The Anatomy of a QR Code: 7 Things to know about Quick Response Codes.

If you’re like many designers or marketers, you might be going about your day, minding your own business, when out of the blue a client or boss might ask, “Can we incorporate a QR Code into this?”

“A what?”

QR codes seem to be appearing everywhere—on real estate signs, at museums next to paintings, in magazine ads, on T-shirts. Marketers and advertisers have caught on to the unique marketing opportunities presented by QR Codes. And now in 2012, more and more people are asking about them.

To avoid being blindsided by this, or worse, coming off as a Luddite when you express doubt or disdain about QR codes, below is a list of seven things every marketer should know regarding QR Codes, their pros and cons, and some best practices in how to incorporate them into your tool kit.

(Full disclosure: This article, although intended to be a helpful resource for others, is really meant to provide me with a go-to resource I can direct people to when they ask me; “Do you know anything about these QR Codes?” I’ve been asked this countless times the past few months.)

1) What is a QR Code?

QR is an abbreviation for Quick Response. QR Codes are 2-dimensional matrix bar codes originally developed for the automotive industry by a subsidiary of Toyota back in the mid 90s for the rapid decoding of information to track vehicle parts and components. The 2-dimensional QR Code consists of black square modules set on a white background. The format offered a very good mix of legibility and data storage capability. Compared with traditional bar codes (which can usually only encode 20 characters of information) QR Codes could encode significantly larger amounts of data (up to 7,089 numeric or 4,296 alphanumeric characters ) that could be read rapidly in any 360° orientation. Also, compared with traditional bar codes, QR codes occupy significantly less space since data is stored both vertically and horizontally.

2) Why are these appearing everywhere all of the sudden?

Since Denso Wave, the inventor of QR Codes, allows for the free use of the format without licensing, the practical applications of this encoding format eventually spread beyond the automotive industry. With the rise of mobile smartphones and mobile tagging, marketers and advertisers soon discovered that QR codes could be used to encode information or URLs that would allow people to access hidden rich media content embedded in them such as URLs to websites, RSS feeds, videos, an email address with subject header, or vCards.

QR Codes as a marketing trend started in Japan, where mobile smartphones are treated more like personal computers by a significant portion of the population. Japanese retailers, institutions and consumers were quick to adopt the format as a convenience technology to rapidly scan, decipher and bookmark hard-linked information. Soon these started to appear on receipts, signage, posters and magazine advertisements. For all intents and purposes, QR Codes became physical hyperlinks, without the need to jot down a web address. All that was needed is a smartphone with a built-in camera, a QR reader app, and a data connection.

By the time Western marketers advertisers and trend spotters started taking notice of the trend in Asia, QR Code marketing had become fairly advanced and well developed. When the techniques reached the U.S. the applications and conventions were, for the most part, already worked out. However, one big issue with the widespread adoption of QR Codes in the U.S. is that most phones sold here do not allow the camera to scan the QR Codes due to programming constraints. In order for people to make sense of QR Codes, specific software apps were installed to decipher these strange, pixelated blocks. This obstacle would have a very profound impact on the adoption of the format for marketers.

Early QR Codes marketing in the U.S. were either niche, underground campaigns or very sophisticated viral marketing campaigns for edgy independent films or youth-oriented products and apparel. These early efforts appealed to a globally savvy youth culture of Gen Y, who had ready access to multiple forms of instant communications and social networking sites and were accustomed to technology facilitated communications. Since then, more and more people have caught on to these and they have more or less become a mainstream platform that is geared largely toward teenagers, young adults, tech-savvy professionals and digital natives.

3) How do QR Codes work exactly? What am I looking at?

Below is a diagram of how a QR Code works.

Position: The three position markers allows the QR code reader to quickly identify and orient that image in order to scan it.

Alignment: This detects any curvature or distortion to the code and allows the reader to make corrections as needed.

Timing: Determine coordinates for the scanner.

Version Information: Identifies the version of the QR Code. Different versions allows for different levels of data capacity and error correction.

Format Information: Contains information regarding the mask for the code and error correction.

Quiet Zone: These are the margins of the QR Code. It is recommended to leave 2-3 blocks of quiet zone to ensure an optimum scan.

4) Where do I get one?

First, you’ll need to determine what information you want to encode. Ultimately a QR Code is utilized primarily as a call to action by marketers to either provide information or to direct a response, so URLs to landing pages and microsites are very common, as is links to profile pages, product information or a video link to YouTube.

Once you have the information that you want encoded, you will need a QR Code generator to create the 2D graphic for you. Luckily, QR Codes are clearly defined and licensed as an ISO standard, and a plethora of online generators exists that will create them for you. Below, I list my top four and why I like them.

Kerem Erkan: QR Code and 2D Code Generator
By far this one is my current favorite. It can generate QR Codes as well as other competing formats such as Data Matrix, Aztec Code, and Micro QR Code. The main reason I like this resource is that it provides plenty of formatting options, various calls to action, the use of URL shorteners and it provides vector format versions such as EPS and PDF that are better suited to print.

QR Code Generator from the ZXing Project
This one is rather basic and only offers PNG output but is rather easy to use.

The main draw of this generator is that it allows for the use of custom graphics to be uploaded and placed in the center.
This one is a bare bones generator. I like that it’s fairly easy to use to encode long text information within a 1000 x 1000 pixel grid.

5) What are the current downsides to QR codes?

  • In the U.S., at least, they require dedicated readers.
  • They are easy to subvert. The information on a QR Code is obscured, a benign QR Code looks identical to a malicious or prank one. Also, someone can print up his/her own QR Code on sticker paper and slap it on top of yours to hijack your audience.
  • From a security standpoint, it is possible to direct people to malicious sites, or facilitate the download of malware or other security breaches depending on the device.

6) I’ve seen some pimped-out QR Codes. How do I customize mine?

QR Codes can allow up to 30% of error correction. Which means that you can selectively delete, alter or obscure portions of the data encoding so long as you do not remove any of the reference markers such as position, alignment, timing, version and format. Primarily, this will be a trial-and-error process, but the creative solutions that can come out of this are worth the hassles.

7) Where can I learn more?

Below are some online resources for additional information and specifications of QR Codes. Also in early March AIGA Houston will be hosting a member’s only workshop helping designers get some hands-on training with QR Codes generation and customization.

About QR Codes

For additional questions regarding best practices and tips ontact John Luu at (713) 523-5711 or for more information.