Offset Printing vs Digital Printing: Which is Right?

By James Rogers • Jun 4th, 2020

Business, Graphics & Design, Tips & Tricks

When you run a business, promote a service, or even just want to let people know about an event, you will probably be faced with printing. At some point someone probably even asked you if preferred to use offset printing or digital printing as your preferred method, and you may have frozen because honestly, does it even matter?

Truth be told, it does matter, and quite a bit. Obviously, there are a number of things that go into a successful print strategy, but let’s assume you had a designer (ahem) get everything ready for you, and they handed off the files as you requested. Now it’s time for printing, and you’re stuck making a choice you weren’t expecting. 

When you are in the market for business cards, brochures, postcards, posters, banners, or any other type of marketing asset, you’re going to have to figure out how to get that final design off the computer and into your hands.

Any print shop worth their salt should be able to tell you the difference between the two print methods, material options, and any extra flair you might want, but let’s assume you don’t have that kind of time. This article post will help give you an idea of what kinds of things to consider before submitting your print job, and if the printer has any questions you won’t be completely lost.

Offset Printing

What is Offset Printing?

Offset printing is the original method of printing, also known as lithography. The method uses metal plates that have the design burned onto them for each of the four main colors, CMYK. This is then transferred onto a rubber mat, and then that is rolled onto a sheet of paper. This has to be done for each color, so the paper is run through each roll until the final look is achieved. This process of not putting the ink directly onto the paper is why it is called offset. 

As you can imagine, this makes the entire process very involved, and more expensive. It also means the turnaround time is a bit longer since it takes time to make the metal plates for the job. 

Digital Printing

What is Digital Printing?

Have you ever printed something at home? That’s digital printing. Of course the print shops aren’t using a bunch of home printers to do your business card job, but the method and technology are the same, just on a different scale.

Digital printing doesn’t require the same setup with metal plates, instead using regular drums that apply ink directly to the paper or chosen material for your printed product. The biggest draw for digital printing is that there’s almost no minimum requirement for print jobs. If you want 25 business cards, you can typically but in that order without any issue.

One big thing digital printing has over offset printing is that you can introduce variable data if you need. So that print run of postcards where you need to have 200 different addresses printed? Digital printing can handle that since it’s coming from a computer. Offset printing comes from a metal plate, so once it is set there’s no changing it.

Quantity vs Quality

Usually the biggest factor between choosing offset printing or digital printing comes down to the needs of your job. Typically offset printed work is going to look better, even if just marginally. Often times it probably wouldn’t be noticeable unless you were looking for it (if you watched the video above you’ll see what I mean). 

The nice thing about offset printing is that once you have everything set up, printing is a breeze. You can easily run hundreds of prints with no degradation or variation of the final look, and everything will look crisp, clean, and super sharp.

However, most places don’t have a need for very large print jobs, so digital printing remains the best solution for budget concerns and quick turnaround, while providing a product that still looks professional and top notch.

Business Card ExamplePros and Cons of Offset Printing

Of course, just because something is faster and cheaper that doesn’t mean it’s better. There are some definite things that offset printing can offer that you just can’t get with digital printing. 

Benefits of offset printing:

  • Better looking quality - offset prints will always be clear and sharp, with easy to read type
  • Better color accuracy - because the ink is custom mixed for offset print, the colors will almost always be closer to the expectation
  • More materials available for printing - there are a wider variety of paper stocks and other materials available with custom finishes, like metallics and pantones
  • Better cost for larger jobs - initially it costs more to set up, but once the plates are made every job you do afterwards will be more budget friendly

Of course no method is perfect. Even with a resulting product that looks amazing, there are some factors that should be considered before going the route of a traditional offset print job.

