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Posted by Thera-lee Rego on September 28, 2016

Print is not dead; we know that. Print media still proves to be a major and important part of most successful campaigns, and much of the work that we do for our clients still requires putting good ol’ ink to paper. We know print inside-out, but we also know that not everybody that we work with does.

Have you ever sat with a print quote and asked yourself “What is the difference between offset and digital printing?” or “What’s the difference between printing your job in 'spot colours' instead of 'process'”?

Without going into too many technical details, we’d like to educate you on a few things that we sometimes need to clarify to our clients regarding their print job. Ironically, there will be no printed version of this lesson, so stay right here on this blog, and read on.

Process Colour vs. Spot Colour 

Process Colour (CMYK)

The term “process” in regards to print, refers to the use of 4 different colours called CMYK ( C-cyan, M-magenta, Y-yellow and K-black) applied to paper on top of each other, one-at-a-time, to create a full colour print. Combinations of these 4 colours are printed in a series of dots at different sizes, that when blended together at different percentages, can create an endless array of colours. Looking at a magazine or newspaper through a magnifying glass will allow you to see the individual dots that make up the colours within an image. Colour laser and ink jet printers use CMYK toners and inks to create full colour outputs. 

Spot Colour (Solid)

Spot colours, on the other hand, are coloured inks that are applied to the paper on one pass. Think about spot colours as you would house paint colours (premixed based on industry standard formulas). And like paint chip books, we use spot colour books to help us select colours for the jobs that we work on. The most common colour system in the industry is PANTONE®. Because of these colour standards, using spot colours in print allows for better consistency with your brand colour across multiple print jobs and multiple print houses; “Coke red” printed in China will be the same “Coke red” printed in Canada. This colour consistency is the reason why most brands will call out specific spot colours in their brand guidelines. Another advantage of printing a spot colour would be that small text will be printed much sharper because it is made up of a single, solid, ink, rather than multiple inks which may not be perfectly registered. 

Offset (or Litho) vs. Digital Printing

Offset Printing

Offset printing is a process that uses aluminum plates to transfer inks onto a rubber “blanket”, that then applies the ink onto the paper. Offset printing uses multiple printing plates and stations to apply colour inks to the paper one colour at a time. Generally, these are the four process colours mentioned above (CMYK), but other plates could be added to include custom inks such as spot colours, and protective or glossy finishes for example. Offset printing uses wet ink (similar to paint) to achieve truly smooth and rich colours and images.

Advantages of offset printing:

  • Larger print runs can be reproduced extremely quickly and cost effectively
  • Larger range of colour reproduction
  • Bright florescent, PANTONE® spot colours, metallics, foils and varnishes can all be produced using this type of printing
  • Allows for the most accurate colour reproduction and consistency
  • Allows for a wide variety of different paper weights, size and textures
  • Can print light inks on dark material, such as white ink on a dark paper
  • Better quality inks

Digital Printing

Digital printing does not use printing plates and ink, instead, it uses a digital file to send information directly to the printer where toner ink is applied and then fused onto the paper. Digital prints are made up of the four process colours (CMYK) as discussed above. One drawback for digital printing is the inability to consistently match colours between printers. Digital printing technology is constantly evolving and now allows for application of various finishing options.

Advantages of digital print:

  • More efficient for low quantities 
  • The digital process reduces paper waste
  • Faster turnaround time because inks don’t need to dry
  • Print on demand can be done
  • Can print large format 
  • Variable data capability (a unique name, address, code or number can be added to individual prints)
  • Lower cost with minimal set-up cost and no need for a skilled pressman


AQ vs. UV coating

Coatings are applied to printed pieces to both add durability, and also to enhance the look of the final product. Any piece that will be handled such as business cards, brochures, catalogues and packaging will benefit from the application of a finishing coat. Below is a brief breakdown of the two most common types of coatings that are used.

AQ Coatings

AQ (Aqueous) coating is a clear, fast drying water-based coating that is used to protect printed pieces and helps deter fingerprints and dirt. This type of coating is great for durability and providing substantial scuff-resistance, and is the most environmentally friendly option. 

UV Coatings

UV coating is a hardened plastic thats gets coated onto paper and is dried by ultraviolet light. It is a higher cost than AQ, but it gives the finished piece a more dramatic effect and is great for a premium look. UV coatings provide the highest gloss versus other coatings and offer more texture options (like soft touch).

Well, we hope this answered some of the questions you may have about the print world. There is no wrong or right when it comes to the question of whether to choose offset vs. digital printing, or to print with spot vs. process colours - each job is unique.

All print techniques have their benefits, and based on your current needs, we can help you make the right choice. Get in touch, we would love to help with your next job.