Offset vs digital printing

Clients often ask which is better, offset or digital printing? The answer depends on what you mean by “better.”  Each have their strengths and downsides, and choosing the best option requires smart design and planning. Once you understand the differences, you can see that both are great options.

What is offset printing?

Offset is the conventional or traditional printing method which uses ink and plates and all kinds of nice papers in all kinds of nice sizes.  You can specify 1 color, 2 color, 4 color, special inks, film coatings or varnishes. There are many steps to set up the press for such high quality, customized printing. It may take a few weeks from the time you hand over files to the time it actually prints, but once that set up is complete, you can have thousands of pieces printed in a matter of minutes.

What is digital printing?

Digital printing is toner-based. I tell clients that it’s basically great quality laser printing. Color comes in cartridges of cyan, yellow, magenta and black so the color is always “full color.”  Relative to Offset printing, there is no “set-up” beyond basic preparation. Paper choices are limited to what can fit in the particular printer. There are some sophisticated machines that can handle sizes up to 12 x 18 and even trim and staple in line.

Advantages and disadvantages of offset

Offset is great because the press can accommodate any kind of paper. Paper with texture, different weights and sizes. For color, you have access to PMS solids and metallics and neons; none of these are achievable with CMYK alone. Your press can do a “double hit” of a color which means running an ink twice to increase the richness of the color in a piece to make the black “more black.” The downside to Offset is cost and time. The set up of these massive presses involves a lot of technology and people for proofing and pre-production, which makes the first unit of your job very expensive. While the speed with which it handles the remaining 9,999 units, makes it very cost effective in the end.

Advantages and disadvantages of digital

Digital jobs can be turned around in a matter of days and it’s perfect when you only need 12, or even 300 copies of a brochure. At these quantities, digital is definitely the best choice and the lower overall cost. The only downside is that you’re limited in your choices for paper, ink and finishes. If you have a piece where there is a lot of color coverage, Digital can show streaking or “banding” which your printer should minimize. There can also be a slight sheen or gloss in some areas caused by the fuser oil in the machine. And if you have a quantity greater than say 1000, Digital printing may actually be more expensive than going with Offset.

Digital vs. offset in summary

Digital vs Offset. So if the race is short, your quantities small, and you’re okay with limited options, Digital is the winner.  If you have a larger quantity, need the custom attention and quality of a press, and can plan for 2-3 weeks in production, then Offset, absolutely.

Clients are sometimes surprised when we ask about printing and quantities in our very first meeting to design a report or brochure. It almost seems too soon. The reason we do is because the choice between Offset and Digital printing impacts the timing of the project, the cost, as well as the design.