Article last updated March 7, 2023
Making the right ink selection for your design project is critical for achieving the desired results, especially if you work in a low-budget office. There are dozens of printers on the market that are designed for specific office needs, but many of them require expensive ink cartridges that are tailored to their specific capabilities. Shopping around for the best ink for your budget can help you save money without sacrificing print quality. Finding the best ink for your next design project is a fine balance of artistic choice and practical decision making for designers.
We understand that navigating the various types of ink available can be exhausting. We explain the various types of ink and toner on the market and define their uses in this guide so you can make an informed decision about which ink is best for your needs.
So, how do you choose the best ink? Since ink is tied to a printing process, choosing the right ink also means choosing the right printing process. To better understand what ink type works best for you, let's explore the different printing processes starting with the two most common (digital and offset).
Printer and Ink Types for Digital Printing
The digital printing process allows an image stored on a computer to be directly transmitted to an inkjet or laser printer. Some wide-format devices support large rolls of vinyl, paper or thin plastic to be used as the printing surface, while flatbed printers allow printing on a firm poster board, foam board or rigid plastics. Digital printing is ideal for projects with a short print run because it has a much faster turnaround time than offset printing and allows for unique customization on each print job.
Printers with Inkjet (uses: Ink)
Inkjet printers use a series of nozzles that spray tiny drops of ink directly on the print surface. The term "responsibility" refers to the act of determining whether or not a person is responsible for his or her own actions. Manufacturers such as Canon and Hewlett Packard use thermal ink heads. The thermal ink head process uses a heating element that vaporizes ink in the nozzle chamber, creating a gas bubble that expands and forces the ink out.
These inks have a low viscosity and contain tiny particles of pigment or dye to allow them to pass through the fine nozzle of an inkjet printer. Both are water-based or aqueous ink formulas, but they dry differently once they reach the print surface. Let's look at the various ink types used by inkjet printers.
Dye based ink
How it works: Colorant in dye ink completely dissolves in superpure deionized water. Various optical compounds are added to increase color vibrancy and saturation. Ethylene glycol keeps the dye in solution with the water and slows evaporation, while solvents help it dry faster once it reaches the printing surface. The ink sprayed from the printer nozzle absorbs into the fibers of the paper. After a long period of time and exposure to direct sunlight, it may show signs of fading or color shifts. Furthermore, because the dye particles are completely liquefied inside the cartridge, prints can still smudge when exposed to humidity or moisture.
Best for use with: Dye inks are best suited for everyday printing of documents, at-home photos, invitations and colorful business reports. Traditionally, dye-based inks have been used in most inkjet printers on the market. They are admired for their ability to produce vivid colors with extraordinary detail. But colors do tend to fade over time.
Ink with Pigment
How it works: Pigment is a very fine color powder that's suspended in liquid. As water evaporates during the drying process, its particles form a continuous film and bond to edges within the printed surface, increasing color stability and longevity.
Best for printing archival photographs or documents: Pigment-based ink works well. When used with certain types of paper under ideal conditions, it can last for more than 200 years. Its drying properties make it ideal for printing on non-porous or glossy substrates, such as stickers and signs. It is also great for silk screening and professional photographs or art. Pigment ink is more resistant to water and UV light than dye-based ink. However, it is frequently more expensive and lacks the brightness and color range of dye ink.
Solvent based ink
How it works: Aqueous inks are great for home or office use, but their commercial applications are limited due to their slow drying time. In order to achieve high-speed production, some printers have turned to solvent-based or UV-curable inks. Solvent inks dry quickly due to evaporation. They are pigment-based, but unlike aqueous formulas, which combine colorant with liquid, they contain volatile organic compounds, or solvents.
Best for use with: Solvent ink produce rich vibrant colors and enable printing on flexible, uncoated vinyl surfaces. Solvent inks are commonly used to create vehicle graphics, billboards, banners, and adhesive decals. They are also waterproof, durable and fade resistant, eliminating the need for special over-coatings. One disadvantage is the requirement for specialized ventilation of the printing area to avoid exposure to hazardous fumes, particularly when using hard solvent inks. Eco-friendly inks are a good alternative. Instead of petroleum, they use soy as a solvent, which allows them to be used in enclosed spaces without the need for specialized ventilation. They are also far easier to recycle than petroleum-based solvents.
UV inks are made up of acrylic monomers and a photo initiator, and unlike aqueous formulas, they do not evaporate. Once it hits the print surface, the ink is exposed to strong UV light causing a chemical reaction that helps its components cross-link into a solid state. The colorants in UV cured inks can be dye- or pigment-based, but the latter is used more frequently because it's more fade-resistant. Since the ink dries almost instantly you can print projects far quicker compared to printing with an aqueous based ink machine.
Best for use with: UV inkjet printers use ultraviolet light to cure the ink. They produce strong, high-quality prints that dry quickly, allowing for immediate overprinting, cutting, and folding operations. UV ink is commonly used for printing banners, large posters, or trade-show displays.
Printers with lasers (uses: Toner)
Laser printers, during what's called electro-photographic process, use dry ink (also known as Toner), static electricity and heat to place and bond the ink onto the paper.
How it works: Laser toner cartridges use dry toner powder to transfer images on paper. Toner contains pigment, but unlike aqueous ink formulas for inkjet printers, it's mixed with dry plastic particles. The coloring is provided by pigment, which is firmly fused to the page by melted plastic particles.
Laser printers are better suited for high-volume print jobs and can print faster than inkjet printers. They are most commonly used for black and white text but color laser printers are also available.
Ink Printers (uses: Solid Ink)
Solid ink printers are quick and produce vibrant colors. They produce images in a process similar to offset printing - the print head sprays melted ink onto a heated drum, which then transfers an image on paper. Solid ink does not come in cartridges and instead resembles a wide crayon.
