Digital or Litho? The Eternal Question.

For many in the print industry, this may seem like a redundant question, but I was recently at an event that got me thinking about it a little more than I would normally. Talking with the MD of a financial management company who needed print for various marketing items, I showed him samples of recent work we’d done in-house on our digital presses: brochures, catalogues and such.

He said “that’s great! but it’s litho. I don’t need large quantities, what about the digital stuff you do?” I don’t know why it surprised me but it did; I guess I’m so used to seeing digital work that I’ve become a little blind to its quality. I had to convince him that the print in his hands was, in fact, digital, and explain how digital print had come a long way these days.

I love litho print! There I said it! It’s where I started in print many years ago back in 1987, and in my opinion, it’s still unmatched for richness and depth of tonal quality – if it’s done well of course. Plus you have an unrivaled array of beautiful stock options available to choose from. If money and time were no object then yes, why not print all jobs litho? Unfortunately, I’m not an eccentric billionaire, I live in the real world where turnarounds and cost-effectiveness are the two most important factors. As that meeting highlighted, if you’re not an obsessive print-o-phile like me then the average person looking at the end result would never be able to tell how it was printed, and let’s face it, wouldn’t care one way or the other.

Now, I know from years of experience that whether or not a job is printed digitally or lithographically isn’t the only factor in determining the perceived quality of the finished job. What actually marks out the difference is a well thought-out design with proper consideration for the method of production and, in the case of digital, clever use of available materials such as digital white ink or matt laminate coupled with digital clear spot varnish. A badly-designed job printed litho will still look poor quality – litho printing can’t work miracles – just the same as a badly designed job printed digitally will look equally bad.

Over the years this is what I’ve seen time and again. When someone is putting together a litho job, with a run of thousands or tens of thousands at substantial cost, they tend to spend a little more time getting the design right in the first place and they don’t start printing until they’re 100% happy. It’s all the thought that’s put in beforehand, the design and the intended finishing, that add up to a great piece of work.

On the other hand, if a newsletter, for instance, is put together without close attention to typography and colours and uses a mixed bag of low-resolution images and logos, then printing litho won’t help – it’s still going to look like it was cobbled together. Alas this is what happens too much of the time with digital print. Often because it’s a last-minute thought, it’s wanted quickly, it’s only a small quantity etc etc, so people create the artwork themselves for speed. Consequently poor old digital tends to get an unfair rap when the results aren’t stellar. Using talented designers with great assets and comprehensive briefs – and designing in collaboration with your printer – is the way to achieve great digital print.

In the end, asking which is best ‘digital or litho’ is like asking if a ‘pen or a pencil’ is best. At the end of the day, it all depends what it’s needed for. In 2018 I think it’s fair to say we have two great choices.

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