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Evolution of the QR code

Posted on September 13th, by admin in QR/NFC, Tales and musings. No Comments

Evolution of the QR code

In our second ‘Evolution of the …’ blog we explore how the QR code has had a difficult entry into the public realm, and explore some golden rules for its successful deployment.

It’s fairly common knowledge that the humble QR code was the brainchild of a Toyota subsidiary that saw its potential to track vehicle parts around their car factory in the 1990s. But do you know what QR stands for? This is one of the questions I ask in during the icebreaker quiz we have devised to open our digital media workshops. Is the answer Quercus Robur, Quick Response, Quickly Read, Quirky Revolution or maybe Quite Ridiculous? All will be revealed later.

It took well over a decade before the QR code achieved widespread use, and during its short life in the mainstream it’s had a pretty rough ride. Some of the blame can be laid at the door of QR code inventor Denso Wave. They still own the rights on QR codes but they have chosen not to exercise them. This basically means anyone can generate QR codes for free. If something is free it tends to get more abuse.

Marketing folk have been very guilty of slapping them up everywhere and anywhere without much thought to the end user experience. To deploy QR codes effectively you need to take into consideration a number of factors. We’ve been using QR codes for a number of years now and felt it was important to evaluate how effective their application has been.

What follows is a summary of that evaluation, which has led us to come up with a solution that we believe works really well – in the right situation.

A potted history

We first used QR codes for two simultaneous projects:

– the Lagan Valley audio trails project in Northern Ireland. 35 plaques were installed along the 11 mile canal between Belfast and Lisburn. Each code links to a piece of audio revealing life along the canal in by-gone years

– the Ashdown Forest project was devised to help visitors orientate themselves within the large site

The plaques were vinyl printed on composite aluminium. Each one contained the QR code, a logo and a web address. The client requested five sets of plaques to enable quick replacement of any that were vandalised. Fortunately, this hasn’t been a problem. Five sets was probably a bit overkill, but we certainly now suggest clients have two sets printed, as a later reprint will be more costly.

However, on reflection we realised we hadn’t provided any incentive to scan the codes. There was no call to action.

Ashdown Forest QR code plaque

Shortly afterwards we installed QR code plaques next to a series of new sculptures in Clay Cross, Derbyshire. These too linked to audio, this time with short clips of the sculptor discussing his inspiration behind the pieces. However this time we included a call to action. Again we opted for printing on composite aluminium. Within a short time however the vinyl from one of the plaques had been peeled away. Direct printing was required.

Clay cross sculpture and QR code plaque

Clay cross sculpture and QR code plaque

We appeared to take one step forward and two steps backward with our next project. Another project in Derbyshire, this time along the Phoenix Greenways, involved the installation of QR code plaques along several former railway lines. Again the content linked to oral reminiscences.

We printed directly onto 80% recycled plastic – a material that we have continued to use to this day. It is cheaper and offers excellent durability and is very resistant to vandalism (i.e. it is hard to deface with a marker pen – I tried!). However, we overlooked our need for a call to action, but more importantly we learnt a valuable lesson about QR code generator sites. You often have two options: dynamic or static.

You can download a basic, static QR code or print off a dynamic one that offers download statistics. The user experience is essentially the same, but when you scan the code, it doesn’t go directly to the URL you have set, but is instead diverted via  a web server to record the number of scans. On the flipside, if this website/server goes down (temporarily or permanently) the QR code won’t work. This was the lesson we learnt with; we opted for the dynamic version and when the website went down, so did all the QR codes.

Dynamic QR code no longer works as the webserver is down

Dynamic QR code no longer works as the webserver is down

If you want statistics, run the QR codes through Google Analytics (quite tricky to set up) or, alternatively, take the URL your QR code is going to link to and run it through a URL shortener (i.e. This has two advantages:

– it makes the QR code smaller because the pixels essentially relate to the number of characters in the URL

– and Google Analytics provide low risk statistics – the chances of these large companies folding is far less likely

The next project was along the Canal & River Trust’s Montgomery Canal. This time the QR codes were joined by NFC tags. NFC (Near Field Communication) is the technology used for contactless payment but a technology, at the time of writing, not adopted by iPhone. Apple’s decision to shun NFC has slowed its adoption, but in terms of futureproofing the plaques we offered to add the tags to the back of each plaque for free.

