Offset vs. Digital Printing

The Print Authority has always maintained a balance between traditional offset printing and digital printing. Both processes have unique advantages.

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Digital printing used to be called ‘copying,’ but that term is now outdated.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.

The print buyer’s choice between offset printing and digital printing is driven by price, turnaround time, and the quality of the final piece. At The Print Authority, we are always happy to discuss your options when you are ready to place a print order.

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.