Your ultimate guide to digital printing

Estimated reading time: 12 minutes

Designed on a screen and seen in print just a few days or hours later. That’s the world made possible by digital printing. Not since the invention of movable type in the mid-15th century, or the breakthrough of offset printing in the early 20th century has technology moved forward at such a leap.

Today, digital printing makes it possible to reproduce images quickly, precisely and vividly on a range of different materials. Without the need for complex plates or molds (which traditional printing styles rely on), digital printing techniques unlock all the possibilities of modern design. And it makes that accessible for small business owners seeking small to medium print runs as well.

For those business owners, digital printing allows you to reach consumers with electrifying print quickly, conveniently and affordably.

In this ultimate guide, we’ll explore the origins of digital printing, the pros and cons of the technology, and the kinds of scenarios in which you may find yourself looking for digital prints.

The ultimate guide to digital printing

What is digital printing?

Digital printing is a modern printing method that directly reproduces digital files onto a range of different materials, such as paper, card, canvas, synthetic or other media substrates.

Digital printers take digital inputs such as Word documents, PDFs and image files and replicate them with exceptional accuracy in full color. This gives you precise control over the final image, resulting in prints that directly match your digital design.

At a basic level, the technology is the same that you’d find in a home desktop printer, typically using liquid ink to place a complex series of tiny dots on the printed material. Together, these make up your intended image.

Commercial digital printers use a similar method but at a larger, faster, more precise and higher quality end of the spectrum. Commercial printers can also accommodate a far wider range of paper choices and paper stocks, as well as more unusual materials and fabrics.

Digital printing is by far the most dominant form of printing today for any small to medium-sized print run, and it’s in use all over the world by businesses looking to get their brand and messaging in front of an audience.

A printing machine in action

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How does digital printing differ from offset printing?

Traditional offset printing is an older method of printing that has been around since the late 19th century. The most modern style of offset printing began with technological advancements that made it possible to produce sharp, consistent prints in large volumes. It quickly superseded letterpress printing as a faster, more cost-effective and higher-quality technique.

Digital printing, on the other hand, developed in the late 21st century, and it differs from offset printing in a few key ways:

  • Printing technology: Digital printing uses computer software to drive the printer and reproduce a digital file onto the printing material. In contrast, offset printing requires the transfer of ink from a metal plate onto a rubber roller or “blanket,” before applying that to the paper. As a result, digital printing is more flexible and adaptable at short notice.
  • Setup process: While digital printing requires minimal setup, relying simply on the transfer of a digital file, offset printing requires the printer to create printing plates as part of a more elaborate setup process.
  • Cost considerations: Digital printing is generally a better option for short print runs thanks to its easy setup, but the cost per unit can be higher than offset printing. Over a large print volume, offset printing can become a more affordable choice, delivering accuracy and precision at scale.
  • Turnaround time: Digital printing is built for speed, and as a result, it can support tight deadlines. Offset printing, on the other hand, requires a longer setup but can produce large quantities at a fast rate once established.
  • Print material compatibility: Offset printing is primarily used for paper-based printing materials, whereas digital printing is compatible with various types of paper, synthetics, and even fabrics and ceramics.
Close-up of a person checking an offset printing proof

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What is the digital printing process?

Digital printing is a streamlined and efficient process that starts with computer-based design and ends in bold, striking prints ready to be presented to your potential customers. Here are 7 steps to the digital printing process:

  1. Design
  2. Image file processing
  3. Printing preparation
  4. Printing and drying
  5. Trimming and finishing
  6. Quality control
  7. Packing and distribution

1. Design

First up, it’s time to put together your design, fine-tune all the details of your imagery and make sure every detail you wish to include is present. Today, there are many tools out there that make this stage easy and accessible to all—without the need for advanced editing software skills.

2. Image file processing

Once you’ve crossed the t’s and dotted the i’s and triple-checked everything is correct with your image, it’s time to check that your file can be sent to print.

Getting the file format right is key: typically, digital printers use a 300dpi (dots per inch) resolution, which means the printer will produce 300 droplets of ink per inch of image.

This step is important, because even though an image can look sharp and focused on screen, it may not translate in print if the file is saved at a lower resolution.

Once the image has been set to the correct resolution and you’re happy with your edits, it’s time to send it to the printers.

