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How Does Offset Printing Differ From Desktop Printing?

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Copies of the last ever print edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer roll off the presses.

Copies of the last ever print edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer roll off the presses March 16, 2009 in Seattle, Washington; All the FAQs: Career & Business | Software | Design & Layout | Graphics | Type & Fonts | Prepress & Printing

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Question: How Does Offset Printing Differ From Desktop Printing?
The method of printing — whether offset or desktop printing — dictates how the desktop publishing document must be prepared. That's why answers to questions about what kind of software to use or how to set up a document begin with "how will it be printed?"
Answer: The three primary differences in offset printing and desktop printing (such as inkjet and laser) are the colors of ink and the way the ink is placed on the paper as well as the type of machinery used to accomplish the task.

Ink Colors

Both commercial offset printing (also known as offset lithography) and inkjet desktop printing utilize four basic ink colors: CMYK. Dots of cyan (blue), magenta (red), yellow, and black (the K) are placed next to each other in specific patterns that trick the eye into seeing millions of colors. Additionally, offset printing can use premixed inks in a variety of specific colors as well as metallic and florescent inks. These are called spot colors. However, printing white ink is not usually a viable option for offset or desktop printing.

Printing Process

Inkjet printing puts all the different ink colors on the paper in one pass through the printer. In commercial offset printing each color of ink is applied separately. Because the paper must pass through the printing press multiple times, there are special requirements for preparing digital files for color printing.

Printer vs. Press

Desktop printing usually uses some type of inkjet or laser printer. The inkjet printer has ink cartridges that places the ink directly on the paper. These are self-contained units connected to a computer through cables. Offset lithography uses a web or sheet press that may consist of multiple units. Photographic printing plates are made of the file to be printed. The plates accept the ink which is then transferred to the paper.

File Preparation for Offset Printing

In choosing desktop publishing software one of the key considerations is determining how you will print your material. Some lower end or consumer desktop publishing applications cannot produce the type of files needed for commercial offset printing. Even when using software capable of creating the required files, non-designers may not understand how to properly create files for commercial offset printing.

Although there are many specific considerations for preparing files for offset printing, in terms of ink colors and the printing process two of the main software and file preparation considerations are the use of CMYK graphics and separations.

  • CMYK vs. RGB
    Graphics generally use RGB (Red, Green, Blue) or CMYK colors. Graphics on the Web or designed for on-screen display are RGB images. Because offset printing utilitizes CMYK inks, all full-color graphics need to be saved with CMYK colors. This simple conversion is done in your graphics software program.

  • Separations
    Whether printing in CMYK inks or spot colors, for offset printing you must supply a file that can be separated into different files for each ink color. These separations contain only the elements of the document that will print in one color of ink. The printing plates for offset printing are made from these separations.
Also see: What's the difference between a commercial printer and a desktop printer?

All the FAQs: Career & Business | Software | Design & Layout | Graphics | Type & Fonts | Prepress & Printing

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