By Peter North

Four Questions For QR Code Designers

By Peter North

QR codes may seem like a nascent, cutting-edge technology, but they’ve actually been around for almost 20 years. They were originally invented in the mid-1990s to track car parts during the manufacturing process, but the emergence of smartphones (and QR code scanning apps) has brought quick response codes out of the niche car manufacturing and into the much broader mobile marketing industry. Now that smartphone owners can scan a QR code with just a few touches, the design possibilities for QR codes are almost endless.

But, the near-infinite possibilities for QR code use can actually pose quite a conundrum. The fact that they could be used for anything doesn’t necessarily mean that they should be used for anything. In fact, it’s not perfectly clear what the best practices for QR codes really are. They’re clearly not just for tracking car parts anymore, but how should they be used ideally? Designers have tried all sorts of creative, experimental implementations of quick response codes, and some have fared better than others. Quite a few questions remain regarding when, where, and how QR codes should be utilized.

QR Code Placement: Peripheral Or Front and Center?

It’s fairly common to see a small, inconspicuous QR code on the corner of a print ad or product packaging. Because QR codes aren’t exactly mainstream (many potential customers still find them strange and baffling), most advertisers do not want to rely on them too heavily for their ad campaigns and other messaging efforts. As a result, the most common QR code placements are on the sides, the corners, or the backs of marketing materials, making them a “nice to have” addition, but not a truly integral part of the design.

However, it may surprise you that a few intrepid advertisers choose to be big and bold with their QR code use, making advertisements that feature QR codes as the focal point of their designs. Take a look at the following advertisement inside of Denver International Airport.

A 1st Bank advertisement featuring gigantic QR codes.

If you examine the ad closely, you’ll see that they do the exact opposite of most QR code advertisements; the QR codes are front and center, and the company is mentioned inconspicuously in the corner. Despite the fact that the brand isn’t very prominent (and the destinations of the three QR codes have little to do with the sponsor), 1st Bank has found these ads to be very effective in building brand loyalty. In fact, they have an entire marketing campaign (aptly named the “helpfulness” campaign) based on little more than just helping people. In this particular case, weary, jet-lagged, stranded travelers will surely appreciate their choice of three famous novels loaded into their smartphone. Afterward, It would be hard not to favor 1st Bank when choosing between dozens of nearly identical, almost commodity-like banks.

Many mobile marketers would tell you that the “right way” to implement these QR codes would have involved designing a typical print ad and then squeezing QR codes onto the peripheral parts of the layout. But, is that really all that effective? This bank’s bold, thoughtful, “helpful,” QR-centric advertisement suggests the opposite, and makes it difficult to settle on a single correct way to effectively place a QR code within a design.

Should You Teach a Man (Or Woman) to Scan?

Should you try to describe QR codes and enlighten your potential customers within a design?

On one hand, it’s nearly impossible to educate a passerby — who in all likelihood has very limited time and attention — on what a QR code is and how to use it. Often, every word and every inch of a design is heavily scrutinized by approval committees, and adding extra information could arguably detract from the design, distract the customer or raise the overall cost of implementing the design.

But, on the other hand, designers of advertisements, product packaging, or other branding materials are typically tasked with condensing a message down to visual information accompanied by one or two succinct sentences. Couldn’t they follow the same familiar process to illustrate and describe how to use QR codes?

In the aforementioned 1st Bank advertisement shown above, the designers had ample room to describe a three-step process for making use of their offering. But, since these particular QR codes are unusually prominent in the design — making the added instructions an absolute necessity — this ad is a poor example of providing succinct, unobtrusive QR code instruction. Most designs have far less room and freedom for an elaborate multi-step guide. Instead, some designs include a short, semantic, memorable URL near the QR code, which has obvious utility for interested viewers who aren’t familiar with QR codes or don’t have a scanning app loaded. Other designs recommend scanning apps for major mobile operation systems i.e. “Scan this with QR Master for iOS or Scannable for Android.”

