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QR: How to do it right - Top tips to make sure your QR code works


By The Drum Team, Editorial

November 2, 2011 | 6 min read

Even the biggest brands get QR codes wrong. Here Nicolas Holzherr, managing director of quick response solutions provider QRky, explains some simple rules to remember to make sure your QR code actually works.

RULE 1 – make sure you print the code large enough

How big your code should be printed depends on how many characters you “encode” into it. It can take an absolute maximum 7,000 characters, but realistically most people will encode about 20 letters or so (a URL, for example).

The phone’s camera detects the distance between the little black dots to decipher the data, so each phone will be able to scan codes to different resolutions depending on the phone’s camera quality. Stay safe and stick to the lowest common denominator (we use a two-year-old Blackberry for this). Try and reduce the length of data you encode to reduce the size you need to print the code – for example if you’re encoding a URL, use a shortener such as

RULE 2 – Make sure you leave enough space around the code

When looking at a QR code you’ll notice it’s made up of many small little black squares. You need to leave a border around the code that is three times the width of the smallest little square. This allows phones to focus on the codes to read them.

RULE 3 – Leave enough contrast if you change the code colours

You can make QR codes quite colourful and some recent articles in this illustrious organ have increased interest in this so-called ‘QR Art”. It’s a great idea, and we do it too, but take care when doing so.

Phones use the contrast between light and dark to make out the squares. If you make the background too dark or the code too light, it will either take a long time to scan (by which time people get bored and stop trying) or won’t work at all anymore. We also don’t recommend reversing the codes (making the code light and the background dark) as only a few readers can decipher these.

RULE 4 – Don’t rely on error correction

Roughly 30% of a QR code is error correction, but different generators add a different amount of error correction. As a general rule it is usually the middle to lower right part of the code which is error correction, whereas the three squares top right and left and bottom left are key and can't be replaced as these are the points to which the rest of the data is referenced.

The is fact there are no hard-and-fast rules to this science, so it means it’s usually a case of trial and error to identify which parts of a code are error correction. It’s a case of experimenting – “if I obscure this part, will it still scan?” However, if you’re a designer planning on obscuring any part of a QR code then make sure you test it on the widest selection of phones – not just your latest generation iPhone 4 with a great camera.

Location, location, location – where you put your code matters

Some things to take into consideration when choosing where to place your QR code:

Does the place where you are placing the QR code have 3G access?

We were recently approached by an advertising company which had boards on London Underground platforms, so the answer was clearly no. If there is not 3G, there is no point placing a QR code as nobody can access the content it links to!

How low will you go?

Don’t place your code too close to the ground. If the user has to bend down to scan your code, it’s unlikely they’ll bother! Optimum placement is chest to eye level. Again, think intelligently. One poster site may not be mounted at the same level as another, so could make your code less easy to scan.

What type of phone will be scanning the code?

Often you won’t have any idea for certain, but how well your code scans really does depend on it. An iPhone 4 can make out quite a lot and understands some of the more elaborate ‘QR Art’ designs. An older Blackberry probably won't stand chance. My advice is not to risk it – don’t make it difficult or risk alienating users. If they have a bad experience trying to scan their first QR code, it’s likely they won’t bother again – scuppering the whole medium!

Not all QR readers are equal

Different readers have different levels of manipulation they can cope with, so again make sure you test your codes on several different apps and not just rely on your personal favourite when getting QR codes ready to print.

How much light will there be when scanned?

If a code is likely to be scanned in a bright and light setting, then it’s more likely that you can get away with introducing QR Art. However, if it’s a dark setting such as a code on a beer bottle in a pub, then it is vital that the contrast and quality of the QR code is good so a phone camera has the best chance at reading it.

Is it safe to scan?

Finally think about where you’ll be locating your QR code. Many billboards simply can’t have QR codes because it could encourage a user to endanger themselves, such as one on an opposing train station platform. It’s not health and safety gone mad – would you want yourself or your client to be potentially liable if somebody fell off a platform because they were trying to reach out to scan your QR code?

As phones advance and more consumers become aware of QR codes and start using them, it will be great to see how the technology evolves. Experimentation is great fun and will help capture the imagination of users and clients alike. The best advice I can offer is rigorously check that your QR codes work before you commit to a print run of a few hundred thousand!


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