QR codes have become the workhorses of mobile marketing, taking over from where text messaging left off. The biggest drawback to QR codes though have always been the plain Jane nature of their design. Creative Directors the world over cringe when their beautiful ads are besmirched with those black and white pixelated anachronisms from the eighties. The ugly truth is that they’re well, ugly.
But they don’t have to be.
The original QR code specifications had a great deal of flexibility built into them, and eventually QR code creators caught on and started to experiment with variations in color, style, background and imagery. Custom QR codes, as these stylized QR codes have come to be known, are fast becoming quite popular – and with good reason, since they can be a lot better looking than their dowdy black-and-white cousins. But like all divas, they need to be handled with care.
There are a number of sites that allow you to create custom QR codes, but creating good custom QR codes is as much art as it is science, so caveat emptor to all who try.
Below are some good general principals and guidelines to keep in mind:
1. Test Early and Test Often
Any changes you make to a QR code can impact its readability, so testing it along the way is absolutely critical. Also – and this is just as important – make sure you test your final custom QR code on multiple different QR code reader apps. Not all QR code reader apps are built the same, and just because it works on one, doesn’t mean it will work on another (something we found out the hard way…)
2. Experiment. Create. Refine.
Creating a custom QR code is more art than science. Don’t be afraid to experiment with styles and colors until you create what’s right for you. Just don’t forget to test it when you are done!
3. Short URLs Make Good Custom QR Codes
Always use a short URL in custom QR codes. Short URLs allow you to change the destination URL at any time later in the campaign, they enable measurement and metrics for QR code scans, and they also improve the readability of custom QR codes by making them less dense. So yes, always use them.
4. Color Means Contrast
Custom QR codes don’t have to be black and white, but they do need sufficient contrast between the foreground and background to ensure the QR code reader can tell which is which (technically speaking the contrast ratio should be greater than 4:1). Also, the foreground should always be a darker color than the background (some QR code readers don’t play nice when you invert the colors).
5. Its All About Style Over Substance
Just because regular QR codes are all square doesn’t mean custom QR codes have to be. QR code modules (as the pixels within a QR code are called) can come in many shapes and sizes: dots, torn squares, triangles, and many more. When it comes to QR codes, diversity is a good thing.
6. Size Matters
Don’t make your finished custom QR code any smaller than 0.75″ if you want to make sure it can be scanned by most phones. A good rule of thumb is to ensure that the QR code size is 1/10th the distance from which it is likely to be scanned. So for a magazine where you’re likely to be 10″ away from the code, a 1″ code is good; for a billboard 10 meters away, the QR code should be 1 meter in size.
7. Redundancy is a good thing. Redundancy is a good thing.
All QR codes have redundancy built in to them and you can change the amount of redundancy in a QR code. The higher the redundancy, the greater the resilience of the QR code to interference (smudges, torn edges, image overlays etc.). However, higher redundancy also makes a QR code more dense and hence a harder to read. Ideally, use a short URL and medium to high redundancy.
8. Picture this. Imagine that.
You can insert images onto your custom QR codes for extra oomph. To do so, you should set redundancy to its highest level – which allows an image no greater than 30% of the total size to be placed onto the custom QR code. Since there are certain areas of the QR code that cannot be blocked, if you’re using image overlays, be sure to test your QR code thoroughly!
9. Look, but don’t touch (at least certain parts)
The format of a QR code prevents designers from altering or blocking certain areas. The eyes are used to orient a QR code scanner and should never be blocked. Similarly the one-block margin around a custom QR code must be preserved to ensure proper scanning.
10. And finally, you’re only as good as where you’re going…
Other than testing all the time, if there was one other thing you need to keep in mind for custom QR code campaigns, its this: make sure its worth the effort for your users. Ensure that the destination site is mobile enabled and that your users get at least what they expected, if not a lot more. Nobody likes a good-looking QR code that leads to a bad experience.