I will freely admit that I was not among the first to jump on the digital printing bandwagon. My early digital print projects suffered banding, pooling, uneven color, chipped edges, jaggy type knockouts, and a certain “toner-esque” shine to the color that really didn’t wow me. “Give me offset printing any day,” I gnashed!

But digital technology has improved by leaps and bounds over the past five years, persuading even skeptics like me that quality products can indeed be printed on digital presses. In fact, digital printing is central to the future of the printing industry.

Knowing that others probably had many of the same questions about digital printing that I did, I recently asked my friend Mary Ellen Johnson all about digital printing.

Mary Ellen is a sales rep who has sold traditional offset printing for 20+ years. When she accepted a position at Seattle’s McCallum Print Group a few years ago, she took the crash course in digital printing. Now she takes advantage of McCallum’s traditional offset and HP Indigo digital technologies to deliver the best-fitting print solutions for her customers.

In this three-part interview, Mary Ellen shares with me her knowledge about what digital printing does best.


NP: Hello, Mary Ellen. Is there such a thing as the perfect digital print project?


MEJ:  Yes! A good candidate for digital printing is built in process colors (CMYK), with colors that reproduce well as four-color builds. The finished flat size needs to be 12 x 18 inches or smaller, and the ideal digital job requires 5,000 impressions or fewer.

Digital presses print both sides of the paper in one pass. So for example, 1,000 two-sided sales fliers would require 2,000 impressions, 1,000 for each side. Here’s another example: You can get four 6 x 9-inch sheets out of a 13 x 19-inch sheet (allowing for bleeds), so 5,000 impressions would yield 10,000 6 x 9-inch postcards very efficiently.

In general, the quantity “sweet spot” for digital printing is about 2,500 sheets. If you are printing more sheets than that, offset printing is more cost-effective.

NP What are the advantages of digital printing? Disadvantages?

MEJ:  The biggest advantages are less paper waste and a shorter production timeline. A digital press project might use 50 sheets of makeready, compared to 800 to 1,000 sheets of makeready for an offset job.

The biggest disadvantage is that you can’t really adjust color very much once you’re on press, so what you see in a press proof is what you’ll get in the print job.

What kinds of design features does digital printing handle especially well? Not so well?

MEJ:  Surprisingly, heavy solids like rich black and many four-color build floods look great. Big areas of light tints don’t work as well, as they can show banding. And it can be a challenge to match corporate colors exactly.

NP: Are there end uses for which digital printing would not be appropriate?

MEJ:  Letterhead is still not a good candidate for digital printing. When digitally printed pages are run through a laser printer, the high heat reheats the ink, and marking can result. Digital inks on dull coated stocks scratch easily, so these coated stocks can be coated after printing. At McCallum, we varnish with Indigo UV varnishing equipment.

NP: What are the most common mistaken impressions about digital printing?

MEJ:  People think digital presses are really fast machines. Actually, they run quite slowly, around 4,000 impressions an hour, compared to 10,000 or more on an offset press. People also think digital is cheaper, and it’s not. The per-piece printing price is higher on digital. On the other hand, set-up costs for a four-color offset print job might be $1,000, compared to $100 to set up a similar job on a digital press.

NP: What’s a realistic schedule for digital printing?

MEJ:  I recommend four to six days for digital, compared to five to seven days for offset printing. Approvals still take time, but PDF proofs can speed up the timeline further, if you are confident in your printer.

Go to Part 2 of interview…

Go to Part 3 of interview...

Disclaimer: The FCC will be happy to know that Nani Paape, author of the Printing Disasters blog, received no compensation in exchange for this interview.