Your ultimate guide to the 12 common types of printing

Large printer printing

Source: via Bank Phrom on Unsplash

You might have a piece of history sitting right at home.

No, it’s not Grandpa Joe’s old photo album. Nor the family heirloom sitting on the mantelpiece, gathering dust.

It’s your printer.

Don’t underestimate the humble printer. It’s one of the most important inventions in history. You might be surprised to hear that we wouldn’t be where we are as a civilization without it.

No really.

Thanks to the invention of the printer, ideas have been able to spread like wildfire throughout the centuries—changing the world.

And, as you’re about to find out, printing can spread awareness of your business too.

Think about it: Any physical thing you see that’s branded has been printed.

Candy wrappers, juice cartons, billboards, books, bus stop ads, bus wraps, floor displays, clothes, newspapers, magazines—if you look around you, you’ll start to see that printing is used everywhere, and it isn’t just for paper.

That’s why printing can be a powerful driver of brand awareness, making it an important part of your business marketing.

In this ultimate guide, you’ll learn about the 12 common types of printing, their uses and how printing can outperform certain digital channels to promote your business.

I’ll even tell you a little about where this revolutionary invention came from.

Let’s dive in.

Table of contents

A revolutionary invention

A Gutenberg printing press

Source: via Patrice Audet from Pixabay

The history of printing is a story that spans over centuries, evolving from simple techniques to the sophisticated, high-speed and advanced technologies we have today.

Printing has been pivotal in spreading knowledge and ideas, advancing civilizations.

One of the earliest forms of printing dates all the way back to 200 AD in China, with the invention of woodblock printing. This technique involved carving characters or images onto wooden blocks, applying ink onto the surface and then pressing the block onto paper or fabric to transfer the ink.

Fast-forward to the 15th century in Europe, and the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg revolutionized the way people shared information, making it easier to rapidly reproduce books to spread ideas 📖

This led to an explosion of knowledge, leading to advancements in science, religion, philosophy and politics.

Printing has had a monumental impact on civilization, accelerating human progress by improving communication and education, and spreading ideas across the globe.

We wouldn’t be where we are today if it weren’t for printing.

The power of printing in a digital age

Close up of printer

Source: via Ana Rivarola on Unsplash

Despite its impressive history, you might be wondering why printing is still around in a digital age. 

That’s a good question.

It’s still around because it’s still effective. Print advertising is estimated to reach US$48.59 billion by the end of 2023.

It’s effective even compared to digital channels. Eighty percent of consumers act on printed ads, while just 45% act on digital ones.

Printing is more effective for brand awareness too, as it leads to higher levels of brand recall than digital channels. It seems that people find it easier to remember something tangible that they held in their hands.

And it’s not just the well-lived among us who appreciate printing: 92% of 18- to 23-year-olds find it easier to read print than digital content.

A couple of printing approaches

Old printing press in industrial room

Source: via Lennert Naessens on Unsplash

There’s more than one way to skin a cat (poor Fluffy🐱) and there’s more than one way to print. There are a couple of main approaches to the process; physical printing, and digital printing.

Traditionally, physical printing involved putting images and text on a wooden or metal plate, covering the printing plate with ink and then pressing the plate onto material like paper so it would transfer across.

As you’ll see, variations of that basic approach to printing are still in use today.

Unlike traditional types of printing, digital printing—an umbrella term that refers to various printing techniques—doesn’t require a printing plate to get the job done. Digital files are sent directly to the printer, skipping the need for plates or molds.

The 12 common types of printing

Now that you know the main approaches to the printing process, let’s take a deeper look at the 12 common types of printing and what to use them for.

Which printing method you use depends on what you want to print on. Each method produces a different look and comes with its own advantages and disadvantages.

1) Inkjet printing

Black Epson Stylus S22 inkjet printer

Source: via Raimond Spekking on Wikimedia

Picture an inkjet printer as a tiny artist with a palette of colors. The small ink droplets are sprayed onto the paper, creating a colorful mosaic that eventually forms your image.

Expect sharp images and smooth color transitions. Inkjet is perfect for capturing subtleties in color, making photos pop off the page.

If you have family photos that you’d like to preserve, are working on a creative project where the colors are important or need a professional-looking presentation, inkjet printing could be a great option for you.

Advantages 

Inkjet printing has excellent color reproduction and is ideal for photo printing. It’s also affordable to purchase an inkjet home printer.

Disadvantages

While the initial purchase of an inkjet printer is relatively cheap, new ink cartridges can be pricey.

And although what it produces will be high quality, inkjet printing isn’t the fastest option.

Best for:

2) Laser printing

HP Laserjet 1020 printer on concrete floor

Source: via Joydeep on Wikimedia

Laser printers use a beam of light to draw your image onto an electrically charged drum. Toner (a kind of dry ink) sticks to the charged areas, heats up and fuses onto the paper.

Sounds like witchcraft, right? 🧙

Advantages

Laser printing is an incredible time-saver. You can quickly print many copies and still get crisp, sharp text. Laser printers excel at producing clear and precise black-and-white prints.

