Printing Basics: Offset vs. Digital

printing paraphernalia

When printing your marketing materials, there are two basic options to choose from: offset and digital. 

Offset printing uses ink applied to metal plates and transfers the inks one color at a time as the paper travels through a series of rollers. Offset printers come in a variety of sizes based on the number of ink colors that can be printed at one time and the size of the sheets that are run through the press. Most offset presses are either 1-color, 2-color, 4-color (usually Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black, or "CMYK") or 6-color (e.g. CMYK plus a spot Pantone color and a spot varnish). 

While there have been advancements with ink formulas, the basic technology behind offset printing hasn't changed much in recent years, and it continues to be a great option for printing at higher quantities (typically greater than 500), or when color matching is a high priority. Since the bulk of the expense in offset printing comes from the creation of the plates and the setup of the press, the price per piece goes down significantly as the quantity increases. For example, you may find that the cost estimate for 1000 pieces is only a few dollars more than the estimate for 500 pieces. Turnaround time for offset pieces is usually 7-10 business days but can vary greatly depending on several factors, including the supplier's workload.

Digital printing is evolving every day and is an ideal choice for lower quantities and/or when personalization or customization of each piece is desired. Digital presses typically operate much like a high-end color copier, using toners with CMYK inks to achieve the desired color effects. 

Thanks to recent advancements in digital printing, special print effects like foil stamping, embossing and spot varnish that used to only be available through offset are now achievable on a digital press, as well. Digital printing is usually priced per piece and is not as significantly affected by a quantity discount. For example the estimated cost for 1000 pieces will usually be around double the cost for 500 pieces. Because there are no physical plates to be made, any necessary revisions are relatively easy and inexpensive. 

Happily, digital printing presses have created full-color production capabilities that are much more affordable than in days past! Turnaround time is usually faster than offset, typically 3-5 business days. Since turnaround is quick and low quantities are easy to accommodate, this is a good solution when an "interim" piece is needed, or if a client does not want to store excess materials.


  • More cost-effective for larger quantities (typically greater than 500)
  • Better for color matching, compatible with Pantone inks (PMS colors)
  • Often (but not always) sharper image quality
  • Higher setup fees 
  • Slower turnaround time
  • More extensive paper stock options
  • Printable on larger sheets (good for oversized jobs or ones with extensive folding)


  • Better for quantities of less than 500
  • Great for customizing and personalizing materials
  • Typically has a faster turnaround
  • Ideal choice for invitations and seasonal materials
  • Full-color pieces for much lower cost than full-color offset
  • Bonus:  Now you can add special printing effects like embossing, silk screen, foil stamping, and spot varnish on some digital presses.


When deciding whether or not a job should be offset or digital, the first thing we check is quantity. If quantity is 300 or less, our first choice is always digital. Next, we look at the physical size of the piece. If the flat (unfolded) size is larger than 18"x 22", we usually must print offset. We then consider the client's timeline, budget and any needed special effects, die-cuts or folds.

More recently, the majority of our projects have been printed digitally. Letterhead, business cards, brochures and invitations are prime candidates for digital production. We love the flexibility of being able to affordably order only 100 business cards, for example, until a client's website is finished, when we then add a web address to the card for a second printing.  We do still design many pieces for offset, and we always value the quality and craftsmanship that goes into a fine offset piece. It is a special process working hand-in-hand with account representatives and press operators to achieve refined results on our larger offset jobs.

Whatever your needs, we can always help you find the best solution!

- Kelly