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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: Thoughts on Quality in Inkjet and Offset Printing

Photo purchased from …

I would like to begin by saying that there is no right answer to the question I’m about to pose. Rather there is, perhaps, just an approach to answering it in your own print buying and design work. The question is, “How do you determine quality when choosing offset commercial printing vs. production inkjet?”

First a definition. What is production inkjet? It is the blending of inkjet technology with the traditional durability of offset printing presses along with increased custom printing speed. It is a good choice for short- and medium-run print books and magazines and particularly for variable-data work. Production inkjet is not your traditional large-format inkjet press made for wall banners, car- and bus-wraps, and such. It is a hard-core, real commercial printing press in a durable frame.

A Little Background on My Client

In this context I recently bid out a 256-page, 1,000-copy or 1,500-copy, perfect-bound print book for a husband-and-wife-owned publishing house client of mine. In an environment in which perfect-bound books with French flaps, hinge scores, and other elements of superb print production are expensive when compared to the cost of digital electronic books, my clients choose to give their readers the tactile experience of reading. The feel and smell of the paper. The joy of reading a print book.

Pricing for this print book came back to me from three vendors, and one, which was the low bid, had a notation on the bid about J Press printing of the cover. The J Press, which I researched in detail, assuming initially that it was a digital inkjet (production inkjet) press, is made by Fujifilm. Its main selling points, in addition to its variable custom printing capabilities, are its color gamut (even with only four process inks), its flexibility in acceptable printing paper choices, and the minimal set up time (especially when compared to offset commercial printing). Within certain run lengths, all of this translates into high quality and lower costs.

Needless to say, since my clients, with whom I have worked for more than a decade and therefore whose goals for visual and tactile quality I understand and appreciate, had to be comfortable with the technology. The lower price point would not be a good enough reason to choose this vendor.

Moving Toward a Decision

The first thing I did was ask the book printer to send a comparable printed sample to my clients. I knew that nothing would help them make a decision regarding offset printing vs. digital inkjet printing as well as a physical sample. The reader’s eyes and fingers don’t lie.

I also asked the printer to send a sample because I had seen numerous inkjet printed products, and while their color gamut was extraordinary, with vibrant hues and subtle transitions between colors, I had seen in some inkjet samples a lack of crispness in detail. This concerned me. They were not as sharp (the contrast between adjacent edges of color or value) as the offset printed products I had been used to. Without knowing more, I had wondered if this was due to the differences in ink composition and printing paper. After all, inkjet ink is thinner than offset ink. Inkjet ink in this case is also water based unlike oil-based offset inks. (Granted, this had nothing to do with the color range or color fidelity, which I had come to believe usually was equal to that of offset printing.)

I had assumed that the thinner ink would have been more likely to seep into the paper fibers (in contrast to the thicker, oil-based offset ink, which sits up on the surface of the paper). This is called ink “holdout.” It makes for a crisper image and more detail, as well as more vibrant colors.

But when I researched the Fujifilm J Press, I learned that it would also accept more paper substrates than other inkjet printers (including coated paper), that even with only a 4-color inkset it had a remarkable color gamut, and that it incorporated improved ink coagulation technology and heat-based ink drying technology (presumably to allow even an aqueous-based, thinner-than-offset ink to dry or cure on the surface of the paper without bleeding into the paper fibers).

So I decided to keep an open mind and see what my client thought of the printer’s J Press-printed sample (which turned out to be a glamor-based magazine, a perfect-bound book just like my client’s art books of poetry and fiction). The reason the subject matter is relevant is that glamor, food, and automotive are the three best subjects with which to judge both photography and commercial printing. These are subjects that require consummate precision in everything from the photographic lighting to the custom printing technology, and these particular clients (and their marketing agencies) usually spare no expense to ensure quality.

Now we will see what my clients think.

Keeping All Options Open

I have no vested interest in selecting this printer over one of the other two, other than the fact that I have worked with them for many years and trust their quality and integrity (actually good reasons, beyond price, to choose this vendor).

This vendor also has offset printing capabilities. Plus one of the other two printers is very costly, and the other is less expensive but not as willing to absolutely commit to a schedule (in these times of paper shortages, when printers are often taking much longer than in the past to produce custom printing jobs).

So these are the next steps, as I envision them.

My clients have seen the initial sample glamor catalog. They like the brilliance of the color, but they are a little concerned about the images, which seem to be of a slightly softer focus than they would like. They are not sure that this is not intentional, since soft focus is sometimes intentionally used in glamor photography.

Because of this concern, I have asked the printer to provide pricing for a single proof of my client’s actual print book cover on the Fujifilm J Press. If my client likes the sample, we have our printer.

Plan B would be to ask this printer for prices for offset printing the book. This will be more expensive, according to the sales representative. That said, my next questions are more nuanced:

  1. Since the press run will be 1,000 or 1,500 copies of a 256-page book, I believe we may be at the crossover point at which an inkjet-printed book becomes more expensive than the same book printed via offset lithography (after all, at 1,000 x 256 pages or 1,500 x 256 pages this is a sizable run, and inkjet printing is economically beneficial primarily for shorter-run printed products). Plus, we’re comparing one vendor’s inkjet-printed product to two other vendors’ offset-printed products. We actually don’t know yet that the vendor with the J Press won’t still provide lower offset-printing prices than the other two printers when we shift the pricing model from digital to offset.
  2. Or, we even may have the option of doing a hybrid job: an offset-printed cover (a short run of 1,000 or 1,500 covers) bound to a digitally-printed book text block. This might cost less than a fully-offset-printed book while still retaining the consummate quality of offset printing for the four-color cover. After all, the interior of the book is, presumably, just black text on a page with no screens or photos. This would be ideal for inkjet printing.

The Takeaway

You may say that this is putting the cart before the horse, adjusting everything to work with a specific commercial printing supplier. But from my vantage point it takes into account that not all printers are as committed to quality and schedule as this one has shown itself to be in past jobs.

Fortunately I also have the luxury of time. I can make sure that my clients see samples until they are either satisfied or ready to move on to an alternate printer. Also, regarding schedules, this particular printer will produce the book in less time than the vendor with the mid-level price but more slowly than the most expensive printer. A longer schedule may compromise my client’s ability to prepare the manuscript and have the book designed and final art files prepared in time. This is because my client’s book distributor has provided an inflexible, hard deadline.

So there are a number of considerations beyond money, including the technology to be used, the schedule, and the quality of the printed product. In your own design and print buying work, I would encourage you to give thorough consideration to all of these factors.

2 Responses to “Commercial Printing: Thoughts on Quality in Inkjet and Offset Printing”

  1. Shelly Murphy says:

    Time and dedication are vital for print projects to succeed, and large online printing companies don’t offer the care and attention needed. That’s why you should always choose a locally-owned printing company that will make sure the project is to the highest quality standard possible.


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