Digital Print Quality Issue: Punch, Counterpunch

I have spent a lot of time over the past several weeks starting and moderating discussions about the output quality of digital print and different perceptions of what can be produced. It has been so interesting to hear the perspective from both sides — printer and client.

Clearly, with the right press, a skilled operator, and the willingness to properly maintain the press, you can achieve outstanding quality. But that takes time and dedicated resources, and just as clearly, not all printers always believe it’s worth it.

Consequently, for experienced designers who understand production, there is a notable divide:

In my experience, digital quality is often very dependent on the type of provider you use. For me, digital printing is pretty standard no matter the machine used, but if you work with folks who care a lot about quality, rather than speedy turnarounds, then digital can meet offset standards. But you have to have folks at the plant readily able and willing to take on the issues of banding, gradient quality, and color consistency in order to meet the offset standards. In my stable of print providers, only two are willing to go that extra distance. The rest seem to be more concerned about quick turnaround and low pricing. Which has its place, but I will always use the two printers who will give me consistent quality and work with me on my concerns for those products that require those types of things. — Name withheld [by me] to prevent inundation

This takes us to the classic dilemma. Do I focus on quality and clients willing to pay for it (even if it’s a smaller market)? Or do I go for volume for less discriminating buyers willing to accept less than the level of quality the press is capable of outputting in order to push through more volume at lower prices?

I’d love to hear some thoughts on this decision. Both are equally legitimate business decisions based on different business factors.

Which way did you choose to go and why?


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12 thoughts on “Digital Print Quality Issue: Punch, Counterpunch

  1. David Uno

    I guess you can put me in the quick turnaround group. We run 2 Xerox 700’s and one C75. While we count on quick turnaround, but our quality out of our digital boxes are outstanding since we have the capacity to turn orders and can meet production needs with 2 of 3 boxes running.

  2. Paul Sherfield

    Interesting. Digital printing covers a vast area of technologies, pigments and dies, substrates and markets.

    The solutions available to address a ‘common’ market are not always equal. The look, feel, speed and quality of production will vary from manufacturer to manufacturer and technology to technology.

    So it is still some thing of a minefield, so some knowledge of these areas is needed, even before a print vendor is chosen.

  3. michael jahn

    When I read this bit I was befuddled;

    “But you have to have folks at the plant readily able and willing to take on the issues of banding, gradient quality, and color consistency in order to meet the offset standards”

    What does that have to do with Digital vs Offset quality ? You can certainly have press work with gradient banding problems and poor color consistency in offset.

  4. Heidi Tolliver-Walker Post author

    @ Michael. As I’ve been poking around, that is one of the issues that keeps coming up directly or indirectly. Many designers and print buyers appear to see “offset” as offering color consistency as par for the course. There seems to be little recognition that you can have mediocre offset printing just as you can have mediocre digital printing. “Offset” by default is seen as higher quality, even though — like digital — there is a range of quality based on a variety of factors.

  5. Bill Fechner

    We’re in the quality group because quality sells itself. Quality is an attribute that can stand on it’s own. Turn times are typically secondary and often not as important as they may seem (think of the super hot job that had to be done immediately, gets rejected for quality and magically has another day for the reprint). Quality and quick turns are not mutually exclusive. Quality + Capacity + automation = happy Clients, happy reps and strong sales growth. Turn times are a commodity. I’d rather be tardy and make the Client look good than fast and make the Client look bad.

  6. Mark Flanders

    Maybe the old saying comes into play here, regardless of the offset-digital question. “Quality, Low Price and Turnaround…the customer can have any two of these.”

  7. Al Guerin

    Image quality is so varied from device to device, day to day, and sometimes within a print run, which includes offset, that the only judge of quality that matters is the person that receives the printed piece. In other words, understanding who actually uses the printed piece and what their expectations are is probably the most important factor. You can waste time and money trying to achieve “outstanding” image quality, when the message communicated is usually the more important than image quality.

    For example, I had a customer complain about that the image quality accuracy coming from their in-house light production digital toner printer. When I looked at the outsourced offset printed brochures they used, I actually found inconsistency in the colors. The accuracy judgment was made in comparing the digital print to an offset printed piece of the same document. When I laid out several different brochures that were offset printed side-by-side and showed that the color varied to the naked eye, I simply said, “Which color do you want me to match?”

    When printing professionals do the image quality judging, one persons “outstanding” image quality (David Uno) is another persons “crappy.” Equipment, ink/toner, substrate/paper, operator, environment, color management tools, frequency of calibration, services techs, etc. all play a role in the image quality. IMHO, printed pieces from light production digital printers can never be called “outstanding” when sitting next to their finely tuned mid to heavy production brothers, or especially when compared to a big iron offset run by a true printing craftsman/artisan.

    In summary, the image quality debate, including digital versus offset, all comes down to “it depends who the judge is.” My focus is on who the real customer is and what they expect. Why waste money and effort on trying to get the highest possible image quality if it doesn’t matter?

  8. Heidi Tolliver-Walker Post author

    @ Al. Do you guys have any graphics illustrating the differences in color gamuts between certain light production presses and heavier duty presses and offset? I know it’s impossible to make generalizations, but do you have them for specific presses? I’m putting together an article on this topic and would love to see anything you might have.

  9. Lisa Q

    In our business, both quality and speedy turnaround are imperative. We have a pretty demanding audience for our services, whether digital or offset. We are known for doing both consistently.

  10. victor stoykovich

    In the final analysis print quality ( back and white or color) is what the customer is willing to pay for. And the range of the quality whether it is digital or offset in todays world is astounding and subjective. So please excuse me I have some paper to put marks on.

  11. Bernd Luts

    I’m surprised to see this discussions also 20 years after introduction of the first digital printing technologies. During the last decades, the digital print quality has increased enourmous, also the technique used in conventional print…. What are we talking about? At the end, the customer is willing to pay for a certain quantity and quality produced in a specific time Frame. It’s the Problem of our industry that we try to setup and compare everything against Offset and cannibalise our Prices. Why are we doing that? Quality should have a Price, Speed and availability in low quantities too….

  12. John Sweeney

    There is a new independent lab that tests, and grades, print color and image quality.
    Download and print, ship the prints get the report… affordable !
    Check out

    Get your grade, and see how a device compares to others in the same class…

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