Offset vs. Digital: A Guide for Print Buyers

Ever wonder what your printer was thinking when he quoted your project full digital instead of traditional offset preprint? Here’s a look at the factors we printers consider…


Ever wonder what your printer was thinking when he quoted your project full digital instead of traditional offset preprint? Here’s a quick guide for buyers on the factors we printers take into consideration.

An Educated Consumer

By understanding the print processes available through your provider, print buyers can strategically find ways to keep budgets in check and avoid future headaches.

One basic process that regularly comes up is when to make the switch from offset to digital. Here’s our bite-sized explanation of the difference between the two for the real newbies to print:

Offset printing is accomplished through the layering of different inks (cyan, magenta, yellow, and “key,” or black). Each ink is applied in a separate process by adhering to a metal plate in the imprint of the desired image and then “offset” to a rubber roll, ultimately to be pressed onto the paper. In the digital print process, toner is used and each color is applied to the paper at once without the need for multiple metal plates.


In many cases, both techniques can be applied within the same project to allow for the greatest efficiency, particularly when variable data printing is needed. By preprinting the shell of a piece, a buyer can take advantage of the less expensive click rate (basically the cost to print a sheet) of an offset printer for higher volumes. The variable data can later be filled in using a laser printer, or inkjetting the address panel.

And since there is no simple answer for when to use which process—offset, digital, or a combination of the two—here are a few questions to ask yourself to lead you to the answer for your particular projects.

To Preprint or Not: Ask Yourself These Questions


Dual Print & Mail’s 10 color in-line foiler offset press

  1. What is your quantity?
    Offset printing requires more setup than digital (production of the metal plates being one of the steps in the setup process). For this reason, it is more cost effective to utilize digital printing for smaller-run print jobs. Minimal setup costs outweigh the greater cost per click on a digital press.We’d say our sweet spot for digital print runs generally falls below 10,000—depending on the other elements of the piece of course, such as the need for variable data printing and color matching.For jobs with quantities higher than 10,000 and all the way up to the millions, printing offset is usually the way to go. Once the press is set up, keeping it running adds minimal cost per piece.
  1. What are your color requirements?
    Colors on a digital press are created with combinations of CMYK colors, just like on an offset press. But when printing offset, you can incorporate PMS colors too. PMS, or Pantone Matching System, is a color system with standardized ink colors used in offset printing. In other words, your printer can purchase the exact color of your choosing to ensure an accurate color match to meet branding requirements, in addition to the standard CMYK 4-color process. At Dual we have a 10 color press with an in-line foiler, which means you can print with up to 10 PMS colors at once!If your branding requires exact color matching across multiple printed pieces, it may likely be worth it to you to reproduce using a PMS spot color via offset printing.
  1. How many variable elements are there to your project (i.e. multiple versions, variable imaging, variable data, etc.)?
    If you’re considering using offset printing for multiple versions of a project, now’s the time to turn to your print rep for advice on the most efficient way to run the job. Offset may work depending on quantities, but if the numbers don’t split out in a way that makes sense for offset printing, it may be time to consider digital printing.The beauty of digital printing is the ability to print multiple versions and simultaneously pull in variable data, and even variable images, all in one print run. At any time on our digital presses for example, you might find 12 different postcards printing, each with different addresses, graphics and personal data points, all on the same sheet of paper.If it’s direct mail you’re printing, it would be wise to evaluate the cost of inkjetting the addresses in a separate process as opposed to printing the addresses with the actual piece through digital variable data printing.
  1. What is the schedule of your project?
    Say your print project is large in quantity, but only so much of it is needed in small segments over a period of time. For example, you plan to send the same self-mailer monthly in increments of 5,000 over a 12 month period. If you have a safe warehousing option in place, printing 60,000 offset upfront might be more cost effective than printing 5,000 monthly on a digital press.

The Ultimate Educated Consumer: Ask Your Provider

A basic understanding of print processes is important for a print buyer, yes. But on the same token, a buyer is an educated buyer when he or she is willing to rely on the expertise of their provider.

We printers know our equipment inside and out. We are constantly looking for ways to make workflow smoother and more effective, and are bursting to share the knowledge with our buyers. All it takes is that willingness to share your goals and to be open to the options presented by the experts. You can rely on us to make choices in the print process based on your best interest.

Be sure to check out our print definition series seeking to uncover unfamiliar terms in the work of print.

About Dual Print & Mail

Dual Print & Mail ( provides high quality, green printing solutions for all your commercial print and mail needs. Headquartered in Cheektowaga, NY, Dual Print & Mail’s specialties include magazine, publication, and inline foil printing. Dual Print & Mail can be reached at 800.358.4348 or
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