Battle of the printing techniques

If you aren’t experienced in the print and design industry then understanding and making choices about how your marketing materials are printed can be a minefield. I have had many conversations with clients where I have tried to explain the restrictions of different techniques and also seen examples where companies have been disappointed by the end result because they have made the wrong decision on how it was to be produced.

So in this blog I will try and explain in layman’s terms the differences between the three main options, what they are good for and what restrictions they have and also a bit about colour.

Digital Print

What is it?         

Digital printing prints directly onto the paper, one copy at a time. Files are sent directly to the printer

Good points   

  • Cost effective for short runs (usually up to around 500), after this the cost becomes comparable or more expensive for litho
  • Faster set up than litho as no plates required
  • Ideal for personalised print where different text or images are printed depending on data variables

Bad points      

  • More limited on weight and types of paper that it can print on
  • Print quality not as good as litho (especially on some types of paper), although this does depend on the design. It is more noticeable if there are large blocks of colour or graduated tints. The quality is improving all the time, however.
  • Certain colours do not reproduce as well as other methods.
  • Quality can be inconsistent
  • Cannot use ‘special colours’ (i.e. gold or a pantone colour) or finishes such as UV varnish

Litho Print (Offset Lithography)

What is it?

This is the most common commercial printing technique. The design is burned onto a metal plate using a laser, which is then loaded onto the printing press. The design is then transferred (or offset) onto a rubber blanket and then onto the paper, card or plastic

Good points 

  • Cost effective for high volumes
  • Unit cost decreases as the print volume increases
  • Consistency throughout print run
  • Special inks such as pantone colours and metallic
  • If only printing one or two colours, especially if they need to be special colours, litho may be cheaper than digital, even at low volumes
  • Litho presses can handle larger sizes of paper

Bad points        

  • It is expensive on smaller volumes because of the cost of making the plates and printer set up
  • There is a longer turnaround on jobs
  • Colours not as bright as Screen printing (where pantones are used) as colours are made up of CYMK (Cyan, Yellow, Magenta and Black inks)

Screen Printing

Screen printing involves creating a stencil (or screen) and then using that stencil to apply layers of ink onto the printed surface, with each colour needing a separate screen. This only really applies to non-paper items such as promotional merchandise and clothing.

Good points    

  • Ideal for simple designs where colour vibrancy is important (you are printing in pantone colours rather than CYMK)]
  • Can be used on non-standard items such as T shirts and mugs
  • Simple print jobs such as a logos on promotional items
  • Great for high volumes
  • Good quality with consistency

Bad points         

  • Colours need to be flat so can’t print photographs or complex gradients
  • Limited number of colours that can be used
  • Cost of set up can be high as there is a cost per screen (colour)

Choosing the right technique

  • The first decision is usually quantity. If you are only needing 100 of something then digital is usually your best option. For quantities of 500 plus litho is usually cheaper and once you get over a couple of 1000 then litho comes in way cheaper
  • If you have a special colour you want i.e. a metallic gold or a very specific pantone colour (such as bright orange) you won’t be able to get the colour with digital so will have to bite the bullet on cost and go with litho, even if only a small volume.
  • If you need exacting consistency with every copy then litho is the best option
  • If you want a specialist finish such as gloss varnish, litho is the best choice.
  • If you need something quickly, digital is the fastest (unless it is a very large volume)
  • If you need an accurate printed proof before you commence full print then digital is the best option as litho proofs are expensive as plates need to be made in order to print the proof
  • If you want personalisation on each print then digital is the only way
  • If you want to print on special materials make sure you see samples of print from both methods as the same design printed on the same paper in digital v litho can look very different, especially matt or uncoated papers.
  • If you are printing on non-paper items then depending on your design and quantity you will either choose screen printing or digital

And a bit more about colour …

Colour is colour, you may think but unfortunately in the world of design and print this isn’t the case. For print there are two colour formats – CYMK and Pantone. You may also be used to RGB but this is not appropriate for print as it is a colour methodology for digital screens and devices. Here is a quick explanation of each

RGB (Red, Green Blue)

RGB-color-additive-modelDigital representations of colour (i.e. on your PC monitor) are reproduced using light. RGB is a light additive model meaning than colours have to be added together to produce lighter colours and ultimately white. So 100% red, blue and green = white. Red and green gives you yellow and red and blue gives you magenta. So basically nothing like the way you mix paints! As RGB is not appropriate for printed mediums, if you produce artwork using RGB it can cause problems and you will be asked by the printer to convert to CYMK

CYMK (4 colour process)

CMYK-color-subtractive-modelCYMK refers to the four colours that make up both digital and litho printing. C = cyan, Y = yellow, M = magenta and K = black. Every colour is made up of percentages of these 4 colours. CYMK is a subtractive model which means colours must be taken away to make a lighter colour. 100% yellow and 100% magenta will make a pillar box red, whereas a 10% yellow and a 10% magenta will make a pale pink.

Printing in CYMK is also called 4 colour process as each colour is applied as dots on the page one colour at a time (CYMK) and overlaid on each other to achieve the final image. If you look closely you will see that far from being solid ink, it is in fact lots of dots.


pantone-fan-spreadPantone is the brand name for a collection of colours rather than a colour technique. In effect it is like the paint charts at your local DIY shop with each colour being a ‘pot of paint’. Each colour is defined with a set colour reference so there is consistency whenever you use a Pantone and whoever prints it.

Pantones are good for what is called ‘spot colours’ and can be used in addition to CYMK so if for example you wanted a specific vibrant green on your leaflet, you may set the design up as CYMK except where there is green and that would be a 5th colour in the exact Pantone colour you want.


As you can see from this brief foray into colour and print, it is pretty complex with lots of variables affecting your choice and the outcome, so if in doubt talk to us. We are happy to explain the differences and pros and cons of each technique, show you samples and advise and what would be suitable for your job.