WHAT IS DIGITAL PRINTING?
I’m sure you have a good idea of what digital printing is; most of us have home or office printers, and the digital printing I use on invitations is similar, but with a fancier and bigger printer. Unlike offset or letterpress where printing plates are involved, digitally printed things are printed directly from a digital file on a computer. Digital printers transfer four colors of ink (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) to paper simultaneously, producing a full-color print after only one pass through the printer – meaning that each piece of work takes less time to print and is less expensive to produce than other printing methods. Unlike letterpress, which leaves a relief impression, and engraving, which produces raised text, digital printing produces a flat image without any texture.
Digital printing is the most commonly used printing method because it’s fast and inexpensive. Since printing plates aren’t required, it’s a cost effective way to print a low number of pieces and you aren’t limited to the number of colors you can use in one piece. That means it’s a great way to reproduce scanned imagery (think collages, hand drawn illustrations, or paintings).
THE PRINTING PROCESS:
There are two common digital printer types: laser and inkjet. Laser printers use laser beams, electrical particles, heat, and a plastic particle called toner to create an image, whereas inkjet printers spray ink from cartridges directly onto the paper.
Typically, laser printers handle type and graphics better than inkjets, and inkjets are better for printing photographs. If you’re purchasing a home printer, inkjets are less expensive up front but the ink cartridges can make them more expensive in the long term.
Fortunately, getting proofs of digitally printed work is inexpensive or even free, so if you’re going the DIY route it pays to try different companies to find one that works. You’ll also want to make sure the company you work with can print on the exact paper you choose, and will pay attention to details like perfectly centered invitation borders if they’re doing the cutting and folding for you.
Digital printing does have limits: papers must be able to withstand heat and to go through a curved or straight path in the printer, which means you are limited in paper weight and thickness. Also, the lighter paper weight can give a more casual feel than other printing methods, like engraving or letterpress. But saving money on the printing process can mean extra room in the budget for things like belly bands, envelope liners, and envelope printing. And if you’re reproducing handmade images, it’s often the best (or only!) route to take.
LITHOGRAPHY PRINTING (OFFSET):
Offset printing is often confused with digital printing – both are four-color flat printing methods, but the process is quite different! While offset printing is incredibly common, the printing process and procedures are often not well known.
WHAT IS OFFSET PRINTING?
Offset printing is one of the most common flat printing techniques, wherein ink is transferred from a plate to a rubber blanket, then back to the printing surface. Like most types of printing, offset printing is a mix of art and science. Although the process is very technical (the science part), the press operator also carries a lot of weight in achieving the desired outcome of the printed piece.
Offset printing (or lithography) is what you probably see most often in your day to day travels. It is often used for direct mail postcards, business cards, brochures, pocket folders, signage and, yes, greeting cards and stationery. Offset varies from other print methods in many ways including technology, process, cost, material options and turn around time.
THE PRINTING PROCESS:
Once the files are in place a proof is prepared, which will give a very close representation of what the final printed piece will look like. It is never exact, as the process of making the proof is different from the offset print process. In addition, often times the proofing material is different from the stock that will be used on press which can vary the color slightly. Once the proof is approved, the job moves onto plating. Metal plates are made that get “hung” on press. There is one plate for each color used (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black – aka CMYK – to make four color process, or any Pantone Color for a single color job).
The stock will be cut to the size of the press it is being run on and depending on the size and scope if the project it can run for as short as 30 minutes or as long as multiple days. Once the press run is complete, bindery is the next stage. That could mean, die cutting, scoring, stamping, numbering, folding, stitching, etc. This can be a multi day process as ink needs to dry before you can finish a job and get it boxed for delivery.
DIGITAL vs LITHOGRAPHY PRINTING:
Offset is typically considered the gold standard for quality, although the process is longer and it can be more expensive depending on the quantity being printed. Offset printing also allows for more material options. Digital printing is quick and can be less expensive especially when printing smaller quantities, however, the image quality might not be 100% accurate. Most offset printers offer digital printing, so always check with your printing representative to gauge your options!
Offset printing is the highest quality flat printing process available, and there are many paper stock and material options for offset printing. Projects can also be tweaked for color adjustments on the press during the run. Like other artisan printing methods, such as letterpress and engraving, you’ll find better pricing value in higher volume jobs. Conversely, offset printing requires a more expensive set up time, which can be an issue for smaller projects. Offset printing also requires a longer turn around time. My best advice is to get a good referral to a printer! It doesn’t have to be in your area (although it may help). It is super important to find a printer that is invested in YOUR project and understands the exact outcome you are trying to achieve. If the printer is a good and honorable one, they will give you all of the options and recommend the best one, even if it’s not something that they offer. It is important to keep in mind that all printers have different niche’s, some have smaller presses, some have larger and your project may or may not be an economical fit for their equipment. Don’t be afraid to ask them if your project is a good fit for them.
Choosing the right print process: lithographic or digital?
Commercial printers offer a range of different print processes suitable for different types of jobs. Each process has advantages and disadvantages over the others. In this article I look at each of the print processes and examine how they work and what their advantages are.
LITHOGRAPHIC PRESS (LITHO):
- Most cost effective for large print runs (500+)
- Unrivalled print quality
- Most flexible in terms of printing stock, inks and finishes
- Can print up to A1 size
- Long turn around time
- Expensive for short print runs
DIGITAL PRINT PRESS:
- Most cost effective for small print runs
- Print on demand
- Very fast turnaround times
- Noticeable drop in print quality (but technology is improving)
- Less flexibility than litho print
- Can only print up to A3 size