Digital vs. Conventional (Offset) Printing: What’s the Difference?

If you’ve got an ambitious print project coming up, you might be wondering what your options are for execution. The debate arises: Which is the better choice, offset printing or digital? The answer depends on the logistics of your project. Each method has its own set of bragging rights, in addition to its flops.

Want a better understanding of what’s what? You’ve stumbled upon the perfect blog. Take a look at how these opposing printing methods stack up against one another—and how their differences could affect your finished product.

How It Works

Before we dive into the pros and cons of each printing method, let’s take a look at how these printers function as different technologies.

What most distinguishes offset printers from digital printers is how an image gets transferred onto its material. Offset printing uses etched metal plates to apply ink: Each plate carries one color, all of which are etched and applied to rollers that ultimately transfer the inks onto the print material.

Offset printers are more expensive and time consuming to set up than digital ones, which make use of electrostatic rollers called “drums” to apply toner. From there, an electrostatic charge passes through the drums to attract toner density, followed by the fusion of toner and material by means of a high-heat unit. Some digital printers, such as the HP Indigo division, run electromagnetic ink, providing the look, feel, and quality of offset printing.

Beyond the technical jargon, what does this all mean for you? Now that we have a better understanding of the fundamentals, let’s take a look at how these differences affect the quality, quantity, and cost of your print projects.

Conventional (Offset) Printing: The Pros

Versatile Print Materials

When it comes to printing your design onto uncommon materials or with special inks and finishes, offset printing does it best. With this method, you can print upon a multitude of paper types and surface finishes. You can use fluorescent or metallic ink. The options are limitless and are certain to impress—digital printing methods can’t allow for as much versatility.

Color and Image Quality

Offset printing is capable of producing near-perfect replications of images. For graphic designers, this method is preferred, as the computer-to-plate system allows for some of the highest accuracy and quality of image transfers.

Additionally, offset printing produces true colors—if your project calls for Pantone color accuracy, this traditional method is up to the task. Because digital printers rely on a four-color printing process to simulate color accuracy, they can’t produce the perfect match that offset technology can.

Conventional (Offset) Printing: The Cons

Costly for Low Volume Projects

While this method produces gorgeous results, its beauty comes with a higher price tag. Unless you have a high-volume project, you’re going to sink some significant change into offset printing. Be mindful of your parameters before you decide on this method.

Harder to Personalize Projects

If you’re running a customized campaign to feature different text, colors, or finishes per unit, anticipate a long turnaround time from your offset printer. Unless your design is static, you’ll have to factor in the setup time and cost of each template change throughout the printing process. This method isn’t recommended for projects like diverse marketing campaigns.

Digital Printing: The Pros


The digital age is lightning fast, regardless of what technology you consider. Printing is no different. Offset printing has its perks, but there are no shortcuts to its sluggish setup and turnaround time. If your project is on a tight deadline, you can bet on digital printing to get the job done.

Cost Effective for Small Projects

If your upcoming project is low volume, digital printing is the more cost-effective contender. Because the setup cost is less than that of an offset printer, you’ll celebrate a cheaper bill if your digital print project is under roughly 500 units. Coupled with the perk stated above, your print project could be faster AND cheaper than offset printing, depending on your parameters.

Accuracy of Proofing

As is the case with low-volume projects, running a sample or proof of your project is much cheaper when it’s produced by a digital printer. In addition, digital printing samples are more reliable replicas of the final product than samples produced by offset printing, which is less likely to make picture-perfect copies time and time again. If you’re looking for pinpoint consistency, go with digital.

Customizing Projects (Without Slowing Them Down)

Oh no! Last-minute updates to your design? With an offset printer, you’ll take a greater hit in terms of cost and time to restart your printing process. Tweaks and customizations are much easier to implement with digital printers. To that end, if you’re diversifying your copy for a marketing campaign, you’ll enjoy quicker and more cost-effective results with digital printing.

Digital Printing: The Cons

Costly for High Volume Projects

It’s an obvious opposite to the “pro” stated above: While low-volume projects will celebrate the full scope of benefits without costing an arm and a leg, any digital print orders requiring a significant number of copies will cost more than alternative methods.

Ink Absorption

The technologies implemented to print an image digitally result in poor absorption rates of ink. While you may not notice the difference, you run the risk of cracks in your ink near the edges of your finished product. This issue isn’t common, but it’s good to be aware of it.

And Your Champion Is…

Now that you know the pros and cons of digital and offset printing, which method are you more likely to use for your next print project? If you’re still on the fence, we’ll help lead you to the better option:

If you need your project completed with true color and image accuracy, special materials or finishes, or produced at a high volume, choose offset printing.

If you need your project completed efficiently, at a lower cost, and with ease of customization and proofing turnaround, choose digital printing.

(P.S. No matter which method you’ve chosen, why not work with us? B Squared offers state-of-the-art digital and offset printing technologies with 24/7 service and graphic design consultations. Contact us today to get started on the print project of your dreams.)