Buying Print – The Science Behind the Witchcraft

Printing has always seemed like witchcraft to me. Despite years experience producing printed literature I literally had no idea how it worked.

This all changed recently when a helpful printer took the time to explain to me the different types of processes involved and the ‘science behind the witchcraft’.

It’s worth stating I’m not an expert in this subject – if any of this guide is incorrect or out of date please leave a comment below.

Lithographic Printing

Also known as Litho, Offset Litho, or, helpfully – just Offset.

Lithographic printing uses a plate to transfer an image to the printing material, for example paper or card. Each image to be printed is etched onto a plate, made usually from aluminium or plastic.

The plate is then treated with chemicals and inks before be transferred to a rubber roller, which in turn applies the image to the paper.

Litho print is ideal for short, medium or large print runs. You would almost certainly use it to produce brochures, catalogues, short-run newsletters, or posters. It has a large fixed cost in the set-up, so the cost per unit obviously decreases massively when you get to higher print runs, where you are effectively just paying for the extra paper.

Very large print runs, newspapers, catalogues, inserts may use a similar process known as ‘web printing’, which uses a much faster way of loading the paper into the press.

When printing Litho, ensure you sign off a ‘printers proof’ rather than the PDF on screen. Due to the chemicals used, colours can vary slightly. This is particularly important if you have a branding guidelines to adhere to for example.

Digital Printing

Where Litho printing recreates an image from an original, digital printing assembles the picture from pixels. The digitised image is created through digitally controlled drops of ink on the page. It works in a very similar way to creating a PDF in Acrobat.

One advantage of digital printing is that colours can be much more consistent. What you see on the screen is generally what will come out of the printer. This negates the need for a printer’s proof as you do with Litho printing.

Another advantage is it that the print run requires very little set up. No plates are required so it’s much faster. This means the unit cost is spread more evenly across the total cost of the job.

Digital printing allows for variable data which is a very exciting development for marketeers. Variable data printing allows high levels of personalisation on printed literature where previously overprinting would have been used. Think of it like a Mail Merge in Word.

It also allows you to print on different materials – clothing, mugs etc. for promotional materials.

Digital printing is commonly used on runs up to around 1000. Above this Litho tends to be more cost effective.

Buying Print – The Science Behind the Witchcraft Part 2 will cover spot vs. pantone colours and various finishing techniques.

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