What is the difference between offset and digital printing, and why should you really care?

The short answer: offset printing is more cost-effective for large runs and digital printing works better for short runs. The difference lies in the technology used to print. Some people might tell you: choose digital printing for a job if your print run is less than 1,000. Use offset for more than 1,000. But it really does depend on paper type, turnaround time

For the longer answer, let’s take a look at each process in depth and determine which print jobs would be better for each process. This way, when you talk to your commercial print partner, you can come to the conversation with greater understanding and confidence in your knowledge.

What Is Offset (also known as ‘Lithographic’) Printing?

Offset printing works by transferring ink from an etched plate to a rubber blanket, which rolls the ink onto the paper. Working on the science that water and oil do not mix, a lithographic process occurs, and the offset press creates your image. This process happens for each individual color used. All colors can can be created using the CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) mix, plus any individual Pantone colors or metallic inks your branding requires.

More significant set up is required for offset printing, which makes it a smarter choice for larger jobs. Remember, the printer takes your image and transfers it to a plate. For each individual job, plates need to be made, and this takes more time and setup.

Despite the high setup cost, offset presses can print so rapidly that your price per piece is not fixed. It lessens as quantities go up. Therefore, for large runs, offset printing becomes much smarter for your budget than digital printing, and you don’t even notice the set-up fee.


What Is Digital Printing?

Digital doesn’t involve ink. Digital printing uses electrostatic rollers called drums to apply toner onto the paper. Images are transferred to paper using lasers, positive and negative static charges and either dry toner or liquid suspended toner particles. No plates need to be created, and the process allows for varying images and information to be printed. Digital printing allows for faster turnaround times, lower production costs for smaller runs and allows for personalization and customization.


Factors to Consider Before Choosing Your Printing Option


Though in the past offset printing was the choice for quality, digital printing technology has come a long way in order to compete with offset finishing and quality. Digital printing tends to produce more precise color palates than the offset printers. With at least four plate presses, registration can sometimes be an issue. Digital printing also provides high contrast images with very vibrant colors. However, offset printing shows very solid screen colors as opposed to the digital prints. Digital prints may crack and flake, especially when the paper is scored or creased.

Digital Printing vs. Offset Printing – Why Knowing the Difference Can Save You Time and Money


With digital printing, there is no use of plates, thus the time that could otherwise be used during offset printing is considerably reduced. Also, as soon as the printer stops printing, the ink dries. This means the print outs can be cut and bound immediately. During large scale printing jobs, offset printing is faster since it rolls through the paper very quickly. Digital printing is not as fast, as it prints one line at a time.


Offset printing is best for larger print jobs because the pre-press process and use of plates can be pricey. When the units of production are low, the cost becomes too high. Whereas when the volume is high, the cost is quite pocket-friendly. A trustworthy commercial print partner will be able to give you unbiased advice on which method will give you the best value per piece. As a rule of thumb, think offset for 1,000+ pieces and digital for less than 1,000 pieces.

Paper Selection

It used to be that only certain paper types could be used in the digital printing process. Nowadays, that list of paper types has grown, but there are still limitations. The maximum weight most digital printers can take is 350GSM. For anything heavier or more textured, you’re best using offset printing.


Personalizing your marketing materials is a great way to get attention from your clients. People love to see their names in ink. In addition, customizing (or versioning) your pieces for different audience is a particularly important practice for delivering highly relevant messages. Say, for example, you are a senior living facility. You may have one version of your brochure for caregivers and another version for patients. Using customization, you can create one brochure with two different versions. In these cases, digital printing is the way to go. Digital printing allows for each image to be varied and can allow for variable data printing. Offset printing does not allow this flexibility.

In Closing

Digital and offset printing have their own pros and cons that may prove useful to different businesses on different occasions. Both options provide for their own unique benefits and features. The best option would be to consult with your commercial printing partner on what method to use for what job and - better still - work with a company that provides both options for flexibility. The top printing companies will give you the best guidance on which option will work best with your project.

Now you have the information to begin that conversation with knowledge in your corner! 

Written by Lynne Kingsley

Lynne Kingsley oversees the digital marketing client services team as well as the marketing strategy division for the company. Since joining the company in 2016, she has increased Ironmark’s digital presence by over 700%, establishing a new lead generation mechanism for the sales team. A certified inbound marketing professional and HubSpot agency partner, Kingsley has been helping companies transform their marketing function into fully diverse and streamlined growth engines since 2003. With agency and client-side work under her belt, Kingsley’s strategic experience spans both the B2B and B2C sectors. Prior to joining the Ironmark team, she served as in-house marketing director for several non-profit organizations. Kingsley is an honors graduate of the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communication at Syracuse University.
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