It’s hard to say whether the advantages of teaching customers to scan outweigh the downsides. You may confuse as many people as you enlighten. And, no amount of teaching will help a customer who doesn’t own a smartphone to begin with.

Are QR Codes For The Customer, The Company, Or Both?

At first, it might seem that QR codes are purely designed to appeal to customers. But, the fact that QR codes can provide extensive data on the efficacy and performance of their respective advertisements might mean that they benefit the company as well.

Many print ads have no way to measure their own performance. Unless the print advertisement in question includes its own unique phone number, email address, or URL, print advertisers won’t have any precise way to determine how much interest their design created. They can often get an approximate estimate of how many “exposures” or “impressions” they have bought with a given ad placement, but that metric offers no insight into how well (or how poorly) customers are actually responding to the ad.

Designers in particular could benefit greatly from knowing how engaging their ad design truly is; it would open the possibility of comparing the performance of similar QR-based ads and refining the ad design based on real customer feedback.

So, do QR codes benefit the customer or the company? Both smart companies and smart customers can reap benefits, but it’s difficult to say whether QR codes are meant to be a customer convenience or a method to measure ad performance.

Should QR Codes Be Used in Low Bandwidth Areas?

Anyone scanning a quick response code is almost certainly using cellular bandwidth to get to the destination. If your QR-based design is deep in an underground subway system or on the back of an airplane seat, it could be very difficult (if not impossible) to scan. In fact, it may even damage the brand of your company by frustrating and disappointing scanners. You’d think that these potential problems would be obvious, anticipated, and remedied, but some very large companies have placed poorly-designed QR codes in poorly-chosen places, where they end up frustrating customers instead of delighting them.

A JetBlue advertisement with a prominent QR code... 300 feet underground in a New York City subway tunnel.

But, on the other hand, getting a customer’s undivided attention while they have little to no bandwidth could be very valuable. If you can manage to reach a customer on a long plane or underground train ride, they’ll likely have little else to do besides viewing your design and learning about your products and services. Additionally, there are occasions where bandwidth is available on boats, planes and underground trains. Finally, most well-designed QR code scanners have a scanning history that allows users to return to a code that they scanned days or weeks ago. Just making it into that scanning history could be a valuable tool for savvy designers.

Have you implemented QR codes in any of your designs? Do you have any examples of interesting, creative uses of QR codes? Do you have any answers to the questions above?

  • Very interesting article, being in the QR industry I have found very usefull information on your post

  • We did try QR code for one of the ads and have to say it is great and easy way to track how the ad is doing . BTW i was surprised how many people use this…

  • Tana Lee


    How about a QR code that explains how to use QR codes?

    Possibly the advertisers who use QR codes as main content only want customers who are already savvy enough to implement the code.

  • Mark Slydale

    You forgot to include “Why in the hell would you ever suggest using a QR Code?” since this is the most ridiculous fad that is difficult for the user, 95% of people have no idea what they are, and overall the CTA after most of them doesn’t benefit the effort involved in scanning them.

  • twitter : @ineoscan
    I read this article with a lot of interrest. It describes the essential ways for the explosion of the QR Code (or wathever other form of “encode or hidden” access) design. So, I would like to expose my thinking and phylosophy.

    ***QR Code Placement: Peripheral Or Front and Center?***
    Defintively, the known brands have already their image in both minds. They have the opportunity to exchange the placement in their ads. 1st Bank (I don’t know who is that) got it for “chocking” the viewers. I choose this way but changing the minds is not an easy way and the next point is fully relative.

    ***Should You Teach someone to Scan? (sorry, I changed the chapter to avoid any sexist issue***
    In my opinion, this is the more important point. On one side, we have both brands usng the “ugly” QR Code and then, badly used (I mean, redirect to main site (to do what????), content not design for mobile, short url not secured, no stats…) . It makes the audience definitively suspecious about the super usage we could make with this (very old ) technology (we can use now thank to our smartphones). Anyway, what we need ?
    Imagine, Just one wonder(woman or man) brand who traces the way and make it essential to our life, then a second… it is done. Qr Code besome the way to be fashion.