3. Printing preparation

At the printers, the image file you send is converted by Raster Image Processing (RIP) software into a raster image—i.e. a format that the printer itself can understand. Vector graphics are translated, a bitmap image is created and colors are adjusted where required. Essentially, the computer lays each printing color over a digital document one at a time, preparing a series of instructions for the printer to follow to reproduce your image.

Although it might sound complicated, this step is fast and efficient.

Tip

Commercial digital printers use four primary colors: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black. Save your digital files in this color format (as opposed to a Red, Blue, Green (RGB) color profile) and you’ll be more likely to get a print that perfectly matches what you see on screen.

Next, the commercial printers will select the printer best suited for the job, load the correct paper stock or printing material, and make sure it’s calibrated correctly for accurate color reproduction.

4. Printing and drying

It’s time to print! The printer processes the material and applies ink or toner to the surface, using a combination of tiny dots to recreate the colors and design of your file. Liquid ink is typically a more affordable approach—it creates a familiar glossy, deeply colored finish to your prints.

Where necessary, the printers will allow each sheet time to dry to avoid any unexpected smudges in your final prints. In many cases, this is a built-in system within the printer itself. In others, additional drying time is needed. Generally speaking, liquid ink dries within the machine, whereas toner ink requires a few minutes of additional drying to avoid smudges.

5. Trimming and finishing

Even commercial printers cannot typically print right to the very edge of a document, which is why a margin is recommended at the edge of digital designs.

This also gives the printer an additional task here: trimming those edges to leave a crisp, complete final image.

At this stage, additional alterations may also be made, such as folding for cards or leaflets, stapling for brochures or even binding for full-blown pamphlets.

6. Quality control

The best commercial printers will take the time to inspect the printed materials to be sure they are free from obvious defects or discrepancies. Color accuracy, clarity and completeness are typically checked here, as these are all errors that can occasionally occur during printing.

7. Packing and distribution

Finally, the prints are carefully packed to be sent to the customer, ready to be handed out at a trade fair, put up in shop windows or sent onward to end users.

Close-up of printed magazines

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What are the different types of digital printing?

The world of digital printing is wide, and commercial printers use a range of different techniques and technologies to achieve a quality finish for each product.

Inkjet printing

Inkjet printers typically feature in a home desktop printer. These devices have a print head that moves laterally across the material, applying tiny droplets of ink along the way.

It’s an effective solution for brightly colored texts and images, as it can create highly detailed, high-resolution prints. It’s commonly used for posters, banners and photographic prints, and you can even use inkjet printing to spray water-based inks directly onto cotton garments for customized T-shirts or hoodies.

Laser printing

These printers use a more complicated process. First, a laser beam creates an electrostatic image on a photosensitive belt, toner (powdered ink) is attracted to the statically charged areas of the belt, and is then transferred onto the printing material and fused using heat.

Laser printing is best known for its high speed and is mostly used for documents, brochures and other text-heavy prints.

Dye sublimation printing

Another complex technology, this style of printing uses heat to transfer dye onto fabric or coated materials. The printer transforms the dye into a gas so that it penetrates the surface of the substrate, binding at the molecular level. This results in permanent colors that will not fade or scratch, making for an incredibly resilient, vibrant, durable print.

Dye sublimation is most commonly used for clothing or apparel, soft signage or other fabric items.

Digital offset printing

Just as it sounds, digital offset printing is a hybrid approach, taking some of the elements of traditional printing and digitalizing them. Your image is transferred from a digital file onto an offset printing plate, from which it’s transferred onto the printed material.

Essentially, this allows for more flexible print runs that do not require complex plate-making, while retaining the quality of offset printing. Digital offset printing is best suited for high-quality printed brochures, catalogs and marketing materials with a premium feel.

Tip

Confused by the printing types? Talk to your print partner with any questions, and they’ll be sure to suggest a specific approach to fit your printing substrate and promotional needs.

A printing workshop with a printing machine glowing blue at the center of the frame

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When is digital printing usually used?

The turnaround time for digital printing services is unmatched, making it ideal for rapidly producing campaign materials, customized and tailored to your specific needs. With bright, vibrant colors, it’s no surprise that digital printing is used in a wide range of marketing collateral.

Digital printing is commonly used to create:

  • Brochures
  • Flyers
  • Pamphlets
  • Business cards
  • Invitations
  • Direct mail
  • Photographic prints
  • Posters
  • Banners
  • T-shirts, hoodies and branded merchandise

What materials are suitable for digital printing?

