Every custom printing project is unique. The variables from each print run always differ. Some runs require extreme detail, sharp colours, and mid-to-large quantities, while others might require a super short turnaround time, variable text, and exact proofing.

Designers and print buyers must consider everything in the printing process for optimal results: quality, budget, time, and volume are all key factors in print buying.

The two most common forms of printing services that print buyers and designers struggle between are digital printing vs. offset printing. Both have their strengths – and weaknesses – depending on what you’re looking to get out of your print project.

To make an informed decision, we’ve highlighted some of the features of both printing methods, and where each will provide the highest value to the print buyer.

digital press

When to Choose Digital Printing

Digital printing involves taking a design in the form of an electronic file, and printing the piece directly onto the medium.

The simplified process in producing work digitally means faster turn-around from digital artwork to a tangible print product. For projects with very tight deadlines, digital printing is unmatched in fast turnaround times.

Budget is always a concern in print buying, and plays a major factor in the decision making process. While digital printing can be a cost effective alternative, thanks to eliminating the need for make readies and plates, it is economical only for low volume print runs. When the print quantity ramps up, the individual price per unit increases with it almost pro-rata. Therefore, it’s best to consider digital printing services for smaller runs, typically under 500 units, otherwise you’re likely better off with offset.

One of the major advantages of digital printing is variable data capabilities. With digital printing, each page in the run can be unique and personalized when required, without significantly slowing the print run down. For marketing lists, direct mailers, or any form of targeted materials, digital printing allows for customized and personalized marketing campaigns.

The final area in which digital printing shines is in the accuracy of proofing it provides. Hard copy proofs can be created quickly and cost-efficiently on the actual paper that you choose. The hard copy proof you receive is exactly what you’ll be getting in the final print run, so there won’t be any surprises when you receive the finished product.

offset press

When to Choose Offset Printing

If there’s one advantage offset printing firmly holds, it’s the quality of the print produced. It’s unparalleled in resolution, gradients, and vibrant colours. Offset printing isn’t limited to just CMYK colour options, but opens the door for the Pantone Matching System (PMS), too. Exact branding colours can be accessed through the PMS system, rather than the limited four colour process of digital printing – offset is simply in a league of its own here. Wherever image quality is a major player, offset printing scores major points as the preferred printing option.

In addition to the quality of the product printed, offset printing allows for a much wider choices of papers. Digital printing has limited stock choices, while thinner/thicker, fancier textures, or specialty paper options are all available in offset printing services.

Due to the time it takes in preparation and press setup, offset printing requires a longer turn-around time, especially for smaller runs. But when it comes to high-volume print runs, it is much faster and more cost-effective than your digital option. Once the set-up and plates are complete, rifling off more copies becomes drastically cheaper and quicker since the most cumbersome part of the process is done.

To help simplify the decision-making process, compare these 10 key elements between digital vs. offset printing to determine which fits your next custom printing project.

Offset Digital
Quantity Mid-to-High; 500+ copies Low; >500 copies
Page Size Up to 58” x 81” Limited size; even the latest digital presses can only accommodate 14.33” x 26”
Colour Pantone Matching System (PMS); CMYK CMYK
Turnaround Time Longer; drying time, maintenance, setup, and specialized inks as required Shorter; best for immediate needs
Price Print higher quantities at lower costs; cost of printing low quantities is more expensive Print lower quantities at low costs; cost-efficient for print runs under
500 copies
Quality Highest image quality; sharp resolution, no streaks, produces gradients, vibrant colours, consistent quality on multiple print runs Image quality and colours dependent on digital print machine; results may
vary on multiple print runs
Variable Text Not available in offset printing Yes; can produce variable text or images where each page is unique in a personalized way. Ideal for mailing lists, direct mailers, customized marketing materials
Special Ink Metallics, fluorescents, PMS colours No. All colours fall under CMYK scale
Print Surfaces A range of printing surfaces; very thick/thin papers, textured paper, specialty papers, etc. Limited stock choices
Proofing Colour accurate proofing, although not on the actual paper Most accurate proofs; what you see in proofs is an exact sample of printed
project. Printed with same process as final project

Neither offset printing nor digital printing is objectively better than the other. Which type of printing to opt for will always come down to quality, volume, budget, and turnaround time. Balance which factors are most important for your print project, and the decision will be a lot easier!

Enfigo’s Custom Printing App seamlessly selects the most efficient way to produce your projects, based on your overall specs. Try it out today, and start with an Instant Quote. Contact us to learn more about how we can help you sort through your printing options.