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‘Good to Know’ Guide: Litho v Digital Printing?

In the world of printing, the two main choices generally boil down to Lithography or Digital Printing. While they are both fine options in their own rights, one is better than the other for a variety of reasons.

Litho Printing is the most common high volume commercial printing method. It involves burning the print image onto a series of plates, one plate for each colour. The image on the each plate is then inked and transferred to a rubber blanket and from there to the printing surface.

For a full colour print, the artwork is separated onto four different printing plates and each plate prints a specific single colour – cyan, magenta, yellow and black (CMYK). Together these colours combine to create a full-colour print. If an additional spot colour is required, a printing plate may be added. These may be for special inks such as fluorescent or metallic, or a specific Pantone ink that matches a corporate colour. Similarly, the design may require less colours. If there are only two specified colours in the design, you will only need two printing plates. This will bring down the cost.

Digital Printing uses either liquid or powder toner to create an image using dots of colour from an electronic file (i.e. pdf artwork). The toner transfers to the paper by electro-statically charging the toner. No plates are required and the set up costs are relatively small.

So, which method of printing is betther for your next printing job? Here are a few questions to help you make the right choice…

Print Quantity?

For longer print runs, i.e. more than 500 A4 (or 200 A3) sheets, litho is considered best. Litho involves a printing plate set up and it is usually a good idea to make as many prints as possible if you are going to go through this pre-process.

Digital printing can produce a single copy with no additional set up process.  As a result, Digital printing allows you to customise each print with a persons name or number for example.

Print Quality?

Litho produces a better quality print as the ink is adhered through a wet ink and printing plate process, while digital printing uses toner on a press like a copy machine. In some instances, the quality of a digital print is good enough.

For a longer lasting print, use Litho as it has a coating added to protect it from scuff marks and it won’t crack when the paper is bent.

If you have large solid areas of colour or tints and are using Pantone colors, Litho is a must.

Litho is also better for printing on larger than A3 sized paper as a lot of the digital printing machines are not big enough. It is also better for printing onto heavier stock or textured stock (where the wet ink will fully coat the sheet).

If you are going to ‘overprint’ after the initial print (e.g. headed paper), then Litho is safer as a digital image can end up bubbling or peeling.

Finally, if you don’t have a hi res image, then you will have to use Digital printing as it is much more forgiving.


Digital is more cost-effective as there is no need to spend time and money on creating a printing plate for each specific project. Digital printing also allows the freedom to customize each print with a different number or name at no additional cost.


Litho can take longer to set up and dry. For many projects the print quality of digital is good enough to justify not spending the extra time and money on creating printing plates, setting up the printer and waiting for them to dry completely. If time is not a factor and the overall quality is more important, then litho may be the best option.

It really helps to know the specific use of your prints to make an informed decision on your printing method.

If you need some advice to guide you through important technical questions, just give iQ Branding Solutions a call. We’re on hand to answer any questions and guide you to making the best choice.