Digital printing is highly versatile, and depending on the specific technology used, it can be used to reproduce vibrant imagery on a wide range of materials and substrates.

  • Various types of printer paper
  • Fine textured paper
  • Cardstocks
  • Recycled paper stock
  • Cotton and other regular fabrics
  • Delicate fabrics
  • Ceramics
  • Acrylics and plastics
  • Metals

The sheer variety of materials onto which digital prints can be produced gives business owners a huge amount of flexibility to promote their business far and wide in many different creative ways.

Two people smiling as they look at fabric samples and a laptop in a print studio

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Why might digital printing services be right for my marketing materials?

Digital printing is a big favorite among business owners who wish to create relatively small print runs of various kinds of flyers, posters, banners or other promotional materials. Here are some of the biggest benefits of digital printing:

  • Vibrant colors: Digital printing reproduces colors exceptionally well, making sure that materials appear as bright and well-defined as they do on the screen.
  • Fast-paced: Given the speed of turnaround for digital printing, it allows you to design and print new materials in no time, without needing to wait for a complex process to complete. Tight deadline? No problem, your prints are ready to roll when you are.
  • Adaptable: Many different materials can be printed on with digital technology, making it extremely versatile. That means you can present a strong brand across an array of business cards, leaflets, brochures or flyers.
  • Personalized: Digital printing is ideal for small print runs, so you can tailor materials for specific events, promotions, or parts of your audience, all for an affordable price. There are no additional setup costs in digital printing, so it’s easy to produce slightly varying editions of a design for impactful, targeted campaigns.
  • Wide ranging: Digital printing can be used on a vast variety of materials. That removes restrictions from your marketing campaign, allowing you to think outside of the box and find exciting and engaging ways of reaching your target audience.
  • Cost-effective: For smaller print runs, digital printing is an affordable approach, as there is no initial cost required to create specific printing plates. That also gives you more flexibility, as you won’t feel tied to plates that you’ve already invested in.

Tip

Digital printing is ideal for fast turnaround, responsive campaigns. Next time you have an important message to get out—or an event that requires publicity—digital printing is the ideal method for achieving vibrant, eye-catching print materials that do your business justice.

Magnifier on a test print sheet with lots of different colors

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When might digital printing not be the right choice?

Digital printing is not always the best choice. Here are a few reasons why it might not be the right fit for your project:

  • You are after a larger print run: Digital printing typically comes at a fixed price per piece. For a larger print run, in the 100s or 1000s for example, offset printing typically proves more cost-effective, as the expense of creating the printing plate is absorbed by a lower item cost at bulk volumes.
  • You need a high luxury finish: Offset printing is also a better approach if you’re looking at the most premium printing projects, such as book covers, invitation cards or high-end collateral for a more upmarket consumer.
  • You want to spot-match a Pantone color tone: Digital printing is an excellent choice for reproducing colors vibrantly and accurately. However, if you need a specific visual match for your branding, offset printing may be a better choice. As always, it’s best to talk to your printing provider for advice if you have any doubts.

Tip

These days, digital printing can achieve hugely impressive, high-quality results with accurate color reproduction. Unless you are producing a large print run, chances are that digital printing will be the fastest, most cost-effective option for your campaigns.

Close-up of an offset printing machine during a print run

Source: via Depositphotos

What are the costs of digital printing?

Just like many things, the cost of digital printing depends largely on the exact specifications of your design and marketing materials. While there are no set-up costs to consider, luxury printing materials or the use of more complex technologies are always likely to increase your expenses.

It’s also important to consider the additional cost of custom sizing or any folding required by your design or if you are considering premium finishes.

That said, digital printing is an affordable and cost-effective way of realizing your business designs in vibrant color, with a fast turnaround time too.

Tip

The best printers make it easy to see how much your promotional campaign will cost. Get a quote from VistaPrint in minutes and see just how affordably you can increase awareness of your business.

A man in a printing shop holding a large stack of paper

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Digital printing: Bringing you to the world

Digital printing services are widely used by businesses all around the world.

Its speed and affordability have unlocked the power of print marketing to thousands of small companies, making it easy for entrepreneurs to reach their audiences with vibrant, high-quality print materials.

Although it’s only been around for 30 years, it has quickly become a favorite. Plus, as business owners look to create targeted campaigns and print that rapidly responds to tight deadlines, it has proven its ability to get the job done quickly and precisely.

To explore the wide variety of options made available by digital printing, explore how VistaPrint can help you get the word out and promote your business.