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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Commercial Printing Case Study: Is It Digital or Offset?

I received a promotional brochure from a custom printing vendor today, and I was struck by several aspects of its printing quality.

First of all, the brochure had been printed on a thick stock (15 point cover stock, six panels folded to 4 5/8” x 6 1/8”). The thickness of the paper made me feel that the company cares enough to spend a little more on paper and postage. It suggests opulence.

Due to the thick black ink, which has some kind of coating with a smooth, almost rubbery texture (perhaps a soft-touch UV), I initially thought it had been printed on black paper. The brilliant white of the press sheet shows through the ten square 4-color images on the cover, and the text is rich and seems to be printed in white.

As Seen Through a Loupe

I wondered how it had been printed, so I pulled out my loupe. I expected to see the text screen printed or stamped in white foil, but obviously as soon as I opened the brochure, I saw that the white sheet had been “painted” in black ink, and I saw that the script typeface of the text had been merely reversed out of the black.

Looking closely at the black ink, I could see process color halftone dots hanging out of register, ever so slightly, so I surmised that the black ink was actually a rich black (a combination of black plus screens of other process colors).

Surprisingly, I could see very little cracking at the folds, in spite of the extra heavy ink coverage. I thought this was odd, and I wondered what the coating was made of.

What About the Halftones?

Upon closer observation, I saw that the brochure was actually an invitation, with photos and a schedule inside the folded piece. I was struck by the brilliant colors, particularly the yellow ink. Under the loupe I also saw green dots, so I surmised that the brilliant color had been achieved with extra inking units (hexachrome, or high fidelity color, a custom printing technique that adds such colors as green and orange to the usual CMYK color set).

Inside the brochure I read copy referring to a Timson T-Press, a new web-fed inkjet press that accepts 52” rolls and prints up to a 64-page signature, or two 32-page signatures. I saw the traditional rosettes in the halftones (circular patterns of halftone dots forming an identifiable pattern due to the angles at which the halftone screens have been tilted). Therefore, although I had expected the brochure/invitation to have been printed on the Timson T-Press via inkjet technology, I rethought my position.

If you look closely with a loupe, you’ll see that a sample of inkjet custom printing is composed of tiny dots that look like the stochastic screening of offset printing (all dots are the same size, but there are more or fewer dots depending on the amount of ink in a particular spot). In contrast, the dots on the brochure/invitation varied in size but were consistent in their placement (all were equally spaced on a grid). To me, that indicated either offset printing or electrophotography (digital laser printing).

Digital laser printing usually yields photos that are brilliant in color, but in my experience the halftone pattern looks a little different from offset printing. I usually see a halftone pattern with different sized dots on laser copy, but I usually don’t see the same rosettes as on offset printed images. In addition, some halftones in the brochure/invitation had a brilliant yellow color, but others were more muted than laser printing usually provides. They were intense in their coloration, but they did not look waxy or overly saturated.

On the cover, I saw what looked like the streaking you sometimes find in solid colors printed via digital laser technology. But they could have been roller marks (they were even in thickness and localized). They could even have been ghosting, since the small photos surrounded by heavy coverage black might have provided ideal conditions for ghosting. And ghosting is a flaw that specifically affects offset printing.

What’s the Verdict?

I’m always hesitant to say for sure, although I did bring all of the previously described characteristics into my assessment. However, I’d say that the brochure/invitation was not printed via inkjet technology (even the best inkjet from the new Timson digital press). It was probably not digitally laser printed. I would say that due to the rosettes in the halftones and the varied saturation of the photos, the most likely case was that the printer produced this via offset lithography with a dull or soft-touch UV coating. He probably used an extended color set to expand the color range beyond that of CMYK printing (maybe he even added a little fluorescent ink to the yellow).

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

When you see a printed piece you like, consider what technology produced the job. It will hone your skills in analyzing printed products, but more than this it will make you aware of all the various printing technologies and techniques that you can incorporate into your own design work.

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