What’s more, laser printing costs less per page compared to an inkjet printer.

Disadvantages

Although it’s cheaper per page, laser printing has limited color reproduction compared to inkjet printing. 

And purchasing a laser printer is more expensive than an inkjet printer.

Best for:

  • Office documents
  • Reports
  • Anything that doesn’t require vivid color

Tip

It’s best to avoid inkjet printing if you’re in a rush. Try laser printing instead.

3) LED UV printing

A Mimaki UJF 3042HG LED UV printer sitting on top of a desk

Source: via Akaniji on Wikimedia

LED UV printers use ultraviolet light to instantly dry and cure the ink as it’s applied to the printing surface. This doesn’t just speed up the printing process but also allows for printing on a variety of materials.

LED UV printing produces very high-quality prints with vivid colors that give your business a premium feel. It can even emboss areas of your print to give it some texture.

Advantages

Because the UV light instantly dries the ink, LED UV printing means you can turn around print jobs faster.

And with this type of printing, you’ll have high-resolution prints with fine details. It’s suitable for a wide range of materials including plastics, wood, stone, silk and metals.

Besides being a great choice for versatile and high-quality printing, it uses less power so it’s more environmentally friendly too 🌿 

Disadvantages

LED UV printing is more expensive than other printing techniques.

And UV printed dishware and water bottles generally aren’t dishwasher or microwave safe.

Best for:

4) Sublimation printing

Sublimation printing is a technique that’s perfect for fabrics and clothing. It uses special inks that turn into a gas when heated.  This gas is then absorbed by the fabric and when the ink cools down, it solidifies—creating a permanent, vivid image.

Sublimation printing gives you brilliant, fade-resistant colors that become one with the material.

Advantages

Sublimation printing produces colors with unmatched vibrancy. What’s great is that these vivid colors are durable on fabrics too.

You might assume that this would mean that sublimation printing takes a long time, but it’ll give you a surprisingly quick turnaround.

Its dry inks also minimize waste and reduce the environmental impact.

Disadvantages

It isn’t a versatile printing method as it’s limited to polyester or polymer-coated items. And you can only use it on white or light materials, as there’s no white ink in sublimation printing.

Best for: 

5) Screen printing

Close-up of person’s hands pushing ink with squeegee on screen printer

Source: via Mirzasab on Wikimedia

Screen printing uses a stencil on a mesh screen where ink is pushed through the small openings, imprinting the design onto the material. Each color is applied separately, layer upon layer, to create the final masterpiece.

Screen printing can be used on a variety of materials, but it works great with fabrics if you want to create your own custom T-shirt.

It produces bold colors and a durable design that’s able to withstand washes, if the process is carried out correctly.

Advantages

Screen printing makes working in bulk affordable. Its vibrant colors suit fabrics, and the advantage it has over sublimation printing is that it works on darker materials.

Disadvantages

The process can take longer and isn’t cost effective for small runs. But it’s perfect if you need a large number of the same print.

Best for:

  • Custom clothing
  • Fabric banners
  • Posters

Tip

 

If you want to print on darker fabrics, screen printing is a good option.

6) Offset lithography

Large offset printer

Source: via Romain Salomon on Wikimedia

Besides being a great tongue twister, offset lithographic printing (or offset printing for short) is the method that’s used to print thousands of newspapers and magazines.

The images and text to be printed are put on metal plates which are then transferred onto rubber rollers which eventually press the image onto the paper.

Advantages

When it comes to offset lithography, the more you print the more cost effective it is—so it’s perfect for large bulk orders. And it produces consistent, high-quality prints.

What’s great is that it can also print on rougher surfaces like canvas or cloth.

Disadvantages

Offset printing isn’t cheap for small print runs, is time consuming to set up and is not as accessible as other printing methods.

Best for:

  • Newspapers
  • Magazines
  • Books

7) Letterpress printing

Close-up of man’s hand rolling ink on a printing form on a letterpress

Source: viafrank van der leer on Unsplash

Letterpress printing is one of the oldest traditional printing methods. It was one of the most popular print types from the 15th to the 18th century, until more methods were developed.

It was used for printing newspapers until the development of offset printing.

This printing method puts text and images as raised elements on a rubber or metal plate, which is then inked and pressed onto paper. This creates deep impressions on thick paper which draw the eye and add a tactical dimension to a print.

Letterpress printing is the choice when you want to make a statement with a touch of vintage charm. Think wedding invitations, business cards for the connoisseur or anything that deserves a tactile and luxurious feel.

Letterpress printing is a craft that transforms ordinary paper into a work of art. It’s a nod to tradition and leaves a lasting impression (pun intended).

Advantages

Letterpress printing produces work that has an artisanal, timeless and elegant aesthetic. It offers a unique tactical quality and is ideal for small print runs.

Disadvantages

It takes plenty of time to create the printing plates and set up the press.

And if you want to print something with multiple colors, it’ll be more expensive, since each color has to be applied one at a time.

