I remember quite distinctly a time back in 2004, when this thing called 'digital printing’ was scoffed at by ‘real’ designers. It was cheap and produced inferior results as compared to traditional offset printing. Well now it’s almost 2016 and technology has come a long way. Is offset printing still the best way to print?
What is offset printing?
Considered the traditional method of printing, offset lithographic printing uses a mechanical printing press. A metal plate has to be created for each ink color to indicate which areas of the paper should contain that color. That image is transferred (or offset) via a rubber roller to paper as the sheet is passed through. Paper must be passed through at least once for each ink color. So for a 4-color (CMYK) job, four plates will be created and the paper will pass through the press four times in order to end up with the finished full-color image.
What is digital printing?
Think about digital printing as your home office inkjet or laser printer on steroids (a print house’s digital printer is much more advanced!). Images are digitally transferred directly to paper using toner. There are no plates to create and paper goes through in a single pass, as opposed to multiple times.
How do you know which one to use? Ask yourself these questions:
What quantity do I need?
- Use offset printing for large runs (typically in excess of 500 - 1000 quantity). The higher the volume, the less expensive it becomes to print each piece.
- Use digital printing for lower quantities. Digital is cheaper for short runs because you don’t have the costly initial setup of an
offset press. Yet, you don't have the economies of scale either, which is why at high quantities there will be a point where digital crosses over
to become the more expensive option.
What size is my piece?
- Offset printing can handle larger-format pieces.
- Digital presses are limited in the size they can output. Some max out at only a 14”x 20” sheet size.
Do I have special inks or finishes?
- Offset printing allows you to be much more creative with your use of special inks (like metallic or flourescent ink) or finishes. You can also print on a wider range of substrates (like wood, plastic, or cardboard).
- Digital presses cannot currently handle special inks the way an offset press does. You are limited to CMYK inks, and can only print on paper, not other materials.
Do I need variable data?
- Variable data is what allows you to customize each piece with, say, a different recipient’s name and address on each of your postcards. This cannot be done with offset printing, so...
- This is where digital printing really shines. Variable data came about because of digital printing. It's just not possible with offset. If you want variable data on a offset-printed piece, you would need to run it again through a digital process in order to personalize each one afterward.
How quickly do I need it?
- Offset printing is a longer process, due to having to create the plates, set up the press, and wait for the piece to dry.
- Digital printing will always be faster. It also allows a print-on-demand capability, in which you only print the amount you need, when you need it.
How accurate does my color need to be?
- If you are using a spot color (like a particular PMS ink), offset printing is the only way to get accurate results.
- A digital press will mix CMYK inks to emulate your PMS color, but a perfect match is not guaranteed.
Is quality of the utmost importance?
- Offset printing is still superior in quality, although...
- Digital printing has come such a long way that the untrained eye probably won’t see much difference except through close scrutiny in a side-by-side comparison.
- Still, if you want to put your best face forward, with crisp resolution and smooth color gradients, offset remains the way to go (for now!).
And the verdict is…
For a small business’s marketing needs, you won’t have the time or budget to go top-of-the-line every time. And it doesn’t make sense to. Not every print job is equal, so you’ll need to determine your intended reach, intent, and message of each piece before you decide how it should be produced.
In a nutshell: use offset printing when you need a large quantity and want the best quality. For smaller runs, personalized data, or throwaway pieces that won’t have a long lifespan, go digital.
What the future holds
Call me old-fashioned, but I’m an offset kind of girl myself. Yet, digital printing is only going to keep getting bigger and better — and that’s exciting. In our data-driven world, marketers are now using every touchpoint to personalize experiences to individuals based on available information about them. For example, a clothing store may send you coupons for specific items based on your purchase history. As marketing continues to become more personalized, the capabilities of variable data and digital printing are going to become more and more important. So let’s see where the future leads us!