A Guide to Litho vs Digital Print

Technological advancements in the printing industry mean there are now more commercial printing options than ever before for the average Joe. Whatever the job, turn-around or budget there is an option to suit everybody, but it has also led to a lot of confusion for people trying to understand the difference between the two most common types of printing – Litho and Digital. Below is the most common pros and cons of both technologies. With this you will be able to take an instant snap shot of the way you should be producing your next print job.

Litho Printing

The most common, high-volume, commercial printing technology is Offset Lithography. The image is burned onto a metal plate using a laser, which is then loaded onto the printing press. This image is then transferred (or offset) onto a rubber blanket and then onto the printing surface – be it paper, card or plastics. The process relies on the repulsion of oil and water; the image to be printed gets ink from rollers, while the non-printed area attracts a film of water, so it remains ink-free.


High quality, consistent image

Suitable for a wide range of surfaces including paper, card and plastics

Unit cost decreases as the quantity increases

Able to cope with long runs without losing quality

Special inks available – Pantone Spots and metallic


Expensive set up on short runs

Longer turn around on jobs

No variable data option

Smaller colour gamut therefore colours can be less bright

Digital Printing

Digital printing removes many of the mechanical steps used in conventional printing, including making the plates. But it’s certainly not the same as printing at home; the digital print presses used by professional printers are much more sophisticated than that!


Quick setup time leading to fast turnaround of orders and sameday

Bright, vibrant images on a range of materials

Cheaper option for low volume printing

Personalisation using a database where text and graphics can be changed on each item without stopping or slowing down the press


Expensive on longer runs

Less colour controls

Not suitable for all printed surfaces

Quality can be inconsistent

Can be difficult to match pantone colours

Choosing the right one

Any good printer would be able to advise on which method is right for your job, but the check list below will give you some indication as to the one you should choose.

Quantity – Litho has additional set-up costs; making it expensive for short runs, but more cost-effective for high quantities. Digital printing is a more suitable option financially for small quantities.

Materials – Both processes offer a range of options when it comes to the medium you’re printing on. Often it is possible to use the same materials with both digital and litho however there can sometimes be clear differences in the printed results, in particularly with uncoated stocks.

Colour – Most digital presses use a four-colour printing process, so if you need just one or two pantone spot colours, offset printing may offer a more cost-effective solution not to mention when specialist metallic inks are required.

Turnaround – Digital print offers a much faster turnaround as there is no mechanical set-up involved.

Proofing – If you need to see an accurate proof of the finished print before you order, digital is the way to go. Accurate proofs for litho printing can be expensive as it involves making plates and preparing the press.

Customisation – Digital printing offers the most affordable way to customise marketing materials, direct mail pieces and letters using variable data technology.