    ***Are QR Codes For The Customer, The Company, Or Both?***
    Both! However according to all blogs or social threads we can read, QR Code Design (or not designed) can do whatever….. In clear nothing as it is not clearly defined.
    Customers can get vouchers or random bonus
    Customers can pay the next RIP Steve Jobs book with 3 clicks on Amazon
    Customers can scan the wonder super guy (or woman) during the party where everybody wears a tpersonalized tee-shirt
    Customers can access to all the Company maketer is able to attract Customers

    Oops, I forgot the Companies
    Companies can download the document instead to have heavy plastic bag on the exibitions
    Companies can add contact data into their directory or propose visit card with vcard QR CODE

    Avove all, companies can follow their QR Code design campaign activities

    ***Should QR Codes Be Used in Low Bandwidth Areas?**
    YES!!!! With texte message only. That is poor for sure. Brands must definitively anticipate theirs campaigns to avoid potential customer frustation…

    *** ABout me***
    I wll be very glad fpor providing you a personalized QR Code design as a gift. Provide me the few words and graphical identity about you.

    Kind regards,


  • TAGster is working on a great use for QR codes in the digital lost and found space. Our stickers and key ring charms each include a unique ID as well as a unique QR code that acts as a way to instantly notify the owner of a lost item. When someone finds a lost item and wants to notify the owner, they simply scan the QR code, enter some contact info and submit. Within seconds the owner is notified by text, email or automated phone call. TAGster is set to launch in June. http://www.Facebook.com/TAGsterInc

  • Remember, you can put more than just URLs into QR codes.

    For subways without data coverage, maybe try putting some plain text into the QR (“Why hello there!”), or maybe even a VCARD contact (the consumer’s phone will ask to save the contact to their phone’s contact list).

  • Diane

    Our local cemeteries are placing QR codes onto the headstones. The code will link to the person’s obituary and other pages that the family might add.

  • I’ve seen two good uses of QR recently. The first was a poster on a movie entrance offering FREE Popcorn. You scanned the QR, it asked you to approve posting that you were going to the movies at X on your Facebook or Twitter, then you got a new QR displayed and showed it to the concession stand who scanned your phone and gave you the free popcorn. Slick.

    Then I was just at a JambaJuice and they had the QR code artfully embedded in images of fruit. It was the same color as the fruit image so it blended it but was still recognizable (both by humans and the scanner). Each one did something different, signing you up for the newsletter or taking you to nutritional information. Nice implementation.

    Being in a high tech town (Seattle) QR is ubiquitous here. Recently when a meeting locale changed at the last minute the posted sign included a QR with a link to directions to the new location. The uses are endless.

  • Steve P

    2-D barcodes, developed by Denso Wave in Japan, are sorely underused. Most advertisers use them simply to invoke a web browser and jump the user to a particular website. A few will use them to invoke an email or texting program to get the user to sign up for something.

    However 2-D barcodes currently have a capacity upwards of 7,000 numerals or over 4,000 alpha-numeric characters. That’s over 10 pages of text! The possibilities for that much information contained in such a small area are enormous. Why publishers and game designers haven’t jumped on them is beyond me.

    As with many technologies, the limits are with the designers, not the developers.

  • I have seen QR code used to give discounts at restaurants. Not an orginal idea but every idea builds on another to get public awareness. We as developers use it as a means to fill out surveys.

  • As commenters have pointed out, it’s all about the value of the destination. QR codes that give people something they actually want — from a book to a gift to additional information that’s useful for them at the time — are going to work better than those that dump people at a company’s homepage. The ad should therefore include a clear message about what people will get if they take the time to scan it.

    I bet QR codes outside of elevators would be popular.

  • Hi there, we use QR codes all the time and use http://www.freeqrcodetracker.com to create AND track our campaigns which is great because we get meaningful stats of when each scan took place all displayed in graphs. This enables you to measure the success of each campaign. You’re given so many extra features too in an easy to use dashboard and it’s all for free. I’d definitely recommend signing up for a free account to see what you think.

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