Digital or Offset? When you order printing, sometimes you really don’t know or care how it’s done, just that it looks good. Be assured we can recommend which method suits your job best, but if you’d like to know more about the differences between digital and offset, this post is for you.

What is Offset Printing?

Two pictures showing the negative litography stone and the resulting positive print, with an old map of Munich. This is the origin map, with the north tower of the Frauenkirche in the lower corner. All other maps of this series are referenced to this corner. The map also shows the Hofgarten and the Englischer Garten. Due to the nature of the printing process, the negative shows everything in reverse. Picture taken as part of the Lange Nacht der Museen in Munich

Two pictures showing the negative litography stone and the resulting positive print, with an old map of Munich. This is the origin map, with the north tower of the Frauenkirche in the lower corner. All other maps of this series are referenced to this corner. The map also shows the Hofgarten and the Englischer Garten. Due to the nature of the printing process, the negative shows everything in reverse. Picture taken as part of the Lange Nacht der Museen in Munich

This Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons image is from the user Chris 73 and is freely available at //commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Litography_negative_stone_and_positive_paper.jpg under the creative commons cc-by-sa 3.0 license.

Also known as offset lithography, (wikipedia link) this is a process used to print on a flat surface using printing plates. At its start in 1796, limestone was used as a printing plate. (This was a trivia answer in our ACG Interprint Project last year.) There is one plate for each color – for example, full color pictures require four plates. Ink adheres to the plate in the image areas. The plate is rolled onto a cylinder applying the inked areas to the cylinder and then that cylinder rolls over the paper, applying the image. The term “offset” is used because the plate doesn’t come into direct contact with the paper. The plate is used over and over, applying the image to the paper throughout the press run.

What is Digital Printing? An image (page) is sent to a laser- or inkjet-based printer directly, without the need of a printing plate, saving time and money. As little as one print can be made since there is little setup material and cost. It also is faster to produce.

How to choose.

The first thing is size. The limitation here is 12 x 18 inches plus a little extra all around for “bleed” to be trimmed off the edges. If your document is bigger than 12 x 18 then it definitely must be printed offset.

Next, quantity. As a rule of thumb, quantities lower than 500 are most economic when printed digitally. Over 500, the cost difference between offset and digital gets smaller. The reason for this is simple: digital printing has a fixed cost per print and there is very little setup cost, while offset printing has significant setup cost, but reproducing the same thing doesn’t cost much more once it’s setup – mostly the cost of more paper, so the larger the quantity, the less cost per-piece.

Personalization. If your document has personalized (also called “variable”) text and/or images – for instance a postcard that has different addressing, personalization such as “Hello, Bob!” and even different imagery based on information in the database – then each print is truly unique, and that type of printing must be done digitally.

The final thing to consider is appearance. While digital printing rivals offset in color and quality, there are some differences. To name a few:

Large areas of flat color, either solids or screens, is challenging to produce digitally; while designing for digital, it’s good to keep that in mind. Either limit the use of large areas of flat color or break up the those areas with a pattern or image.

Reproduction on uncoated or textured papers. When printing offset, ink soaks into uncoated paper giving it a more muted look and softer feel than on coated papers. This cannot look exactly the same printed digitally. Digital printing is done with toner instead of ink, it sits on top of the paper and doesn’t have that muted look or color. (This is an advantage at times. More on this on a future post.) Toner also doesn’t always reach the recessed areas in textured paper and fine type and line art can break up when printed digitally on textured papers. Offset printing is suited to the largest variety of papers.

Very detailed imagery is another thing to consider when choosing digital or offset. We have a special screening for offset printing that is incredible for detailed pictures like jewelry, wood furniture or clothing, to name a few. It’s call Taffeta stochastic screening. The images look more like photographic prints than paper prints, since the dots used to print them are extremely small. However, thanks to ever better technology, smaller and better toner particles allow near offset look and feel.

That pretty much sums it up! The choice is yours, but always know that we’re just a call (724-539-4545), or an email (info@lvgraphics.net) away.