difference between digital and offset printing

While the majority of baby boomers and Generation X business owners are somewhat familiar with offset printing options, most millennials equate printing with digital printing. In fact, offset printing options not only provide better, higher-quality results, but it is also an affordable printing method, often the best way to go for large-scale projects. 

Learning more about the difference between digital printing and offset printing, as well as their pros and cons, will make you a more informed customer when you head to a preferred printer for your next order. 

Digital Printing

Digital printing is the product of the technological era, and the result of humans wanting to eliminate more work at the outset to gain a more efficient, final product.  

Digital printing processes begin when you or your graphic designer create an image/document on the computer, save the file, and send it to a digital printer. The printer interprets the document code and uses liquid toner or ink to recreate it on the page. While you can do this at home or in your office, professional printers have the highest-quality and largest-format printers available, and the results are far superior to even top-quality home or office printing options. 

Digital printing is the way to go when you require a quick turnaround, you need multiple, low-volume copies, and when the quality needs to be great but not necessarily crystal clear. In other words, digital is a great option for those windshield flyers, paper invitations, or the 200 tradeshow flyers for a booth. 

Pros of digital printing:

  • Faster turnaround time 
  • You get identical prints, with fewer variations 
  • You can easily change what you’re printing, i.e., 100 copies with one date/time and then a quick computer edit to print an additional 100 with a different date/time 
  • Cheaper for lower-volume (less than 500) projects. Interestingly, after the 500 mark, digital printing costs equal – and then exceed – the cost for offset printing 

The disadvantage to digital prints: 

  • Less choice of printing materials 
  • More expensive for lower-volume jobs (less than 500) due to initial setup charges  
  • There can be lower quality in sharpness or crispness of shapes 
  • Fewer color selections since printing colors are standard and can’t be mixed or matched to your companies color scheme/branded shades 

Offset Printing

Offset printing has existed in various forms for thousands of years, enhanced with technological advancements. For offset printing, we take that same original image or text from your design, and we recreate it via an etched plate. These days, those plates are typically lightweight and recyclable aluminum. 

Then, we use the plate to transfer the image to a rubber blanket (similar to rubber stamps) and set the color parameters. To create precise colors, we use the basic four colors – cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (abbreviated CMYK) – and mix them to achieve custom color results. 

Each blanket is paired with its custom ink color. Then, the paper (or medium of your choice) is rolled through each of the blankets to achieve the desired results. If you’ve ever seen newspaper print (lithography) in action, where big sheets of paper are rolled through machines, you have an idea of what offset printing looks like. 

Pros of offset printing:

  • By and large, the #1 pro of offset printing is the superior print results – sharp, clear, and crisp 
  • Accurate colors 
  • Works on virtually any material 
  • More affordable for large-scale printing (500 or more), at which point initial set up costs fade into a lower, per/print cost than digital 

Disadvantages of offset printing:

Some of the drawbacks include: 

  • More time to set the project up  
  • You can’t make single changes per sheet, so projects where each page requires a different date, varying presenter names by dayindividual barcode, etc., are not possible as these would require separate plates/blankets 
  • Proofs must be absolutely perfect because once the plates are made, any typos noticed after printing meaning starting the setup (new plates, blankets, colors, etc.) all over again 

Tips to Decide Between Digital and Offset Printing

Here are some questions to ask when determining whether your project is best suited for digital or offset printing methods. 

What’s the due date?

If this is a rush job, digital is the way to go since it requires virtually zero setup time. There is no way to do “last minute” offset printing. It’s an art and a science. 

How big is the job?

We all know that time is money, so the bigger the job, the more affordable offset printing costs become. After around the 500 mark (depending on your printer’s charges), you’ll typically get much better prints for equal or cheaper than digital versions. 

What are you printing on?

If your project is being printed on anything other than standard or large-format paper type materials, you’ll probably choose offset. With offset, we can print on metal, plastic, more fibrous materials, etc. 

Color specifications? 

If you want bolder, crisper, more accurate, or customized colors, offset printing is best. If the project’s colors are achievable via standard toner colors, digital printing is fine for lower-volume projects. 

Do you have to see a “live” sample first?

Unless this is a really special project, and you’re fine with extra setup fees, it’s harder to produce samples with offset printing because the plates and blankets are made per job. Each sample would require an individual setup process. 

How “permanent” is the product?

If you’re interested in printing custom “Thank You cards, business cards, door hangersor other paper products that are most likely going to end up in the trash or recycling, digital prints are best. That’s especially the case for black-and-white or projects requiring only a few, standard colors. 

If, however, you’re creating posters, book jackets, or other products designed to be framed, collected, or that may need to stand the test of time, offset printing will produce far superior results. 

Your business’s brand presence relies on the impact of your printed products. This is why it’s so important to forge a partnership with a local design and print team who can help you make the best, most lucrative decisions for your company.  

Contact SpeedPro East Bay, and our team will always steer you in the right direction when you’re out of your printing element.