An understanding of the pros and cons of digital printing versus traditional offset lithography is crucial in deciding which process will maximize your next printing project.

Offset Printing

Offset lithography may be the most trusted, high-volume business printing technology.

In offset printing, the image is first burned onto a plate, and then transferred (or offset) from the plate to a rubber blanket, and finally to the paper. The lithographic process is based on the principle of oil and water repelling one other. The image to be printed is inked through ink rollers, with the non-printing area coated in a film of water to keep that space ink-free.

Digital Printing

If you have a desktop printer at home, then you’re already acquainted with the mechanical procedure of digital printing. Most of the mechanical actions necessary for offset printing are removed (namely color proofs, plate making, and press set-ups), which results in a more affordable print solution.

Digital Pros and Cons:


  1. Shorter turnaround. Short setup time, zero drying time for inks.
  2. Lower costs for small print runs. Affordable solution for short runs under 3000 copies.
  3. Availability of adjustable data printing (data-source driven; e.g. e-mail lists).
  4. Can be printed on a number of mediums including metallic stock, plastic, textured paper, etc.


  1. Larger quantities exceeding 3000 copies could be more expensive.
  2. Not all Pantone® colors can be reproduced.
  3. Cannot reproduce metallic inks.
  4. Weight and size of stock is limited.
  5. Coating options are limited.

Offset Pros and Cons:


  1. Higher picture quality, resolution.
  2. A wide range of paper weights, textures, and sizes.
  3. The production cost falls as the quantity rises. Large print runs exceeding 200,000+ copies can be produced efficiently.
  4. Quality and cost-effectiveness in high quantity jobs.
  5. Allows for the most variety in terms of color re-production. Bright florescence, Pantones®, metallics, and varnishes can all be reproduced seamlessly.
  6. Many contemporary offset presses make use of computer-to-plate technology, thereby increasing quality.


  1. Setup time is slower, and many more production steps are required.
  2. Plates costs are expensive.
  3. Price of printing low volume (under 3000 copies) can be more expensive.
  4. You cannot print out one, singular copy as a sample or prototype.
  5. For quality results, a skilled press man is essential.
  6. A lot more attention to detail is required to ensure that the quality of the prints are acceptable. An experienced graphic designer and pressman working collectively can ensure the very best results.

Use the checklist below to choose the right process for you next print project:

Offset printing includes a front-end price load, meaning short runs (low quantities) might have a higher per-unit cost. But because quantities increase, the machine cost falls with offset printing. Extremely short runs could be less expensive with digital printing, while bigger quantities will likely have a lesser per unit price through offset printing.

Printing Medium
Do you need or want a particular paper, complete with unusual printing finishes, or unique size? Offset printing can provide the most flexible and highly customized finishes.

Digital presses use four-colour procedure (CMYK) printing. If you’re only looking for dark ink or a couple of ink colors, offset printing may be the more cost-effective solution.

If you want four-color printing however, digital may present advantages in lower up-front costs. That said, a few progressive offset printing companies are actually offering rich full-color printing, without added plate/setup charges for additional colours.

If you’re choose to print using the Pantone Matching System, offset printing will provide you with the best match, because it uses actual Pantone ink. Since digital printing simulates the colour utilizing a four-color matching procedure, some digital printers may give less accurate color reproduction on projects.

If you want it fast, digital offers quicker delivery on average. Then again, a few offset printers claim their turnaround times are as brief as one day.

Digital gives more accurate proofs, since everything you see is a real replica of the printed piece, created using the same process as the intended work.

For offset printing, if you want hard proofs, an accurate colour proofing may become expensive.

With simple database-driven variable data printing, digital printing offers the least expensive way to customize marketing components, direct mail pieces, letters, etc., with a different name/address or quantity/code on each published piece in the same print run.

So what’s better for you – digital printing, or offset printing?

Digital print packaging offers faster turnaround times, and significant cost savings.

But, it isn’t flexible enough for too many customized finishes like custom colours including metallics, matte coatings, etc. It does allow for a certain level of ease when online ordering, and proofing.

So if you ordering simple and straightforward packaging, take advantage of the digital process.

Offset print packaging allows for highly customized designs, and provides an economical production method for large volume orders. However, it also comes with expensive tooling and set-ups. The proofing process tends to be lengthy and mistakes are costly once the order is in production.

It is best suited for larger ordering volume, and when you need highly customized designs.

Now that you’re equipped with the knowledge to differentiate between digital and offset printing, you’re ready to get started on your next print project!

The 5th Colour provides both digital and offset printing services to meet the growing demands of our customers. Contact us today to learn more about our services, or if you have any more questions about the digital or offset processes.

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