Should You Print Digital or Offset?

I recently explored digital printing options for a client’s business card suite that I had originally designed as a spot color job back in 2009. My goal was to provide the client with a fast turn around and lower cost than running offset, because the job quantity was low.
Not very long ago, spot color printing – using the offset process – was the way to go for inexpensive printing. A one- or two-color job meant less plates, less ink and less runs through the press. Times have changed. Digital printing, in many ways, delivers good quality for less cost than offset printing. For the right project, digital will be best. But how do you know what process will be right for your job?
Let me say this with no equivocation: The means by which a print job is to be printed should be determined before the design is developed. This is because there are limits to digital than offset does not have, and the design must allow for those limits. With that in mind, let’s look at digital and offset methods.
Offset Printing
In offset printing, ink is applied to the substrate in layers via rollers. During pre-press, a full color design is separated into 4 component process colors, and a printing plate is made for each color. The plates are attached to rollers on the press. Each roller is loaded with a different color ink: cyan, magenta, yellow and black. Each roller applies its color over the entire sheet in single layers. As the sheet is fed into the press, it weaves between the rollers and emerges as a full color printed sheet. Once dried, the printed sheets are trimmed, folded, bound and packaged, depending upon the job specifications. Specialty techniques, such as die cutting, foil stamping, embossing, are performed between the printing and the bindery stages.
Digital Printing
In digital printing, the preparation of printing plates is eliminated. The printer interprets digital information fed to it by the computer. Ink is applied to the paper via a print head, which applies all 4 (or up to 12) inks in sequential passes. Color is laid down in bands. All 4 colors are applied in one band and the band is completed before the paper is advanced and the next band is laid down.
Digital is best for smaller runs, in general. If you’re considering a short run of less than 500 pieces, digital is your go-to in cost-effectiveness, as long as you’re running a standard size of something. An off-sized piece, or the incorporation of special effects such as foil stamping and spot varnish, will require an offset process.
Pricing for digital jobs is static per unit. While the cost per unit might be higher than in an offset job, the overall cost of a short run  is less than for the same quantity run offset.
Pricing for offset is variable. The more units printed, the lower the cost per unit. It’s like getting a quantity discount.
Digital printing has a limited sheet size. The largest sheet size for a digital press is 13 in x 19 in. Anything larger than that, and you’re into large format or specialty printing (displays, posters, banners, etc.) Paper size limits the design options for a printed design. For example, you can’t run a 10 in x 22 in. accordian-fold promotional brochure on a digital press. If you need less than 500 of those brochures, it will cost a lot to run on an offset press.
Digital has limited stock options. That rich, creamy cover stock you love for your one-color business cards will not work on a digital press in most cases.
Paper companies manufacture stocks specifically for digital printing. However, the choices are limited when compared to what’s available for offset. Some papers are specific to a certain printer brand. An HP Indigo will prefer a different line of stock than an Epson 4800.
Digital is a 4-color process. You cannot run a limited color job on a digital press. Spot colors can be estimated by using percentages of cyan, magenta, yellow and black inks, but they will not exactly match a spot color. Designers specifying Pantone® spot and process colors have known this for years.
If the print job has heavy coverage, meaning that colors are solid and dense over the paper’s surface, banding may occur. Banding is the result of uneven ink coverage, and can be subtle or blatant.
One issue I often run in to with digital is registration. Colors don’t align properly and there is a “glow” of yellow into a white shape, for example. This means the print head is out of alignment, creating pesky artifacts that soften the overall look of the design, and lower the quality of the job. They’ll be very obvious under a loupe. Perhaps most of your customers won’t notice, but some will.
Variable Data
One huge advantage of digital over offset is the fact that you can personalize or customize individual items in the same print run. Sales and campaign letters, special offers, and other promotions take advantage of customization, which offset cannot provide.
When you need the job quickly, digital is your choice. A brick and mortar digital printer should be able to turn a standard job in 48-72  hours. With offset printing, you should expect a minimum of 7 business days to complete the job. Online printers will also fall in the 7-10 business day range.
Digital Offset – the Best of Both Worlds
The digital in digital offset refers to the means by which the artwork is separated into 4 colors, and how the printing plates are created. It’s been known as computer-to-plate. It eliminates separation films, stripping and spotting. Rather than separating color with a process camera during prepress, the designer provides a digital file, such as a PDF, which is then separated on the computer. The separations are output not to paper, but to printing plates. From that point on, it’s traditional offset printing.
In summary, if your print quantity is less than 500, if it’s a standard size piece, if you need it quickly, if paper stock is whatever works best, and if color accuracy, registration and overall print quality are not primary concerns, use digital.
-by Alvalyn Lundgren @2015. All rights reserved.

Alvalyn Lundgren

Alvalyn Lundgren is the founder and principal of Alvalyn Creative, an independent consultancy providing brand strategy design and bespoke illustration for more than 30 years. She is the creator of Freelance Road Trip — a business school and podcast for creative freelancers. She teaches design and design practice on the college level with design schools and programs.