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What are the differences between offset printing and digital printing?

Offset vs. Digital Printing – What is the difference and why you should care

What are the differences between offset printing and digital printing?

Traditional offset printing is produced on a printing press using printing plates and wet ink. This type of printing takes a little longer to produce as there is more setup time and the final product must dry before finishing can take place. At the same time, offset printing traditionally produces the highest quality available on the widest variety of stocks and offers the highest degree of control over color. Further, offset printing is the most economical choice when producing large numbers of prints of a few originals.

Digital printing used to be called ‘copying,’ but that term is now outdated. Today, instead of copying a hard copy original, the vast majority of digital printing is output directly from electronic files. Digital printing is the quickest way to produce short runs, especially when there are a many originals. The quality level of digital printing is now extremely close to offset printing. Although digital printing works well on most stocks today, there are still some papers and jobs where offset printing works better. There are also some stocks and jobs where digital printing will perform as well as, or better than, offset printing.

If you’re in the market for brochures, business cards, posters or other marketing materials, you already know that you’re going to need to come up with the perfect design, color scheme, copy and layout. However, even after you’ve checked off all of those boxes, there’s another very important decision to make: choosing between digital vs. offset printing.

In this post, we’ll cover the differences between the two printing techniques and show what their benefits and drawbacks look like. We’ll also list the factors that should go into your decision as you choose the best process for your project. And naturally, we’ll look at some examples so you can get the best sense of both digital and offset printing in action.

What’s the REAL difference, and does it matter?

So, what’s the distinction between digital and offset printing? Printing is printing, right? Not exactly… Let’s take a look at these two printing methods, their differences, and where it makes sense to choose one or the other for your next print project.


What is Offset Printing?

Offset printing technology uses plates, usually made from aluminum, which are used to transfer an image onto a rubber “blanket”, and then rolling that image onto a sheet of paper. It’s called offset because the ink is not transferred directly onto the paper. Because offset presses run so efficiently once they are set up, offset printing is the best choice when larger quantities are needed, and provides accurate color reproduction, and crisp, clean professional looking printing.



Digital Printing

What is Digital Printing?

Digital printing doesn’t use plates the way offset does, but instead uses options such as toner (like in laser printers) or larger printers that do use liquid ink. Digital printing shines when lower quantities are needed; think of a run of 20 greeting cards or 100 flyers. Another benefit of digital printing is it’s variable data capability. When each piece needs a unique code, name or address, digital is the only way to go. Offset printing cannot accommodate this need. Learn more about digital printing options and capabilities.

While offset printing is a fantastic way to produce great-looking print projects, many businesses or individuals do not need large runs of 500 or more, and the best solution is digital printing.

Offset printing

Offset printing, also called lithography, is the most common kind of printing for high volume commercial jobs. Ever seen videos of newspapers running through big rolls? That’s offset printing.

Here’s how it works: First, the printer burns the design onto metal plates—one for each color. Typically, four colors are used (cyan, magenta, yellow and black (key), abbreviated CMYK), but offset printing also allows for custom ink colors (most notably Pantone colors) to be used instead.

Next, the design is transferred from the plates onto rubber rolls. The different colors of ink are spread onto the rubber and then the paper is run between them. The paper goes through all of the rolls, layering on the color, to get the final image.

The benefits of offset printing

  • Superior image quality that is reliable. Count on offset printing for clean, distinct type and images without streaks or spots
  • Better color fidelity, which refers to both the accuracy of the colors and their balance in the design. Because offset printing can mix custom color inks for each job, it’s naturally going to get the colors spot-on.
  • Works equally well on almost any kind of material.
  • For large volume jobs, you get more for your money. It costs a lot to start an offset job. You have to invest money into creating the plates, which takes time. However, once you’ve invested it, all of the materials are ready to go, and you’ll actually spend less on big offset jobs than a digital print, which is about same per piece no matter how big the job gets.

The drawbacks of offset printing

  • High cost of low-volume jobs
  • Longer timetable since plates need to be created
  • Worse fallout in case there’s an error. If you don’t catch a typo on a plate and ruin a batch it’s harder to fix and the process starts all over again

Digital printing

When digital printing came onto the scene, it saw how much work offset printing was doing and the mechanical steps it required, and said, “nah.” This technique skips the proofs, plates and rubber bed and applies a design directly to the printing surface, either with liquid ink or powdered toner.