Downsides of offset printing:

  • Higher cost - upfront the cost will be higher, due to the need to make plates for your design
  • Longer turnaround times - since the plates need to be created turnaround times tend to be longer (but not by much usually)
  • Mistakes are costly - if a mistake, like a typo, is noticed after the plates are made and the run has started, you have to scrap the whole thing and start again from scratch

Business Card Alternate ExamplePros and Cons of Digital Printing

Just like you have the ability to print what you need at home, digital printing through a print shop offers much of the same experience. Because you don’t have to invest in the same set up, there’s much more flexibility when it comes to getting your artwork printed.

Benefits of Digital Printing

  • Set costs are lower - since there's no plate involved the costs up front are lower
  • Lower minimum quantities - usually you can get jobs as low as 25 pieces done
  • Variable data capability - if you wanted to sub different addresses onto each printed piece you can
  • High quality color and print - digital printing is very high quality and most of the time it's more than good enough for what you actually need
  • Fast turnaround time - due to less materials needed, you can usually have your product within 1-3 business days

Downsides of offset printing:

  • Fewer materials available - less paper stock and specialty inks are available
  • Less color accuracy - digital ink is an appromixation due to how CMYK works (but it'll still look great)
  • Expensive for large volume - the amount of ink used is always the same, so large jobs can cost more vs offset printing efficiency
  • Lower quality print (barely) - when compared, offset prints look cleaner and more crisp, but it's barely noticeable to the untrained eye

So, Which Method is Best?

Ultimately, it’s going to depend on what you need to do. When you have a print job that needs to be done, take some time to figure out some basic things so you know what will work best for your situation.

How large is your print job?

If you need something like 50-100 business cards, for example, then you will probably want to go with digital printing. If you are looking at printing over 500 pieces then it’s probably worth it to invest in offset printing, since the overall cost will actually go down once the plates are made.

Do you need a fast turnaround?

One of the key things to consider is your schedule. If you need your small batch of postcards or business cards done in 2-3 days, your best bet is to go with digital printing. Because offset printing requires the creation of a metal plate, you are usually looking at a week minimum of time before you get your product. Digital printing definitely has the advantage when it comes to speed.

Are you printing on regular stock paper, or something else?

It might not have even crossed your mind, but there are more options to print materials then just card stock and vinyl material. Are you hoping to print your business cards on clear plastic, or perhaps you want metallic ink on a thick 18pt card stock? Digital printing has made great progress with the things it can do, but in cases where you want a higher level of variety and customization with your materials or ink, offset is the way to go. 

How strict are your color guidelines?

One of the biggest things that offset printing has over digital printing is color accuracy and reproduction. In most cases, it’s probably safe to say that close enough is fine for a small batch print run. You can tell that blue is blue and unless it’s really off (like when I printed blue and it turned out purple…) there’s no need to worry about matching exact colors. Sometimes however, there is a requirement that you get the colors exactly to code (usually when using Pantone), and in that case offset printing will be the way to go since the ink can be custom mixed to get the exact color you need.

Does the Difference Really Matter?

That’s entirely up to you and your client. For many, the differences are probably negligible, and unless you work in the design or print industry, the differences in quality aren’t going to stand out enough to make a difference. It’s going to usually come down to your budget, your time frame, and how many pieces you need. Luckily, the two technologies are both perfectly fine to use, and if you can find a printer that you trust to do good work (always a piece of the puzzle), then you should have nothing to worry about.

Personally, I will go with offset printing whenever possible because I prefer the tighter and more crisp final product. But, if the requirement is only for 25 pieces, then it doesn’t make sense and I will default to the process that best lines up with my needs for my current project.

And of course, if you don’t want to deal with the potential headache of learning something else you’ll only use every once in a while, we can handle all your printing needs and simply hand off your final product when it’s finished.

Have any other questions? Hit us up in the questions below!


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Creative thinking and development are just a part of what makes James tick. When he's not working on a project for a client, he's usually working on a project for himself. When he's not doing that he can be found snowboarding, hiking, or enjoying a broadway show with his wife.

 

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