The amazing disappearing QR code! How ugly can work for you

By Richard Nieva , written on December 24, 2012

From The News Desk

A few weeks ago, I wrote about QR codes, and how hideous they really are. They are essentially splotches on a meticulously designed ad. And like a loudmouth yelling back at the film at a movie theater, they take you out of an experience.

Most every QR code company admits this, essentially saying, Okay, we get it. But what can you do? Some companies, of course, do their best to make the codes as inconspicuous as possible, but often you end up with some bizarre looking thing that makes the ad look worse. Still, one Tel Aviv, Israel-based startup continues to fight the good fight, and in early January is releasing the next generation of marginally-better QR codes.

Instead of sticking the run of the mill black and white codes in the corner of an ad, Visualead boldly puts them front and center. Nevo Alva, the company’s chief executive, says the team studied the technology of every company that scans QR codes to see what was truly essential for the process to work, and what could be ditched to make the codes more appealing to a viewer. “We made it as visual as possible for the human eye, but kept it readable for a machine,” says Alva.

This new generation code is supposed to overlay the ad artwork more seamlessly. It takes the shapes and colors of the ad, and fits the code elements on top of them in a way that makes is supposedly less evasive.

Sadly, the result is not spectacular. This new code is arguably more unbecoming than the traditional looking code. You get a pixelated mess that looks like it might be trying to mask some sort of nudity. Or you wonder if the poster you’re looking at might have water damage at just one specific spot. With the traditional code, at least a designer can just put in a corner, out of the way of the ad’s focal point, and the code can just dwell there unapologetically, as if saying, “Haters gonna hate.” (Cue the mic drop.)

But there’s one thing that might surprise you: None of that means a damn thing.

A study the company did earlier this month pitted the new and old codes against each other. A duty free store in Israel ran an ad in Yediot Aharonot, the country’s biggest newspaper, for a month – two weeks using a traditional code, two weeks using Visualead’s code. The study said over 33 percent more people scanned the new code.


It seems the biggest factor at play here is curiosity. A Visualead code doesn’t necessarily hide the code any better, it piques the interest of a viewer just enough to make them pull out their phones. And if your goal is a high hit rate, you can’t complain about that, can you? "I do not claim that people scan the codes more because they are more beautiful, I claim that people scan them more because they are centered and big and attract attention," says Alva.

The aesthetic-appreciating consumer – and graphic designer, for that matter – might prefer a tradition code in the corner of the ad, but like a tuned out banner ad, it’s not rousing anything in the customer. And if a viewer is compelled to scan a code, even if it’s for visually negative reasons, that’s a good thing for a QR company. There are many other things to consider, however, if you are an advertiser; you’ve always got to be careful around brand sentiment, even if it's little things.

Alva refuses to think of the codes in terms of beauty or ugliness because that's "a matter of taste," he says. But he does concede, "It's still a QR code," though he does believe his company makes them more pleasant. Still, it seems even the company knows the codes are still a bit of an eyesore. Eventually, Alva -- like so many others -- says he wants to make the codes disappear in favor of image recognition – an entirely different technology than QR codes.

Image recognition is clearly the more elegant choice for both an advertiser and consumer. And even a traditional QR code can be more subtle, for that matter. But for now, in this transitional point, Visualead has something bizarre going for it: Its codes are odd-looking enough to entice a consumer to scan. It’s like digital rubbernecking. And if you’ve ever driven a car, you know how hard it is to look away.

[Photo courtesy: clevercupcakes]