printing vs. offset printing before choosing which method is best for your project. Bottomline is:
- Offset printing is great for high-volume jobs that require high-quality color.
- Digital printing is more ideal for urgent, low-volume jobs that only need the four basic colors.
Like anything else, don’t hesitate to get expert help! If you’re working with a designer, they can give you additional insight on choosing between digital printing vs. offset printing.
Got any more questions? Ask us in the comments!