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Offset Printing vs. Digital Printing: Which Is Best for You?

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Offset printing vs. digital printing—which is the better choice? In this article, we'll look at offset vs. digital printing, discussing what they are and the pros and cons of each. This article will help you decide which is best for your project.

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Stock photo from Envato Elements

1. What Is Offset Printing?

Offset printing is a popular, professional printing technique, commonly used for printed pieces like magazines, newspapers, posters, and package designs. It's very common—in fact, a lot of items you interact with were likely printed via offset printing. The printing process itself involves ink that is transferred from a printing plate to a rubber printing blanket and then onto the surface itself, like paper. 

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Example of an offset printer. Stock photo from Envato Elements.

How Offset Printing Works

Let's start with how offset printing works.

In an offset printing press, the art or design work is separated into specific colors. These separated colors are then transferred to printing plates. A sophisticated system of rollers, using both water and ink, transfers this impression onto a rubber printing blanket—which then transfers the image to the printed surface (like paper). 

However, keep in mind that that's just one color. This process is repeated for each of the separated colors. Afterwards, the pages go through a drying process, which can vary, but the purpose is to properly set the ink. The result, however, can be beautifully precise—and even cost-effective.

What Is Pantone Color Matching?

Pantone color matching, sometimes referred to as "PMS", is a color matching system. You could, for example, purchase a Pantone Color Guide and select a very specific blue—and then specify that blue in your work for an exact match. 

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Precise color matching is a benefit of offset printing. Stock photo from Envato Elements.

If your work requires this kind of precision, an offset printing press is often the recommended route. This is because the printer can match the colors based on a precise mixture of inks. Digital printing, on the other hand, can lack this kind of precision. 

Pros of Offset Printing

Offset printing offers a host of benefits that make it a very popular choice, especially for large, professional projects. 

  • Offset printing typically yields beautiful, high-quality work.
  • If you're looking for precision, offset printing tends to be a top choice, especially in regard to color matching.
  • If you have a particularly large project, offset printing can prove to be an affordable option. However, think of this in terms of thousands of copies, not a short run.

Cons of Offset Printing

However, that's not to say that offset printing is perfect for every project out there. It does have some notable drawbacks to consider too:

  • Offset printing has higher setup costs. This means that unless your print job includes a pretty high quantity, the costs aren't going to be economical for your project.
  • Setting up an offset print job takes a significant amount of work (as compared to something like digital printing). It's far more involved than something like a home office printer.
  • Your printed files will need to be properly prepared for color separation.

What Kinds of Projects Use Offset Printing?

Everything from catalogs to retail packaging can use offset printing. That's because offset printing can prove to be quite economical when printing at particularly large volumes. Newspapers are a great example. They tend to print a very large quantity. So, for a project that prints thousands of copies (especially daily!), offset printing could make perfect sense. On the other hand, if you were only looking to print 50 copies, offset printing wouldn't be a great option.

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A traditional newspaper could be a great fit for offset printing, especially due to the volume of papers printed. Newspaper template from Envato Elements.

2. What Is Digital Printing?

Digital printing is a direct printing process—meaning it doesn't need things like printing plates. This printing method is likely familiar to most people. Your home office printer is very likely a digital printer of some sort. Let's dive into what digital printing is, as well as some advantages and disadvantages of digital printing. 

How Digital Printing Works

Digital printing is typically either toner-based or inkjet-based. Toner printing is often called "laser printing" and is often associated with high-speed printing capabilities. It uses a toner that is transferred to paper with heat and pressure.

Inkjet printing, on the other hand, uses liquid inks that are applied to the paper through a print head. The ink is then absorbed by the paper. Many high-quality photo printers are inkjet printers. 

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Inkjet is a common type of digital printer. Stock photo from Envato Elements.

Pros of Digital Printing

Digital printing can prove to be a very popular choice with many pros to consider, especially for smaller projects or projects with a quick turnaround.

  • Digital printing can be very economical for short-run or smaller print quantities. There are minimal setup costs and no need for plate making. 
  • If you're looking for a quick turnaround, digital printing can be a great choice too. The time allowance is much faster—even same day with some providers.
  • Variable printing is an option too—as in, having unique names or versions within your project. Digital printing can make that a simple ask.

Cons of Digital Printing

However, let's take a look at the disadvantages of digital printing too. It does have a few noteworthy cons that could affect your projects.

  • While modern digital printing can be really high quality, it still can fall a little short of what can be achieved with offset printing—especially in terms of things like color accuracy.
  • Speaking of color accuracy, this can be a concern with digital printing. Digital printing doesn't have the same precision as offset in this department.
  • Other quality issues may arise, like inconsistencies between printed and "not printed" spaces, especially if the paper is not coated.

What Kind of Projects Use Digital Printing?

Digital printing is also all around us—but keep in mind that it's often a strong choice for shorter runs. So, for example, if you needed 50 copies of a flyer, and you needed it in 48 hours, digital printing could likely make that happen for you. Inkjet printers are often a popular choice for things like art prints too, where there may only be a handful of copies being made. One of the biggest pros of digital printing is its versatility—want to print out three variants of the same poster? You could do that quite easily with digital printing. 

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A short run of fine art prints could be a great fit for digital printing. Frame template from Envato Elements.

3. Offset Printing vs. Digital Printing

Which type of printing is "best" depends on your project's needs. That's everything from the project's specs to the quantity and your budget. 

