Short Run Digital Printing

Short run digital printing is cost-effective, high quality, and opens the door to designers with access to digital design tools.

This article is about the benefits of digital printing to print greeting cards.

To do that, let’s go back to the early days of printing to show why it is cheaper now. Lithographs and lithographic printing dates back to the end of the 18th century. In those days images for commercial printing had to be drawn by hand at the printing stage. It didn’t matter how the image had been produced in the designer’s studio. It had to be a design the printing shop could reproduce by hand. That’s why the early designs were just shaded line drawings.

The word lithograph comes from ‘lithos’ the Greek word for stone because the first plates were made of stone. Later they were made of steel, but the name stuck.

The process works on the principle that oil and water don’t mix. The image is drawn on a flat plate of stone or steel with a greasy ink. Then the plate is coated with with a mixture of acid and gum. This fixes the greasy image and etches into the remaining parts of the plate.

The plate is moistened and then more greasy printing ink is put on the plate. Because the printing ink is greasy, it only sticks to the parts where the image has been drawn.

A Plate Could Produce Thousands Of Prints

The plate just touches the paper or card when the design is transferred to it. And because the plate isn’t pressed onto the the paper, it lasts a long time and a plate can produce thousands of prints.

It’s different with, for example, letterpress because there the plate is pressed into the paper. And that wears the plate more quickly.

Drawing In Reverse

There’s something else the printing shop had to take into account when printing. The design is scratched into the plate and the image is transferred onto the card. That means the original image is reversed when it is printed. Therefore the artist at the printing shop had to draw the image in reverse on the plate.

It was difficult enough that the printing shop had to turn the original artwork into something that could be scratched onto a plate. And it had to be drawn in reverse.

Offset printing solved this. It worked by using a second plate or offset. The image was first scratched on one pate and then the printing machine transferred and the image to a second plate, which reversed it. That freed the artist at the printing shop to scratch the image the right way around.

Block Colours

The next development happened when artists and printers realised they could use block colours in large areas rather than scratch detailed lines. And the could do both and create bolder images.

Enter the Impressionist school of painting. They were quick to see the advantages being able to work quickly with ink on stone to make multiple prints. Every forward looking entrepreneur wanted to be in on the action. Everyone from avent curators to cafe proprietors commissioned Impressionist painters to make reproductions advertising exhibitions, cafes, and meetings.

To name but tow, Toulouse Lautrec’s Folies Bergere prints and the advertisements for the Black Cat cafe were plastered all around Paris and brought the artists to the attention of the wider public. That wider public could not afford an original painting, but they could afford a print. They could even rip down old posters and take them home.

At the same time printers perfected the technique of inking a photographic image. Being able to use photographic images meant that more or less anything could be printed for the mass market.

The Economics Of Printing

The limits on the economics of lithographic printing are that each design needs its own plate. And a lot of the cost of lithographic printing is in setting up the plate. So to make lithographic printing economical, several hundred sheets have to be printed from each design.

Also, if you are a commercial printer with a lot of customers, each with their own designs, you have to store all those plates to use the next time around.

Short Run Digital Printing

With digital printers, the software renders the digital images directly onto the press. There is no need for a plate, which makes the whole process quicker and cheaper.

Each design is stored as digital information rather than as a plate. And that has resulted in an explosion in the number of designs.

The early software was crude, and digital prints were a step down from the quality of lithographic prints.Nowadays digital-offset printing machines can print to the same quality as lithographic printing.

And that means high quality prints can be printed economically in small print runs.

What this has done of course, is to enable independent greeting card publishers to print small runs on demand.

Now, instead of 500 copies of each new design, a designer can run off, say, six copies per design.

This reduces cash outlay and it keeps down the stock that a card publisher needs to hold.

From a card publishers point of view short runs free up creativity. A new design might not sell, but if there is only a small investment in the new design, a publisher can test the market without much penalty.

Take this greeting card of a Herdwick ram. I photographed it and then processed the photograph digitally in Photoshop and converted it to a CMYK colour format for uploading to the commercial printing firm that prints our cards. Once there, their offset printers read the files and set the layout on a sheet ready for printing. Then they cut the cards to size and crease them ready to send back to us.

In fact the biggest deterrent to small print runs is the cost of sending the parcel of cards from the printer to the designer who ordered them.

Designing For Short Run Digital Printing

Digital printing is cost-effective and high quality, and it opens the door to creative designers who also now have access to digital design tools.

If you like the image of the ram at the top of this article, It is available as a greeting card. And if a framed print takes your fancy, and you like contemporary art, then perhaps our yellow pepper framed print would be your thing. And if not yellow, then try the red pepper print.

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