It’s best to avoid this method if you want to print larger designs, since it can struggle with them.

Best for:

8) Flexographic printing

Flexographic printing machine in a packaging facility

Source: viaDale Simonson on flickr

Ever wondered why the wrapper of your favorite chocolate bar looks so enticing? 🍫

Flexographic printing is the modern equivalent of letterpress, using flexible printing plates with raised elements that wrap around cylinders which rotate quickly.

It’s a fast and efficient printing process that’s great for printing on uneven surfaces and materials like cellophane, corrugated cardboard, plastic and metallic film—making it perfect for printing high-quality labels and packaging.

Advantages

Flexographic printing is well suited to mass-producing labels and packaging quickly, thanks to its ability to handle printing on a variety of materials.

Disadvantages

A flexographic printing press takes plenty of time to set up, especially if there are multiple colors to print. Because of that, it’s not a good choice for small print jobs.

Best for:

9) 3D printing

Close-up of 3D printer

Source: via Jonathan Juursema on Wikimedia

Need a personalized phone case or a miniature model of the Eiffel Tower? With 3D printing, your imagination is the limit.

A 3D printer works off a digital file and uses materials like plastic or resin to print an object layer by layer. While this additive process sounds simple, it can create complex objects like car parts, furniture and prosthetics. With 3D printing, it’s possible to create a prototype of a product affordably and quickly.

Advantages

If you want to do a small job quickly and cheaply, 3D printing is a good solution. Plus, it makes it easy to customize a print job to what you need.

And because you only print what you need with 3D printing, it reduces waste.

Disadvantages

Even though 3D printing is fast and affordable for small print jobs, it’s slow when printing larger objects. And it’s not cost effective for mass production.

Best for:

  • Prototyping
  • Custom-made items
  • Consumer products
  • Architectural models
  • Film props

10) Large-format printing

Large-format printer printing black numbers on a brushed aluminum sheet in process.

Source: via Signage.Professional on Wikimedia

Large-format printing produces bold, high-resolution prints that dominate the space they occupy. As the name suggests, it’s the printing method that’s used for traditional advertising in the form of large billboards and banners that grab the attention of passersby.

Large-format printers use rolls of material, like paper or vinyl, to create oversized prints. The process is actually similar to what your home printer does, but on a much grander scale.

Advantages

Large-format printing is the ideal solution for traditional outdoor advertising. What’s great is that it’s a fast production process and it creates durable prints on a wide range of materials, including vinyl and canvas.

Disadvantages

The only disadvantage to large-format printing is that it can be difficult to get exactly right.

Best for:

  • Banners
  • Murals
  • Billboards
  • Building wraps
  • Bus wraps
  • Wallpaper
  • Floor displays

11) Rotogravure printing

Close-up of rotogravure printing machine cylinders

Source: via Eng.abdullah1103 on Wikimedia

Rotogravure printing, also known as gravure, uses engraved cylinders that are etched with tiny cells, each holding a specific amount of ink. As the cylinder rotates, it transfers the ink to the printing surface, creating a print with remarkable detail and consistency.

Advantages

Rotogravure printing produces exceptional detail and color depth, making it the choice for producing high-end publications, packaging and decorative prints. The real advantage to rotogravure printing is that its exceptional quality is consistent even across large quantities. And it can turn around large print jobs quickly.

Disadvantages

While it gets through print jobs quickly, it is slow to set up to begin with and comes at a higher price than other types of printing.

Best for:

  • Magazines
  • Newspapers
  • Packaging materials
  • Postcards
  • Decorative prints

12) Engraving

Close-up of laser engraving machine emitting purple laser on metal sheet

Source: via Opt Lasers on Unsplash

The traditional form of engraving is a form of artistic printmaking where designs are cut (or engraved) on a metal plate with a sharp tool. The plate is then covered in ink and pressed onto a material like paper. Traditional engraving creates a sophisticated, detailed look and is still used today for wedding invitations and artwork.

Nowadays, with laser engraving, it’s possible to etch designs on a variety of things to promote your brand or create a unique gift—from pens and metal business card holders to classy invitations.

Advantages

In its traditional printmaking form, engraving produces a unique and sophisticated aesthetic and intricate designs.

With laser engraving it’s easy to personalize items like stationery without breaking the bank. Your design will last too, because it’s a durable form of printing.

Disadvantages

Because both traditional engraving and laser engraving can be so intricate, they can be time consuming. And if you’re working on a large print job, it can be more difficult to produce consistent results.

Best for:

Make your mark on the world

Now that you’re familiar with the common types of printing and what they’re best suited for, you know how best to promote your business and make your mark on the world.

Depending on what you want to achieve and what method you use, printing can be a process that requires thorough technical expertise to get right. And some printing methods, like offset lithography, can be hard to access (as well as pronounce).

The good news is that many of these printing methods are taken care of by VistaPrint. You can easily print what you need with just a few clicks and have it land on your doorstep without a worry.

It’s time to make your mark on the world. It’s time to print.