Print Basics

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If you’re like most small business owners or managers you probably don’t understand a lot about printing, such as the different options and the relative costs and benefits of each. You don’t need to know a lot, but these days it pays to understand the basic options and what they might mean to you.

Digital Printing

Digital printing is very similar to printing with a desktop inkjet printer, except that commercial digital printers are generally faster and higher quality. Digital printing is becoming more and more popular as quality improves and costs decline. Unlike offset presses, digital printers print directly from the digital files that are prepared by the graphics designer. Digital printing:

  • is usually less expensive and less time-consuming to print small quantities (less than 1000 or so) or for small print-on-demand jobs, especially full color.
  • eliminates the setup time and expense of plate-making
  • may be of slightly lower in quality, although the difference is often negligible
  • is easier and less expensive to make last minute changes or to print different variations.

If you look very closely at any digital printing you can see very small dots that make up the images and text, which typically do not appear on printing done by offset presses. Very few people look closely enough to see the difference, but if absolutely top quality is your aim, digital printing may not be your best choice.

Another consideration relates to letterhead, envelopes, and other documents that are often used in laser printers. For example, if letterhead is produced by a digital printer and later a letter is printedon it by a laser printer, in some cases the original digital ink can be damaged. Laser printers typically use a very high temperature fusing process that can damage some inks used in digital printing. Consequently, offset printers may be a better choice for letterhead, envelopes, and any other documents that might subsequently be printed with a laser printer. There are other considerations as well, so check with your printer for his recommendation.

Offset Printing

The more traditional type of printing is generally referred to as “offset printing”. With this type of printing plates are produced for each ink color that will be used in the actual printing process. Full “four color” printing typically uses the CMYK process, which refers to the 4 colors of ink used to produce full color – Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and blacK. With this type of printing 4 different plates are produced, one for each color, hence, the higher setup cost versus digital printing. However, for very high volume print jobs, offset printing can be substantially less expensive than digital printing, so it pays to check.

Many times printing jobs do not require “full color”, but instead can be done with just 1, 2, or 3 different colors of ink. For this type of work, printers often use offset printers with a different ink system called Pantone. Unlike CMYK full-color printing, Pantone printing uses a very wide variety of standard ink colors as defined by the Pantone system. Many business cards, for example, use only 2 colors, often black and one other color, which means that only 2 plates need to be produced to print those business cards. So, if your business cards, letterhead, envelopes, and other documents can be printed with just 1 or 2 colors you may be able to minimize your cost and maximize the quality by having your documents designed for 1- or 2-color printing.

Other Printing Info

There’s a variety of other good information about printing on the web. If you’re interested, you might want to take a look at the following:

Printing Terms and Terminology
Commercial Printing Info