American Printer's mission is to be the most reliable and authoritative source of information on integrating tomorrow's technology with today's management.

Hit the mark

May 1, 2011 12:00 AM

         Subscribe in NewsGator Online   Subscribe in Bloglines

Do you remember wanting the “shiny new toy,” as a kid, because everyone else had one? The 2-D code is that new toy. This has led to the creation of QR (“quick response”) Codes and other 2-D codes because it's the hip thing to do. Often, the focus is on the code itself, with little or no thought given to the functionality or the action that occurs after it is scanned.

The evidence is out there. 2-D codes on advertisements in a subway do not scan because of limited (or no) Internet access. 2-D codes appear on billboards along roadways. (Are you kidding me?) 2-D codes appear in print without instructions for which reader app to use, with no incentive, or just plain without working.

I see 2-D codes that miss the mark in one way or another nearly every day. If you follow these best practices, it doesn't have to be that way. I have compiled six rules to remind you that 2-D codes should:

  1. Add value for the user

    The best 2-D codes are engaging and add value. This is perhaps the most fundamental rule. If you don't follow it, the user will get nothing but a disappointment. To add real value, you must speak to the purpose of the 2-D code campaign. Who do you want to reach, and why? For example, you might want to generate leads, enter people in a contest, build brand awareness, offer a discount coupon, augment an article with a video or photos, etc.

    Defining the purpose of the 2-D code sets the framework for everything that will follow. You now have a reason for the user to scan your code, which can be used as a roadmap for the content creation of your landing page.

    Adding value to the 2-D code justifies buying the “shiny new toy,” and you do it by including a compelling or exclusive offer as an incentive. You enhance the user's experience by offering more than a static printed piece. A 2-D code is a request for the user's exclusive time and attention. If you get it, you must give back.

    For example, when Warbasse Design created the Ironman 2 movie poster, a scan code gave users the opportunity to view the trailer, buy theater tickets, view movie stills and more. Incentives such as these make scanning a 2-D code worthwhile.

  2. Link to a mobilized landing page

    Build a landing page that is optimized for mobile phones. Keep in mind that people will be snapping your 2-D codes on the go, which means they will be using a smartphone or other type of portable device. A smartphone is, essentially, a computer with a really small monitor. In the early days of HTML, web design was inconsistent at best. You might remember having to scroll left-to-right because the code was not created for an optimal screen resolution.

    People want information fast, so make sure the content you are driving them to is optimized for the device they will use to view it. A page that is not easily navigable will drive people away.

    The purpose of a scan code is to maximize the time the user spends with your content and to provide content they can't get from the printed page. So make it easy by creating mobile-friendly landing pages.

    Ordinary websites with features not supported by mobile browsers are an inappropriate use of a 2-D code. The best rule is to keep things simple. Minimize the content and don't create objects that take a long time to load. Make sure your production team uses smartphones to ensure their work is readable on that small screen.

  3. Encode a short URL

    Create short URLs to avoid creating an overly complex 2-D code. The number of characters you encode will dictate its density. Density equals complexity — with 2-D codes, less is better. (See the “Size considerations” and “Shorten the string” sections in “QR Codes 101,” February 2011, at

    Recently, I saw a 2-D code that resolved to a Google map. The embedded URL string was so long that the physical size of the 2-D code was 65 × 65 modules (you can count the squares). Had a URL shortener been used, the reduction in complexity would have resulted in a size somewhere in the 29 × 29 module range.

    Excessive density will leave you with a choice between two bad options. For example, a reasonably sized (1 inch square) code will have modules so small and packed together that it will fail to read on most smartphones. Compensate by making the modules large enough, and the size of the code will eat up valuable print space — it just won't look good.

    Minimize the complexity of the 2-D code by ensuring the characters are few. This can be done by using a URL shortener such as, etc. Platforms like and include a shortener within their 2-D code generators. Or you can create a domain or sub-domain that has a short name to begin with.

  4. Provide instructions

    Scannable codes are a relatively new phenomenon in the United States. Everyone recognizes the sideways triangle for “Play” on audio/video devices. Until the 2-D symbology is this universal, not everyone will know what to do with one. And not all readers are created equal.

    You see it everywhere — a 2-D code with little or no description of what it is, where it will take you or how to get there. Never assume someone will know what a 2-D code is or what to do with it. If you're dealing with people who are 2-D code savvy, never assume they will blindly scan your code without knowing what's in it for them.

    Include some verbiage, such as, “Want to learn more about [promotion]? Scan this code with your mobile phone. Need a free reader app? Download it here: [URL].” Or, simply “Text [CODE] to [NUMBER].” Consider including a hint at the value that's waiting on the other side. To ensure full participation in the promotion, a straightforward means such as short message service (SMS) can be used to direct people without smartphones to the landing page.

