Digital Print Formats

Almost any type of printed material (books, posters, letters, advertisements, etc.) can be created digitally. In fact, digital hard copy has almost completely taken over some areas of printing – e.g. office document creation via computers has replaced typewriters. In fact, it may actually be easier to say what cannot be digitally printed nowadays:  which is really only extremely large production runs. This is not due to digital printing technology being unable to perform the function of making large numbers of copies, rather it is due to cost issues. For large print runs offset lithography is still considerably cheaper, but this may change in the future. Currently, where digital excels is short run printing and the variable data print. In variable data printing each impression can be different, whereas in traditional offset lithography each impression is the same.

But even the traditional print technologies are rarely purely analog anymore. Certain steps in silver-halide photography and offset lithography have also been converted to digital. For example, today it is often lasers or LED arrays controlled by computers that expose printing plates and photo-sensitive papers. It is important to note, however, that in these cases, even though digital steps to the process have been added, the resulting prints will behave over time much like their earlier, fully analog counter parts. Any change in permanence characteristics between the digital and traditional version of these types of printing will have more to do with advances in colorant and paper quality and will not be a function of the printing technology itself.

In cultural heritage institutions, many collection care professionals may not know what to expect regarding what can or cannot be digitally printed. Many are aware that photographic images and office documents today are likely digital, but fewer are aware of the number of books, posters, and ephemera that can also be created with these modern technologies and materials.

Below is a list of various categories of objects that may be printed digitally. As with the rest of the DP3 site, the technologies discussed will be limited to ink jet, electrophotography, and dye sublimation.

Books – As stated above, any extremely large printing run will likely still be created with offset lithography. This is because it is still cheaper per print at that volume. Of course, many book titles do not need such high volumes. In addition, some bound volumes may need only one or two copies as in the case of some theses, artists books (which can also have longer runs), and personal photobooks.
Periodicals – While some magazines, such as national news publications, need print runs in the millions, other specialty periodicals with smaller target audiences can benefit from the reduced cost of digital when it comes to very short runs. These can include magazines, newsletters, journals, etc.
Manuscripts/documents – Printed documents are almost always created digitally today. Typewriters have largely been replaced by desktop computers with laser or inkjet printers. Even the photocopier has been “digitized” into an inkjet or laser printer, where a copy made is first imaged by a scanner and then printed with toner or ink.
Photographs – From family snapshots to fine art, photographs are printed by both traditional and digital output (though as stated above, even the traditional photo usually includes one or more digital steps). The digitally printed photo differs from the digitally printed document in that an additional process (dye sublimation) can be used and the variety of printing papers for photos is also greater.

Graphic objects – A variety of graphic objects are also created using digital printing technologies. Many of these are created using the same printers, inks, and papers as digitally printed photographs. Other use print systems originally designed for other purposes such as commercial signage. The range of uses can be from advertising to fine art.

Computer Art – While much digital fine art is photographic (the image was captured by a camera) there are a variety of other forms of art that are output onto paper using digital print systems. The most common type is art created within computers using drawing and other programs.

Ephemera – A large number of ephemera objects, such as identification cards, event tickets, receipts, flyers, postcards, etc. are also printed using inkjet, electrophotography, and dye sublimation (as well as other digital print technologies not discussed on this site).