Digital or OffsetSo much is made of the pros and cons of each process and the cost associated with each but sometimes the most vital factor is omitted. Quantities of the run, deadline schedules and color proofs are all facets of a job that should be weighed in the decision process but they are not as important, as answer to the following question:

What Will Be My End Use of This Piece?

This is the most important question to answer in determining if a project should be offset printed or produced on a digital machine. Let us assume that our project can be produced by either process, that is, there are no size limitations or extreme stock weight that is needed. Both processes work well and have been used to reproduce just about any type of artwork. There is, however, an end use that can rule out producing your piece on digital equipment. If you plan to run your produced piece later through a laser printer it must be offset printed. Whether its letterhead, envelopes, mailing labels or a company brochure that is to be imprinted with personal information and you plan to send it through your office printer then find a way to make offset printing the affordable choice. No matter how improved digital laser printers have become, they still use extremely high heat to fuse the toner onto the surface of the paper. This heat will always start to smear existing toner that was put down on the initial pass. The more you run previously copied material through the second time, the more evident the ghosting or smudges will become.

Once we know that our piece will never see the inside of our office printer, then and only then, can we factor in the additional criteria.

The digital process works well for short run full color. When larger quantities in excess of a few thousand impressions are required then offset will probably be the more economic choice. Offset printing will produce better screens and sharper grays. Some pms colors will not reproduce very well on digital equipment and some pms colors will not reproduce at all. Specialty colors such as fluorescent or metallic inks will not work on digital equipment that use toner. The type face or fonts used in the piece is another consideration when quality is an issue. On digital equipment, type like an image, is a collection of all four colors. This process can leave type that is thin, not very crisp. This can be the case, especially when producing type that is the color of light gray. In the offset printing process, spot colors are used to reproduce the type as a solid color.

The benefits of reproducing your artwork off of digital equipment can be numerous. Coming from a print background it’s hard to admit but the quality over the past few years with the ability to use heavy card stock is awesome. If your end use is a leave behind, newsletter or some thing similar, look towards the quantity breaks. If you have to run the piece with additional variable information then printing by offset might be your only option.

Finishing of the piece is another variable that is also often overlooked when determining the best way to produce a printed piece. Coated cover stock that is run with full coverage through a digital printer can have issues when scored with a rotary scoring machine. The score will crack the toner and leave a frayed edge when folded. These issues can in most cases be eliminated if the piece is creased with a digital creasing machine or scored on a conventional letterpress. If the piece is produced using ink with an offset press then there is a bit more leeway with the options available for scoring/creasing and finishing.

The Best of Both Worlds

Offset printed pieces run fine through digital presses and you can have the best of both worlds by offset printing your blanks and then imprinting through digital equipment. This works especially well for business cards. Offset print logos, screens, heavy lines or color bars that are common to your cards and then imprint them with your employee information as needed. Business cards with quantities as low as 50 cards per employee can become feasible with this shared process. This process can hold down the cost of short run business cards without sacrificing your company’s branding.

Variables to Consider

  • Final end use of the piece (If your office printer is in the mix, offset)
  • Run length (Shorter the run the more digital looks like the right choice)
  • Time considerations ( Digital is by far quicker)
  • Variable information (Digital for variable now, Offset if variable later)
  • 14.3 x 26 (Largest size readily available for digital output)
  • 130# cover (Heaviest stock weight commonly run on digital equipment)
  • Finishing (Score or fold and it's digital.... get a sample)

Conclusion

If you are confused by the two choices or would just like to get another opinion, then seek out a professional in the print field. Be careful, there is a well known precedent in this business to recommend a process to unwary customers that is coincidentally what their company is primarily set up for. In other words, your professional will recommend something that they can do in-house. This can leave you with a more reliable choices or methods, still on the table.. If time allows, be prudent and diligent and seek unbiased opinions, they are out there if you know where to look.