  5. Comply structurally

    Best practices 1-4 are moot if the 2-D code does not resolve. Don't invest your time and efforts creating the perfect 2-D code campaign only to have your code fail when it is in the field. (You might be surprised by how often this happens).

    As a rule, scan codes should not be less than 26 × 26 mm, or 1 square inch. However, smartphone cameras are getting more and more sophisticated — many are capable of reading a three-quarter-inch code. While it is certain future phones will be able to capture data from smaller images, it's best to design to the lowest common denominator.

    A sufficient quiet zone is necessary (a minimum of 2 modules wide on all 4 sides). The background color and module colors should have sufficient contrast between the two to ensure the image decodes properly. Black and white is ideal, but other colors can be used, provided they differ enough in contrast (the ANSI “Symbol Contrast Color Selection Chart” is a good reference).

    Finally, test, test and test your 2-D codes for proper decodability. Test them on multiple smartphone devices or, better yet, on a GS1 professional-grade barcode scanner.

  6. Measure results

    Use a scan code service that allows you to track data. You would track an e-mail or direct mail campaign, and a 2-D code campaign should be tracked, as well. If you don't, you will never know what impact your codes are having or if they're worth the investment.

    Based on the campaign complexity, depth of analytics and how much money you want to spend, there are several options for tracking scans. One simple and convenient method is to measure inbound hits using Google Analytics or some other analytics program. Percent Mobile ( provides more in-depth mobile analytic reports that are easy to filter and interact with, after installing their tracking code into your website templates.

    You could consider working with ScanLife (, Microsoft or some other 2-D code provider to track data using their systems. Depending on the premium (paid) scan code platform you use, analytics can provide information such as total scans, unique scans, scan location, date and time of scan, handset operating system, etc. Analytics from a paid 2-D provider can be invaluable in terms of privacy and depth of report.

Building out

For help with even more elaborate 2-D code campaigns, you can partner with professionals such as Content AI Studios (, GREAT! ( or Warbasse Design ( Pros like these can help you with 2-D best practices and avoiding costly and embarrassing mistakes.

QR Codes — we hardly knew ye?

Some pundits say near field communication (NFC) (see chips will roar past 2-D codes in popularity. NFC devices use technology similar to RFID tags and contactless smartcards, but with a few new wrinkles.

Silicon Alley's Matt Rosoff reports that Google recently phased out support for QR Codes from its Google Places service. Previously, businesses could put a sign with the QR Code in their front windows. Pedestrians could then scan the sign and their mobile browsers would open the shop's Google Places page.

“Last December, Google started sending out window decals with NFC chips to participating businesses in Portland, OR,” Rosoff observed. On March 31, Google became a full member of the NFC Forum.

We say: NFC is great for mobile payments, navigation and related tasks. But 2-D codes are affordable and easy to create. They are well matched to print collateral — we won't be saying goodbye to them soon!

Remember rule No. 2

The Hershey Harrisburg Regional Visitors Bureau (HHRVB) unveiled a special edition of the “2011 Visitors Guide” with a unique cover that touts its use of smart phone technology inside. We say: Sweet, but it isn't mobile phone friendly. So close!

More familiar than you think

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Similar thinking can be applied to 2-D codes, which are a lot like the barcodes we in the printing industry are familiar with, already. Applying that thought process will remove a lot of the mystery when working with 2-D codes.

Quiet zone

Barcodes require a sufficient quiet zone, and 2-D codes do, too. A good rule of thumb is to have a minimum white border equal to the width of two (and up to four) modules around all four sides of the code.

Symbol contrast/color usage

Symbol contrast is the difference in reflectance values between the lightest and darkest parts of the symbol. The blackest possible bars printed on the whitest possible substrate would have 100% contrast. Gray shades can be used, as long as the background and module colors vary in contrast by ≥40% (a “C” grade).

Like barcodes, 2-D codes do not need to be black and white, as long as there is sufficient contrast. It's best to stick with a light colored background toward the red end of the color spectrum and use dark colored modules toward the blue end of the color spectrum. For an ANSI Symbol Contrast Color Chart, see

File format

It is important to select the appropriate file format when creating a 2-D code. The end use will dictate which format you need. If you plan to use the code online, a PNG, JPG or GIF format should do fine. If it will be used in print, you will need a high-resolution image saved in a vector format like SVG, EPS or PDF, so there is no loss of quality when the image is resized.


It is a best practice to test the 2-D code on a variety of mobile devices and test scan it with a variety of reader apps. A professional-grade GS1 barcode scanner is a great verification tool — especially if reporting and ISO compliance are necessary. As an example, in addition to verifying all of the major (linear) barcodes, the Integra 9500 will read and verify QR Codes, Micro QR Codes and Datamatrix codes.

Find it online

Read more about 2-D codes on our website.

Chris Lehan is director of product development for Impressions Inc. in St. Paul, MN (

Contact him at