How it works: Non-toxic, resin-based polymer is used in solid ink sticks. Because of the waxy nature of the ink, many people believe that solid ink sticks cannot be written on. This is only partially true; you can easily write on any page in a regular text-based document. Certain pens, like a standard laser printer, may have difficulty adhering to a page with a high amount of color. Xerox is the sole manufacturer of solid ink printers, which must warm up before printing and cool down before moving.
Best for: Solid ink sticks will not drip or smudge on your clothes. They will also not dry out after prolonged inactivity. Ink sticks can be used on a variety of media, including graphic design, and are less harmful to the environment because there are no cartridges to dispose of. According to Xerox, ink sticks generate 90% less printing waste than laser cartridges.
Dye-Sublimation Printers (uses: Dye-Sublimation Ink)
Instead of laying down individual dots like inkjet printers, dye-sublimation printers "infuse" the printing surface with ink to produce a continuous tone. As the printhead passes over an ink-filled ribbon, the dyes vaporize and permeate the paper's surface before returning to solid form. The majority of dye-sublimation printing is performed with specialized inkjet printers. The "ink fluid" is sprayed onto transfer paper by the nozzles. The fluid in the inkjet cartridge is considered the dye carrier because it migrates to the printing surface only when the transfer paper is heated.
Dye-sublimation ink consists of a solid, heat-sensitive dye suspended in a liquid medium. Under heat and pressure, the solid dye particles transform into a gas, bond with any present polymers, and revert back into a solid state. Therefore, the dye particles cannot be removed and will not be washed away.
Dye-sublimation printers are best suited for producing high-quality photographs, but they can also be used to print on promotional products such as t-shirts, hats, and mugs. Digital textile printing with dye sublimation inks is becoming more popular. Even after multiple washings, images on fabric will not fade or crack, and images printed on hard surfaces will not chip, peel, or scratch. As soon as a print comes out of the printer, it is dry and ready to be handled.
Printing by Offset
Offset printing enables an inked image on a printing plate to be printed on a rubber cylinder and then transferred to paper or other material. Offset printing is classified into two types: sheet-fed and web.
A. Sheet-fed offset printing presses print individual sheets in sizes ranging from full size (approximately 28 x 40 inches) to half and quarter size. They are commonly used for printing business marketing materials.
B. Web-offset presses feed a large roll of paper that runs continuously through the press. For high-volume printing of catalogs, newspaper inserts, and magazines, they are more cost-effective than sheet-fed.
Web-offset printing can be coldset or heatset. The coldset offset process allows the ink to gradually dry by evaporation and absorption into the paper. It is most commonly found on uncoated paper stocks such as newsprint. Because the ink does not dry immediately, a small amount of residue remains on the paper, similar to the black dust that may get on your hands if you hold a newspaper. Heatset inks dry when printed paper passes through an oven immediately after ink is applied.
Inkjet Offset (Solvent-based vs Quick-set Ink)
It works as follows: Heat-set web offset inks based on solvents dry quickly. Because they emit significantly more VOCs than coldset inks, most heatset presses are also equipped with pollution control equipment such as a thermal oxidizer or after burner to destroy the high volumes of VOCs emitted by these inks.
Sheetfed offset presses primarily employ quick-set inks, which are composed of a resin-oil-solvent mixture. Others use super quick-set infrared inks, ultraviolet curing inks, or electron beam curing inks in conjunction with various radiation-curing devices.
When it comes to printing detail-oriented, high-volume products like catalogs, books, brochures, and greeting cards, offset printing remains the gold standard. It is valued for its ability to produce consistent high-quality images on a large scale, but the print process can be more time-consuming and expensive than digital printing.
Printer ink guide for first time buyers
Making an informed decision about the type of ink to purchase can be just as important for the budget-conscious designer. Design-specific inks can be far more expensive than your average inkjet, so familiarize yourself with all of your purchasing options.
Cartridges from the original equipment manufacturer (OEM).
The most costly ink option. Consumers often think of a printer purchase as a one-time transaction, while printer manufacturers view it as a beginning of a buying relationship. Many companies will sell the device at a loss in order to become the consumer's preferred ink provider for the foreseeable future. Printer manufacturers discourage the use of third-party cartridges, claiming that their ink is specially formulated for their machines. The appearance of standard text and graphics, on the other hand, is likely to be too similar to notice any difference. Skip the branded stuff if you're not working on an art gallery exhibit.
OEMs have also stated that using compatible cartridges will void the device's warranty. The Magnuson-Moss Warranty Improvement Act, on the other hand, deflects that claim by protecting the consumer and ensuring that a printer warranty is not voided if a compatible cartridge is used in one of their machines. No company, associate, salesperson, or service technician can deny service or a refund that would otherwise be covered under a warranty program simply because the customer used a compatible product.
Compatible Printer Cartridges
Consider them the "off-brand" version of a genuine cartridge; they are manufactured by third-party companies and are designed to work just as well in leading printers as their branded counterparts. Compatibles are thoroughly tested before being shipped and contain all new parts. They are reverse engineered to ensure that no patents are infringed upon, and they are frequently less expensive than OEM (original equipment manufacturer) cartridges. Many have smart chips, just like the original, to allow you to easily monitor ink levels.
Printer Cartridges Remanufactured
These cartridges are not new, but they perform just as well as compatibles. Used cartridges are returned to the manufacturer, who cleans them, replaces or repairs any broken components, and replenishes the ink supply. To ensure optimum performance, quality tests such as the Standardized Test Methods Committee certification are performed after the cartridge has been restored to its original form. They are less expensive because merchants who sell them can set their own prices rather than having to adhere to prices set by companies such as HP and Epson.