Thoughts on QR Codes Designers Need to Hear

By | August 26, 2014

I recently posted a response to a discussion that is raging in one of the LinkedIn graphic designer discussion groups about QR Codes. I might more accurately describe it as a bash session. There were a handful of posts in support of QR Codes, but most of those were mine.

Designers were railing against QR Codes because they are deemed to be ugly, they disrupt the beauty of their designs, and there are newer, more innovative technologies available.

One of the designers was particularly certain about his position on QR Codes because he had recently graduated from design school. Here is his comment, followed by mine. Please chime in with your own thoughts.

Designer: As someone who just recently graduated from college with a degree in the media field, I can confirm that QR Codes are dead. It is sort of like still having an email address — just shows that you aren’t keep up with the current trends in technology. We kind of snicker at those people still trying to use them.

Me: Good marketing isn’t about design only. It’s about creating marketing pieces, whether online or print, that achieve the marketing goal. Part of achieving a goal is generating response, and when it comes to generating response, smart, results-oriented marketers use multiple response mechanisms because they know that not everyone wants to respond the same way. One of the ways certain people respond (not all, but certain ones) is QR Code.

I can vouch for the fact that there are plenty of marketing communications that I would not have responded to if it hadn’t been for the QR Code.

I would love to know what percent of people actually use 800 numbers anymore. Yet no one questions their value. People love to kick around QR Codes, but I see them everywhere, I see their use becoming more focused on end user functionality.

Are there more sophisticated technologies out there? NFC, for example? Of course, but they require a lot more capital investment than QR Codes. They are more expensive to produce. They require more third-party coordination, supplier vetting, experimentation, design, and testing. The sales cycle is longer, and so on. No every marketer can afford that. MOST marketers cannot afford that. Consequently, technologies like NFC, AR, etc., while offering definitely value for certain applications, are accessible only by a limited number of marketers.

By contrast, QR Codes are free to produce and add to print pieces, and with the number of websites automatically optimizing pages for mobile, the barrier to entry is low. QR Codes are a reasonable, practical option for the broad base of marketers.

As a designer, your goal should be to produce the most results for your clients, not restrict their options because you, personally, don’t care for them.

Designers can scorn QR Codes all they want, but here are a few facts to remember:

  • It’s not about what YOU like, it’s about what achieves the end result for the marketer.
  • Your CLIENTS don’t care whether there is an “ugly box” on the marketing collateral, direct mail piece, or packaging. They want results, and those marketers pay your salary.
  • Digital snobbery doesn’t produce results. Smart marketing focused on the ultimate user of the product does.

When QR Codes stop producing results, I’ll ditch them. But from the case studies I read, from the marketing surveys I am up to my eyeballs in, and from my own experience, QR Codes serve a practical, functional purpose. For the right audience, they draw more eyeballs than the marketer would otherwise get without them, and marketers are getting better at using them every day.

This is spoken by someone who has watched this industry for 20 years. Things don’t become so snobbish and black-and-white when you’ve been around for awhile.

By the way, I’ve had an AOL address for 20+ years. I keep it because I like the interface and because everyone in the industry has my email address, even from 20 years ago. I’m practical that way. It works for me, and for someone who cares about results, that’s what matters.

The same should go for designers and QR Codes. When people snicker at them, it suggests to me that they 1) don’t really understand when and how to use them; or 2) are more focused on their own preferences than on the true, grassroots functionality for their clients and the people who would be using them.

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11 thoughts on “Thoughts on QR Codes Designers Need to Hear

  1. Jenny Kelly

    Well said Heidi. Yesterday I received a piece of mail from the USPS that was discussing digitally-enhanced mail. They suggested we download their AR app to see mail “come to life”. I did and all I saw was a sign up sheet so they could send me more information. Very disappointing and all I could think of was that a QR code would have been easier!

  2. Richard Dedor

    Completely agree here; especially on two points:

    – design does matter but the goal of a design is usually to insight some sort of action. A good designer will know that and work within the goals provided.

    – they do work. People continue to rail on them but most who do have never tried.

    Oh, and great points about NFC tech… It’s incredibly awesome but still way too expensive and cumbersome.

  3. George Denzinger

    QR codes seem to really irritate some designers. I got into a virtual spat last year on another LinkedIn forum concerning McDonald’s use of a QR code on their cold drink cups for a Monopoly game piece promotion (IIRC). The question about the effectiveness of the QR code came up just as this was rolling out, in fact I had not seen them in my area until after the question in the forum had been debated for a while.

    Similar criticisms of the QR code itself, ugly, not effective (hard to know that when the roll out wasn’t complete), etc. I thought the criticism was undeserved as the results of the campaign would not be known for some time to come.

    I also think the QR code is rather effective for a relatively simple device, with really no more infrastructure than we already have. As a designer myself, I’m not crazy about the looks of them, but if they’re effective, that’s what matters.

    I was a young designer once, too, with grand ideas about what should and should not be. A few months in the working world cured me of that disease…

  4. Gary

    Sometimes it comes to a choice. Make it pretty or make it functional. If you don’t have to pay the bills pretty is fine.

  5. Chris

    Jenny, that does not really address QR – AR, it is a issue with communications and the agency for the USPS. There is a lot of great work getting done in the AR world, let me know if you would like to see more.


  6. Heidi Tolliver-Walker

    Richard, I understand your point, but if QR Codes are being unnecessarily shunned by designers to the detriment of their clients and the marketing community as a whole, that’s not something to ignore. Discussions like this raise important issues that printers, marketing companies, and others need to be having with the design community. This is particularly important for printers since interactive elements are critical to supporting the value of print. There needs to be a boldness to confront misperceptions to everyone’s benefit.

  7. Heidi Tolliver-Walker Post author

    Oh, my gosh, Chuck! I was crying when I watched this. So very, very true . . and very, very FUNNY! I had tears running down my face. Still do! I love his sum-up message. “Think before you use. It sounds like a drug-prevention message, but it’s applicable to QR Codes.” Amen!

  8. Wendell Smith

    There are two really great applications of QR codes to security and even Supply Chain management.

    Finder Codes has a tracking system whereby the QR code takes the finder of (for instance a luggage tag) to FC’s cloud record of a separate unique number on that tag. Such a number has been registered by owner. Owner gets an instant text message of the location of the luggage . An offer to a reward. Etc. Standard cell phone qr code reader. Recently they are offering a DNA taggant too giving the anti counterfeiting advantage and true forensic elements.

    Separately Holoptica is offering a holographic label whereby the QR code is a hologram itself. That hologram is DNA marked, and is the most unique label imagined!

  9. Angel Penland

    Ha! Realism trumps pretty…with a design background, it didn’t take me long to understand that the USE of the item and how it will be produced is foremost. Designers need to work around those two very important points. Simply said, QR codes are not going away any time soon. Many people on the purchasing end of the production line are just now catching up.

    By the way, as a copy editor and proofreader, the “designer” needs to work on those skills before he or she can be taken seriously.

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