Let's break down some of the core considerations you should think about when debating offset printing vs. digital printing. 

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Stock photo from Envato Elements

Offset vs. Digital Printing: Quantity

It's worth noting that both offset printing and digital printing can potentially print any quantity you need or want. However, it's not always practical or financially the best choice.

  • For example, if you needed 25 copies of a poster, digital printing would probably be quickest and easiest, while still yielding strong results.
  • If you needed 25,000 copies of this poster, offset printing could prove to do this cheaper than digital could—and with beautiful results.

Offset vs. Digital Printing: Pricing

Pricing is a major factor in most projects, so let's discuss pricing's role in offset vs. digital printing.

  • Quantity is going to play a major role in your pricing. Make sure to assess how many prints you need in addition to your budget.
  • Generally speaking, digital printing is a more financially accessible choice when you're printing a smaller job. Offset printing has significant setup costs that can make short-run jobs quite expensive in comparison.
  • On the other hand, if you have a very large job, offset printing can prove to be more cost-effective. 

Generally speaking, if you need a very large quantity of prints, offset might just make the most sense—the minimums to hit this threshold just tend to be a high quantity. If you're looking for something with a rather small quantity, offset would be possible but could be pretty expensive. Digital might be a better fit for smaller projects with smaller budgets.

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Stock photo from Envato Elements

Offset vs. Digital Printing: Turnaround Time

Next, let's talk about turnaround time—how long it takes to complete a printed project.

  • Offset printing tends to be a longer process. Aspects like setup and drying time make offset printing a longer time investment. If you need something with a really quick turnaround, keep this in mind.
  • Digital printing, on the other hand, can be far faster. Some digital printers will even get your entire job completed and shipped out to you in just one day. There's no worrying about plate setup or drying time, so the job is printed and done much faster.

That doesn't necessarily make digital printing "the winner"—it just means it's the faster option. If you want to go with offset printing, you'll need to make sure to plan accordingly so you have ample time to accommodate the process.

Offset vs. Digital Printing: Quality

The quality of the print itself absolutely matters—so make sure to gauge these factors when deciding between offset and digital printing.

  • Offset printing is a very high-quality option with precise color matching. 
  • Digital printing, on the other hand, is not going to have that same level of precision.

That's not to say if you have a small budget for a small project that digital printing can't give you a high-quality professional project—it can. Just be aware of the differences, and if you're not sure which you'd prefer, ask your printer for samples. 

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Stock photo from Envato Elements

But What About "Digital Offset Printing"?

Digital offset printing might sound like some kind of ideal middle ground between offset and digital printing—but sadly, it's not. It's a phrase sometimes used to describe offset printing that uses some digital techniques and technologies to automate some of the process. However, it's still generally offset printing, with the same project considerations. 

4. An Example of Offset vs. Digital Printing

Let's take what we've discussed and put it into an example scenario. In both of these, we'll say the goal is to professionally print some business cards. 

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Business card template design from Envato Elements

Example Scenario 1: Digital Printing

Let's say you're looking to print around 50 business cards for an upcoming conference, where you're planning to network with other attendees. In particular, you're looking for double-sided cards—and it might be really fun to have alternating designs on the back of each card to showcase your work.

In this case, digital printing would likely make the most sense. It's a smaller project, and the variants here wouldn't be a difficult ask. In addition, digital printing could have these cards back to you quickly—so if the event was really soon, it wouldn't be a big issue.

Example Scenario 2: Offset Printing

This time, let's say you're looking to get some corporate business cards printed. It has specific branding—with exact company colors—and you're looking to have 5,000 of them printed. You'll be giving them out both internally and externally, so you'll need a lot. 

In this case, offset printing would make a lot of sense. Not only could you color match the branding with precision, but you could also have a beautiful, professional result at a very nice price, given the higher quantity.

Need Help With Your Print Design Project?

Now that you know the difference between offset and digital printing, do you need any help with your next printed project? If so, you might want to check out Envato Elements. There are thousands of design templates, professionally designed and ready to print. The best part is, you can download all of them, without limitations, for one low price.

Check out these amazing print-ready designs you can download right now. 

1. Photography Portfolio Design Template (INDD, IDML)

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This beautifully designed template is perfect for showcasing photos, artwork, and more. Easily add your content in Adobe InDesign and you'll have a completed project, ready to print. 

2. Catalog Design Template (INDD, IDML)

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Need help putting together a catalog? This design template has you covered. With multiple pages and layouts to choose from, it's as simple as adding your content. Or use this to jump-start your design process and create something entirely new.

3. Minimalist Business Card Template (INDD, IDML)

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These classy business cards take a timeless, minimalist approach. Simply add your content, and you have ready-made business cards. Or mix it up—maybe try something different on the backs, like a pattern or sample of your work.

4. Club Flyer Template (PSD)

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These club flyers are full of energy—and it's just a sample of the thousands of flyers available on Envato Elements. Edit this flyer in Adobe Photoshop to make the perfect flyer for your upcoming event, ready to print.

5. Wedding Rack Card Template (PSD)

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How about rack cards? Envato Elements has plenty of those to offer too—and for so many different industries, fields, and occasions. These pretty wedding rack cards are perfect for advertising venues and planning services.

Learn More About Print Design Today

Want to learn even more about print design? There's plenty more to check out, right here at Envato Tuts+. Give these free tutorials a look, and keep on learning right now.

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