How to make QR codes less ugly – and how not to

There’s a technical term that graphic designers and art directors use to describe QR codes, Dr. Kevin Berisso, of Memphis University’s Department of Engineering Technology, said in a telephone interview. That term is: “Blech!”

For scanners, not people

QR codes were originally designed to be read by scanners, not human eyes, so function not only triumphs over form, but stomps it into the dirt. And while art directors may want to improve QR codes’ looks, they’re afraid that doing so will destroy their functionality (creating ads that are not only wasted, but also – cardinal sin for an art director – still ugly).

“Due to a lack of understanding of how QR codes actually work,” he wrote in a paper published this past spring:

designers are confronted with advice, often online, that implies that anything from a slight color change up through the complete redesign of the QR Code will work. Some sources say you can skew the symbol, some say you can’t. Others say that any image color will work. All of this “advice” leaves the designer with the question “what will work, what won’t work and how can I ensure that my target audience will be able to successfully scan my work?”

Helmut Krone, who created the iconic look of Volkswagen’s “Think small” campaign and the recently lamented Avis #2 campaign, once said, “Rules are important. They tell us exactly what to break.” In that spirit, Dr. Berisso researched which QR code rules you could bend and still leave your symbols scannable.

And it’s surprising which rules are bendable (see the slide show).

Here’s why:

The keys to scannability are those big squares in the two upper and the lower left corners (called the finder patterns or position detection patterns) and the error correction codewords, which live in smaller squares covering the left side of the QR code. Those EC codewords can “repair” many things that get covered over or messed up in the data codewords that live on the right half.

In the study, 166 respondents tested 21 modified QR codes plus one off-the-shelf control over five different types of smartphone systems (Android, iOS, Blackberry, Windows and other).

Some of the modifications included changing the color, rotating the code symbol, geometrically distorting its cells, and inserting graphics or logos in and around the QR code box.

The specific changes made big differences; read rates ran all the way from a high of 88.6 percent to a low of 1.9 percent. That’s a 46.6-to-1 ratio.

Conventional wisdom isn’t wise

In the process, the results discredited some long-held conventional wisdom about QR codes, the best-known of which has to do with color.

Since QR code technology comes from bar-code scanning under red light, it was long assumed that using red in code symbols would make them invisible to scanners. It turns out, though, that a QR code in red, blue and black had the highest overall read rate of all the “designer” QR codes (88.6 percent – almost as high as the conventional black-and-white symbol) and was more visible to consumers’ eyes as well.

Contrast counts

The important factor here is that the colors were dark or light and against a contrasting background. Another QR code – with medium values of its colors against a gray background – had abysmal read rates of 1.9 percent overall and zero on  Blackberry and Android phones.

Rotating a QR code 45° doesn’t hurt, so long as the colors are solid and you keep important squares  square and uncovered. Neither does inserting a logo or graphic, so long as you position it so as not to cover up anything important.

Even the conventional, ugly, black-and-white QR code won’t work on all smartphones (overall read rate was 95.7 percent, due to hardware and software limitations). But by knowing which changes to make and which not to, you can do virtually as well with scanners – and considerably better with human eyes.

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