Montgomery Canal smartphone trail waymark disc

Montgomery Canal smartphone trail waymark disc

The QR codes and NFC tags point to the same web-based content at each stop. What was important here was that the website was mobile optimised. As QR codes are scanned with mobile devices it is important that the content is mobile optimised and the links point directly to relevant content, and not i.e. the home page. The advantage of QR codes (and NFC) is that they save visitors having to type in long URLs on a small keypad.

What we have discovered is that although there is a 3G signal at each point, on some networks the signal is not strong enough to download the content in a satisfactory time. On-site testing of the mobile signal (on as many networks as possible) is vital.

Our most recent project – along the Leeds & Liverpool Canal in Burnley – has just been launched. The plaques not only have a call to action, but more importantly, they provide information on the plaque for visitors who don’t have, or aren’t willing to use their mobile device to access digital content. They are mini interpretation panels with the option to ‘Go Digital’. The QR code etc is a secondary action (not the primary one).

That brings me on to size. Our plaques are generally 100mm x 150mm. These are big enough to see, but small enough to fit on 4 inch wooden posts (i.e. the posts generally use for waymarking and other countryside furniture). As I mentioned above the plaques have became far more design-orientated and less about the QR code. We have reduced the size of the codes to approximately 25mm (however you would need larger ones if the plaques weren’t within touching distance). This is something to especially consider in a museum setting. During a visit to a local museum I noticed small QR codes were placed in a display case. My QR code reader could not pick them up because a) they were too small and b) I couldn’t get the right angle to scan them. That is why my last point is so important, but not always carried out sufficiently…

Burnley Canal mini interpretation panels

Burnley Canal mini interpretation panels

We encouraged the client to undertake a testing phase before signing off the plaques. Our proposal was to print off draft versions of the plaques onto card and laminate them. They were to be clearly watermarked with ‘Draft’ on them and include contact details to provide feedback. For various reasons this offer wasn’t taken up, although the QR codes were tested on site to assess download speeds, and they were signed off for printing.

We have also erected QR codes from previous projects on a post outside our office so we can see first hand how durable they are. As the featured image at the top of this page illustrates, the nails and screws are showing the greatest adverse effect from the weather!

We are not saying QR codes are perfect, but our latest project along the Burnley Canal has certainly benefited from our previous work and we feel that by following the guidance below it will have the best possible chance of success.

1) Provide a call to action – offer decent content that will make them interact again
2) Direct print onto a durable, weatherproof material
3) Use a URL shortener (i.e. to reduce the size of the code and provide basic scan statistics
4) Partner the QR codes with NFC tags – probably the future of contactless payment
5) Mobile-optimised destination. QR codes are scanned with mobile devices so make sure the content is mobile optimised
6) Position plaques where there is a strong 3G signal (or wifi). Anything less and the content will not load quickly enough. In addition locate them in safe, natural stopping places that everyone can reach
7) Provide content for visitors who don’t have, or aren’t willing to use their mobile device to access digital content
8) Size of plaques (and QR codes) – big enough to see and read, small enough to be unobtrusive
9) On-site testing once you artwork is ready – erect laminated card samples in-situ first. Explain to visitors they are test versions and ask for feedback.


Oh, and what does ‘QR’ stand for? Scan the code below to find out the answer!

What does 'QR' stand for?

What does ‘QR’ stand for? Scan the code!

Our first ‘Evolution of the…” blog was all about audio trails.


There is a good article on Mashable regarding QR codes that is also worth a read. The following quote may sum up the eternal problem with QR codes, and supports point 8 in our list above.

“Humans are visual animals. We have visceral reactions to images that a QR code can never evoke; what we see is directly linked to our moods, our purchasing habits and our behaviors. It makes sense, then, that a more visual alternative to QR codes would not only be preferable to consumers, but would most likely stimulate more positive responses to their presence.”

The article champions mobile visual search (MVS) as an alternative. What do you think?

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