Digital versus offset 4-color process printing?
February 7, 2007 2:48 PM   Subscribe

What is the difference between printing digitally vs. offset printing (when the printer outputs to film)? Can you design with full bleeds for digital printing? Do solid colors come out wavy or streaked with the digital process?

As may be obvious from my question, I haven't overseen a printing job in a long time and would imagine that is much cheaper nowadays to not have to produce the film and actually mix the inks. Is that the case? Is the product as good as the old process? Apologies if my terminology is not 100 percent correct, but there seems to be some confusion over these terms even among people who do this for a living.

Also, can you recommend reliable printers in either the Seattle area or the Oakland/Bay Area who will do small runs of simple things like brochures and one-sheeters?
posted by _sirmissalot_ to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
(Or is there a web-based print shop that is trustworthy?)
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 2:52 PM on February 7, 2007

You can design with full bleeds as you would any offset job, but the quality of the product depends on a few things, most notably the type of printer they're using. You will also have practical limitations, for example you won't be able to use any special inks (metallics, overglosses, fluorescents) since all colours will have to fall within a CMYK gamut, there may be size restrictions, and there's almost always limited weights (thicknesses) and types of paper they're able to print on. But solid colour areas usually look just as good either way - with a reasonable printer there should be no visible patterning.

I've had both good and bad results from digital, but overall, offset gives a superior result for the extra cost. Digital is more useful for small print runs, but there's nearly always a quality hit. The best strategy is to ask the printhouse for some samples of their digital work (all printhouses keep such things around) and see if the quality is acceptable to you.

To summarize:
Digital: cheaper, quicker, less quality, more restrictions;
Offset: More expensive (often a lot more), much better quality, less restrictions, nice portfolio pieces.

I'm sorry I can't recommend anyone in your area specifically. HTH.
posted by BorgLove at 3:03 PM on February 7, 2007

Well, I rin the prepress at a Bay Area printer (San Ramon) that does both digital and direct-to-plate printing. My info is in my profile if you want a quote. I like to think we're reliable, but I might be biased.

As to the quality question, it really depends on the printer. Any digital printer worth a damn will be calibrated fairly regularly, so colors are consistant. Yes, the digital prints are cheaper, and no, they aren't as good as what comes off a big ol' Ryobi or Heidelberg 4-color press, but the digital press is good enough for most applications. A common failing of digital presses is poor registration on two-sided jobs, sometimes shifting as much as 0.125". You shouldn't have to worry about straks or waves when you get your files output. If you see any obvious imperfections you should ask to have the job re-run.

Yes, you can design for full bleed just as you would with traditional printing, I do it all the time. Many digital presses accomodate larger sheet sizes. For example the Xerox DocuColor I use can handle paper up to 12" by 18" which is plenty of room for a bleed on a tabloid sheet.
posted by lekvar at 3:04 PM on February 7, 2007

Digital printing has come a long way. You can do full bleeds, odd sizes, and most of the tricks you would associate with offset printing. A trained eye can usually tell the difference, but that doesn't mean digital looks bad. You're right that big blocks of solid color can be tricky. Ultimately, high end offset printing still looks better than digital, but the best digital print is going to look much better than the cheapest offset.

Most of the time, the right tool for the job will depend on how many you're printing (short run = digital) and how much you can spend per piece. Digital is much cheaper, after all, and at some point you question whether offset is as much better as it is more expensive.

As far as my experience is concerned, a good printer is the most important factor in getting high quality printing, digital or offset. I like Fong Brothers in the SF Bay Area, and they do both.

If you get recommendations for web-based shops, be wary. The ones I've dealt with are more geared toward serving the public than pros, so they get away with cutting corners on quality. For instance, one shop will fed ex you a proof, but they won't guarantee that your job will be run on the same machine your proof came off of, and if your job does come off the same machine, several other jobs will have used it in the interim, so proofs are pretty useless.
posted by nadise at 3:23 PM on February 7, 2007

I used to work next door to Iridio Digital, which does lots of high quality, short run, print jobs; they are local to Seattle. They were recently purchased by RR Donnely, so most web info on them is out of date, but you might try their phone number 206-587-0800, I suspect they kept that.
posted by nomisxid at 3:26 PM on February 7, 2007

Thanks for the solid answers. When running a digital job, what is the typical minimum required number of pieces (say, for instance, a simple tri-fold brochure)? I'm imagining that it much lower than with offset.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 3:28 PM on February 7, 2007

Most shops I know have a flat per-sheet charge for digital printing. A big difference that I didn't mention before is that scale doesn't affect digital printing the same way it does offset. Since there's no real set-up or clean-up to deal with you're just paying for the consumables plus mark-up. You could probably ask a print shop with a digital press for a single print-out, especially if you just want to check the quality of the print.

Actually, I take that back. Scale affects digital printing inversely to the way it affects offset - digital isn't very good at large runs, as opposed to offset which is inefficient at short runs. If you're looking for more than 1,000 sheets you should consider offset. But you shouldn't have to wory about minimums with digital.
posted by lekvar at 4:05 PM on February 7, 2007

I just printed my first digital project, and I was astonished to learn that there were still dots. I was expecting it to be more like a fiery print-out. No streaks in large areas of flat color, and full bleeds. One cool thing is that once you approve the proof, it's going to print that way, as opposed to the major color shifts that can happen w/traditional offset printing. And by the way, most offset printers I work with don't even do film anymore. It's all computer to plate.
posted by apostrophe at 4:52 PM on February 7, 2007

The Copy Company in Seattle comes highly recommended by Modern Dog.
posted by O9scar at 5:51 PM on February 7, 2007

I'll just step in to mention that I work for a small digital print shop, JP Digital Imaging. I'm just a finisher for their big stuff, so I can't tell about the quality of brochures and one sheeters. We've got plenty of samples of course. There's a minimum of 250 pieces for our 4-color printing stuff. Errmm... can't tell you more than that. I just learned what "bleed" was yesterday after working on an awning. We're in Mountain View.
posted by Mister Cheese at 6:51 PM on February 7, 2007

Thanks everybody.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 9:29 PM on February 7, 2007

As a designer, I will echo a common theme throughout the comments from everyone depends on the printer. And, unless you're in a fairly large metro area, finding a good one requires a good deal of exploration and luck.

Definitely stay away from the chains (like Kinkos) and shops that ONLY do digital output. I know that's a blanket statement (my apologies to the digital shops that really DO care about quality), but my experience has been that those sorts of shops are aimed at small businesses who's only determining factor is how cheaply and quickly they can get the job done. Whenever I am forced to use places like these (client pressure), I've found that any questions about color management and the like are met by blank stares.

Spot colors (as in logos) are another point against digital. If the job is a simple, general flyer, that's not a problem. Even if run offset, the logo would probably be done in process. But a better "image" piece would call for actual Pantone spot colors. As mentioned by others, digital doesn't do that.

Digital prints also look a bit "hot" to me. That is, the colors always seem a bit over-saturated. That may be the printers I've had to work with, but it certainly seems fairly common so far. I suspect a lot of them run their printers "hot" because people tend to respond positively to more saturated colors.

In the end, I still much prefer the results I get from a good offset press. Some of that has to do with the wide range of papers that opens me up to. Even the best digital output I've gotten has a cold look and feel. The ink seems to sit on top of the paper, as opposed to offset where the ink and the paper merge together to create a nice, rich, "complete" whole.

All that said, though, once my clients discover the huge price difference between digital and offset, it will be very had to convince them to go back to offset for anything other than large, "image" piece pieces. Thus, that brings me back to the original some exploring and find a damn good digital shop.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:04 AM on February 8, 2007

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