The inkjet or laserjet you hook up to your computer at home? That’s a digital printer. Large printing companies have ones that are bigger, faster and more precise, but it’s the same concept.

The benefits of digital printing:

  • Faster turnaround time
  • Each print is identical. You risk fewer odd variations caused by imbalances in water and ink.
  • Cheaper for low volume jobs. The price per unit drops for offset printing, so at some point they criss-cross.
  • Changing information within a single print job. For example, say you were printing out postcards advertising a concert. You could dactually change the dates and locations for part of the batch to create two sets of cards for two shows.

The drawbacks of digital printing:

  • Fewer options in materials you can print on
  • Less color fidelity is possible with digital printing because digital jobs use standard inks that cannot exactly match all colors. Offset jobs use specially mixed inks, which will always be a closer match. Digital is improving and getting closer with blended inks, but those inks still do not match as well as a custom mix.
  • Higher cost for large-volume jobs
  • Slightly lower quality, sharpness and crispness

How to decide between digital vs. offset printing

If you’re still not sure whether to use digital vs. offset printing for your next project, run down this list to focus in on the right choice:

Volume: how big is the project?

If your project is big enough to overcome the front-end costs—and by that we’re typically talking over 500 pieces—offset printing will give you an advantage. You’ll get a great looking print that will likely cost less at a high enough volume.

Time: are you in a hurry?

Digital runs away with the prize. Offset printing just can’t be done last minute.

A stylish vertical business card printed in custom colors on clear plastic? Definitely a job for offset printing. 

Material: what are you printing on?

Are you hoping for some unique business cards on metal or plastic? Or an unusual marketing handout on some other surface? Digital options are more flexible than ever before, but offset printing still has a leg up.

Color: how much, what kind, and how true?

Does this job need color? If it’s black and white or just one or two colors (and the volume is high enough), offset printing may be the right choice. If you need basic four-color printing, digital may be the best, most cost-effective solution.

However, if perfect color is absolutely essential (for example, if you need to use the Pantone® Matching System), use offset printing. The offset process uses actual Pantone® ink for a perfect match, whereas digital just gives you its best approximation of the color.

Custom work: Do you need something special?

How unique are you getting here? There’s no doubt that digital printing is the easiest, cheapest way to customize your projects, even within the same printing.

Proofs: will you need to see a sample first?

If you need to see a printed sample before taking the plunge, digital holds the advantage. To get a color proof for an offset project, you’ll need to execute the hardest parts of the project (plates and ink), which gets very expensive.

Type: what are you printing?

Business cards, thank you notes, cards or invitations?

Black and white or just one or two colors? If yes, and you need more than 500, choose offset.

If yes, but you just need a few, choose digital. Same goes for full color. Digital is the way to go…

Posters or book jackets?

If so, you’ll need higher quality printing to make the images look perfect. Go with offset if you can.

High-volume newspapers or newsletters?

Offset printing is the way to go.

A high volume job that needs precision like newspapers or lots of newsletters is ideal for offset printing.  

In conclusion:

While personal preference certainly plays a role, the differences between digital vs. offset printing allow you to make some smart decisions when you’re choosing which method will best serve your project. Like anything else, working with a designer can give you a great deal of added insight, so if you’re still not sure which is best for your project, don’t hesitate to get expert help!

Knowing when to choose offset printing or digital printing usually depends on the following factors:

  • Price. Although there is no hard rule in our operation, a run of 1,500 pieces is usually the “break even” point between offset and digital printing. Generally, if a run is under 1,500 pieces, digital printing is most cost-effective, since the price per click is lower than the setup costs associated with offset printing. One exception to this rule is where variable data or multiple originals are involved. For books or magazines with many pages, it may make sense to print them digitally even at higher volumes since digital equipment collates the sheets together and saves offline bindery steps.
  • Quality. Offset printing is sometimes a higher quality option for heavy solid ink coverage or delicate gradients (shaded areas). Our chemistry-free Heidelberg® plate system which uses a patented hybrid dot pattern (a hybrid of stochastic and conventional screens) further eliminates moiré patterns and banding associated with delicate screens. Additionally, pieces produced with digital printing are more subject to ‘cracking’ when they are folded, particularly if they are printed on cover weight stocks. Modern creasing equipment minimizes this risk, but it is still something to be considered. At the same time, digital printing quality has advanced greatly, and some people prefer the vibrancy of digital color.
  • Color. If your company requires strict color adherence to Pantone® (PMS) or “spot colors,” you should choose offset printing whenever possible. Digital printing approximates PMS colors, but true PMS colors are offset inks which have been premixed to maintain exact color whenever printed. Digital equipment manufacturers are continually improving the quality of digital output, but offset printing, especially with PMS ink colors, will produce more consistent results over time.
  • Paper. Traditionally, offset printing equipment handles greater variety of papers such as extra light or extra heavy stocks, and textured stocks. Typically, digital presses are best running standard weight papers since many finishing functions, like folding and stitching, are completed in-line. Printing on highly textured papers like linen, laid or felt, may look better when produced on offset printing presses. (Toner used in digital printing does not always lay down properly on highly textured stocks.) On the other hand, digital press manufacturers have made great strides accommodating heavier weight papers and synthetic stocks in recent years. We can now run up to 18 point stock digitally. Simple paper stocks like bond, offset, gloss, dull, index, etc. can be either digitally printed or offset printed.
  • Special processes. Finishing options such as foil stamping, embossing, special coatings, etc. are usually better suited for offset printed items. Digital inks/toners are not as receptive to the heat and pressure of foil stamping or embossing, nor to special finishes such as varnishes, aqueous or certain UV coatings.
  • Variable data. Many printing projects involve variable information, also known as variable data, being used on otherwise identical printed pieces. Letters with different names and addresses or postcard with different images for different recipients are good examples of variable data. Digital printing is better for this type of work because changing images is much easier from sheet to sheet.
  • Speed. When you have a rush project, nothing can beat the raw speed of digital printing. In fact, if needed, you can have flyers or business cards in minutes using a digital press. At the same time, if you need a long print run of an item with no variable information, offset printing can be much faster once the press is setup because offset presses usually run faster. In addition, many modern presses employ dryers or special coatings to make print dry quickly for rapid finishing.

Is offset printing better than digital printing?

It’s a question many have asked before, and the answer is not as clear and straight-forward as you might think. The answer, of course, is “yes and no.” Let’s explore the differences between offset printing and digital printing to see which is king when it comes to printing your marketing materials. Offset printing has been around for more than a century, and for decades it was the best way to print just about everything commercial: newspapers, magazines, booklets, advertisements, postcards, brochures and more. Generally speaking, offset printing works by transferring ink from a plate to a rubber sheet, which then rolls the ink onto paper, vinyl or other surface. This is in contrast to digital printing, which does not use plates to transfer ink to paper.

Offset vs. digital

In general, offset printing is regarded as being of higher quality; however, digital printing has made strides in respect to quality and two copies of the same design – one via offset printing, the other via digital printing – may appear identical to the untrained eye. Offset printing presses also allow you to print larger sheets and can print many pieces quicker than digital printing presses – again, generally speaking. Outside of those relatively minor differences, the actual finished product associated with offset printing versus digital printing are remarkably similar. The difference, as it turns out, is rooted more deeply in price and budget than anything else; and even these numbers are contingent on your business needs

Better plate than never

Since offset printing uses plates, every print job has to be made into a plate, and the press has to be individually set up for each individual job. This process costs money and adds an upfront fee to your print job regardless of quantity. Since digital printing does not use plates, no setup fees are involved so you pay a flat price per piece.

Short runs vs. large runs

Here’s where it gets interesting, and noteworthy for small businesses seeking to maximize their return on investment: For short runs, digital printing negates a setup fee so it can be far more economical than offset printing. However, because offset presses can print so rapidly your offset price per piece is not static – it diminishes with quantity. Thus, for large runs offset printing becomes far more economical than digital printing because your setup fee is absorbed by the diminished price per piece. Depending on the type of project you’re printing, digital printing is typically the best choice when you’re printing fewer than 500 to 1,000 pieces; and offset printing is typically the best choice when you’re printing more than 500 to 1,000 pieces. You can research the differences per project type using PsPrint’s instant price quote widget. Keep in mind that many resources that publish information regarding offset printing versus digital printing have a vested interest in one or the other; but when you work with a printing company that has state-of-the-art printing presses for both offset and digital applications, you can get unbiased recommendations that work within your budget, quantity and quality requirements so you can get the best possible print job for your money – whether it’s offset or digital.