Hamilton Chan is CEO and Founder of Paperlinks. With the free Paperlinks iPhone app, featured previously by Apple as the #1 New & Noteworthy app, consumers can scan and view QR code content with a native app experience. Paperlinks also provides a powerful platform for generating QR codes, hosting content, and tracking their performance.
The QR code: A thing of beauty or an eyesore? The magical barcodes that can be scanned by a smartphone to launch an offline-to-online experience are often criticized for their black and white checkerbox appearance. Those who doubt that QR codes will go mainstream are quick to point out that the look of QR codes will deter marketers and advertisers from using them.
Fortunately, QR codes are malleable and can be redesigned in truly extraordinary ways, while still maintaining their scanability. The truth is, QR codes no longer have to be checkerbox in appearance. We’ve entered a new phase of “designer codes” that can be integrated into marketing campaigns in an attractive way that isn’t an eyesore.
QR codes have so much potential from a design perspective, so let’s take a look at a few tricks and techniques you should keep in mind when designing a code to enhance your brand and appeal to your audience.
1. Add a Color Palette
The easiest way to add branding power to your code is to add color to it. Your QR code does not have to be standard black and white in order to be scanned. You can embed multiple colors and apply a color gradient without affecting scanability. The only rule of thumb is that the code color should generally be dark and placed against a light-colored background. Make sure the contrast is sufficient, or the code will be difficult to scan.
A “reversed out” code, where the background is dark and the boxes are light colored, is generally not recommended. Only a small handful of QR code readers can treat such codes as a film negative and properly interpret the data.
2. Soften Hard Edges with Round Corners
One of the QR code’s greatest aesthetic flaws is its numerous hard edges. You can dramatically lessen the severity of this look by strategically rounding some corners. It is not necessary to round all of the corners but softening up the edges will definitely make the code appear more friendly and approachable.
3. Incorporate Dimensionality for 3D Impact
One high impact way to brand your QR code is to obstruct some of the boxes with imagery, such as a logo. By placing an image in front of the code, you imbue the code with a sense of depth. An ordinary barcode suddenly becomes a form of artwork, and you can really make a statement with the way you melt boxes together or choose to obstruct aspects of the code.
Fun ideas include adding a logo to the center of the code, but you could also add interesting elements to the corners or the sides for an even less standard look. Adding images or characters between the boxes is another playful way to dress the code with personality and style.
4. Use QR Codes With 30% Error Correction
If you decide to add in a logo to create a 3D feel for your QR code, you need to decide which part of the coding to obstruct with your logo. The key to creating these eye-popping designer codes is to take advantage of the fact that up to 30% of a QR code’s data can be missing or obstructed, and still be scanned. QR codes can be generated with 0%, 10%, 20% or 30% error correction rates built in. Building in the 30% error correction rate adds more noise (extra boxes) within the code, but those extra boxes within the code can then be removed to make way for a logo or other interesting imagery.
If you use a QR code with 0% error correction, the code will look more streamlined, but opportunities to brand the code by adding in a logo are very limited. Removing or obstructing a single box within a 0% error QR code could render it unscannable.
Apply a Trial-and-Error Process
Technically, it is possible to mathematically compute which boxes in a QR code are the buffers that can be removed, but such computations are generally unnecessary. By applying a simple process of trial-and-error, anyone can begin applying their design techniques to a code and then test for scannability.
Be sure to test your code’s scannability with multiple QR readers, ideally three or four. Some readers may be able to overcome some stylistic elements of your designer code, whereas others will not. Deploying your code without testing for scannability is designer malpractice and can cause serious heartache with clients. It is true that even with reasonable precautions, designer codes may still be difficult to scan, so you must always weigh the costs of scanning difficulty against the benefits of designing a code that is eye-catching. If a designer code takes more than a few seconds to scan, it probably needs to be redesigned.
In the end, creating branded QR codes is as much art as it is science. The mathematical qualities of a QR code and the impact of a clever design can truly elevate a QR code to the point where the code becomes the central artwork of a piece of marketing collateral. Applying designer best practices will enhance scanning conversion rates and effectively augment an offline item with online capabilities.
It is only a matter of time before QR codes hit mainstream. Knowing how to innovate both in technology and design, and how to implement a QR code in the right way for your business, will keep your brand on the cutting edge of marketing and technology.