When it comes to printing, the choice of technology can significantly impact the quality, cost, and efficiency of the final product. Two of the most prevalent printing methods are digital printing and lithographic printing. Each has its unique advantages and applications, making them suitable for different types of projects. In this post, we’ll delve into the key differences between digital and lithographic printing, helping you make an informed decision for your printing needs.

Digital Printing

1. Process: Digital printing involves transferring a digital image directly onto the substrate. This is done using either inkjet or laser printers. The process is straightforward: once the digital file is ready, it can be printed almost immediately without the need for intermediate steps.

2. Speed and Flexibility:

  • Quick Turnaround: Digital printing offers a rapid turnaround time since it eliminates the need for creating printing plates.
  • Short Runs: It is ideal for short print runs (small quantities) as setup time is minimal.
  • Customisation: Each print can be easily customised, making it perfect for variable data printing (e.g., personalised letters, unique codes, or individualised marketing materials).

3. Cost:

  • Economical for Small Quantities: For small to medium-sized print jobs, digital printing is cost-effective due to the absence of setup costs.
  • No Plate Costs: There are no expenses related to creating and maintaining printing plates.

4. Quality:

  • High Quality: Advances in digital printing technology have significantly improved print quality, making it comparable to traditional methods for many applications.
  • Colour Consistency: Digital printers can maintain consistent colour output, ensuring uniformity across all prints.

5. Applications:

  • Marketing Materials: short run brochures, flyers, and direct mail.
  • Business Documents: Business cards, reports, and proposals.
  • Customised Products: Photo books, personalised gifts, and on-demand book printing.

Lithographic (Offset) Printing

1. Process: Lithographic printing, commonly known as offset printing, involves transferring an image from a plate to a rubber blanket, and then onto the printing surface. This indirect transfer process helps achieve high-quality print finish.

2. Speed and Flexibility:

  • Long Runs: Offset printing is more efficient and cost-effective for large print runs due to its high-speed production capabilities.
  • Setup Time: It requires significant setup time to create the plates and configure the press.

3. Cost:

  • Economical for Large Quantities: Although initial setup costs are high, the per-unit cost decreases significantly with larger quantities.
  • Plate Creation: The creation and maintenance of plates add to the upfront costs.

4. Quality:

  • Superior Quality: Lithographic printing delivers superior and consistent print quality, particularly for high-resolution images and detailed graphics.
  • Colour Accuracy: It offers precise colour matching and is ideal for projects requiring exact colour reproduction (e.g., brand colours).

5. Applications:

  • High-Volume Projects: Newspapers, magazines, and large quantities of brochures.
  • High-Quality Prints: High-end marketing materials, fine art prints, and detailed graphics.
  • Packaging: Labels, cartons, and other packaging materials.

Key Differences

  1. Setup and Turnaround Time:
    • Digital Printing: Minimal setup time, quick turnaround.
    • Lithographic Printing: Longer setup time, slower turnaround for initial setup but faster for large quantities.
  2. Cost Efficiency:
    • Digital Printing: Cost-effective for small to medium runs.
    • Lithographic Printing: More economical for large runs.
  3. Customisation:
    • Digital Printing: Excellent for personalised and variable data printing.
    • Lithographic Printing: Less flexible for customisation as each change requires a new plate.
  4. Print Quality:
    • Digital Printing: High quality, suitable for most general purposes.
    • Lithographic Printing: Superior quality, ideal for high-detail and colour-critical projects.

Choosing the Right Method

The decision between digital and lithographic printing largely depends on the specific requirements of your project. Here are some considerations:

  • Quantity: For small quantities or projects requiring frequent changes, digital printing is preferable. For large quantities, lithographic printing is more cost-effective.
  • Quality: If your project demands the highest possible print quality and precise color matching, lithographic printing is the best choice.
  • Customisation: For projects needing customisation or variable data, digital printing is the way to go.
  • Budget and Time: Consider your budget and timeline. Digital printing is generally quicker and has lower initial costs, while lithographic printing is more cost-efficient for large volumes but requires more setup time.

For more on the difference between lithographic and digital printing check out this fantastic article by Paul Talbot for Forbes: Why Small Business Marketers Embrace Print


Understanding the differences between digital and lithographic printing can help you make the best decision for your printing needs. Both methods have their strengths and ideal applications, so consider your project’s specific requirements, budget, and time constraints when choosing the appropriate printing technology. Whether you need high-quality, high-volume prints or quick, customisable runs, there is a printing solution that fits your needs perfectly. Visit PrintUK.com for both your digital and lithographic print requirements.