QR Codes are the Tramp Stamps of the Design World

Posted on: June 16, 2013 by Brian Thabault

QR Codes are the Tramp Stamps of the Design World by Theory Magazine Staff

QR codes are infectious marketing tools that are being used and abused. Honestly, when was the last time you tried to scan one? If you haven’t scanned one, do you even know what they are?

“Quick response codes” were first developed for the automotive industry in 1994 by Denzo Wave Corporation, a subsidiary of Toyota. The QR codes were used to track vehicle parts during the manufacturing process. Since 1994, the codes have looked the same. QR codes pretty much stayed on our Toyota’s mufflers where they belong, until a few years ago, when QR codes reappeared in society to be used as a business and marketing tactic. During advent of smart-phone technology, cell phones became capable of capturing high resolution images. People then developed applications that would allow phones to scan QR codes. The codes could be generated with online software that would point the user scanning the unique code to a particular website. The technology slowly caught on and became a popular “viral marketing” practice.

Since then, QR codes have been used in some pretty weird ways. At the Modez Hotel in Arnhem, Netherlands, there is a QR code covered room. We’re talking floor, walls, curtains and bedspreads, all covered in QR codes. When any code in the room is scanned, the guest is directed to pornographic material. The designer, Antoine Peters, made the room symbolically abstract and commented, “Like reality, we are always secretly surrounded by porn.”

QR Codes are the Tramp Stamps of the Design World by Theory Magazine Staff

Some genius also created a service where you can embed a QR code on a gravestone to “reignite living memories of deceased loved ones.”

Worried about your child running away? You can order a “QR SafetyTat” to temporarily tattoo your child with a code, that when scanned, presents the user with parental information and special child-care instructions. That way, if your child is abducted, the kidnapper will know to cut the crusts of your kid’s PB&Js.

A bizarre campaign in Washington for Planned Parenthood created QR coded condoms. Teenagers can scan to “check-in” their sexual encounters anonymously to promote safe sex and contraception. Just finished having sex? Why not lean over and scan the condom wrapper you just used. Wow, little Johnny is quite proud to wear protection.

It could be argued that QR codes are creating two classes of our society, those with the technology to access information that QR codes hold captive behind their pixelated walls, and those that cannot access it, those that are left out in the cold to stare at the robot barf wall wondering, “What’s behind that terrible thing?” Shouldn’t the information in your advertising campaign be accessible to all people? Not just those with “smart-phones?”

All philosophies aside, QR codes are just plain hard to scan. You need proper lighting, they need to on a flat surface and be the right size. They also need to be on an object that doesn’t move around a lot. Scanning a QR code, which at first seems like a time-saving endeavor, can quickly become a very time-consuming process.

If you really insist on implementing a QR code, Kevin Moreland of BCM Marketing has nine questions to ask yourself:

Is the surface mobile-friendly?
Can consumers physically get to the code?
Will the consumer have internet access?
Is it big enough?
Is information at a minimum?
Does it lead to a mobile-friendly destination?
Is there value behind the code?
Will consumers realize there is value behind the code?
Have I scanned this?

When it comes to responsible QR code usage, the placement is everything. Don’t cause a dangerous accident because someone tried to scan your stupid QR code on a billboard while cruising at 75 mph on the highway. While we’re on the subject, it doesn’t make sense to place a QR code on a car either, unless its parked, but even then, it’s still fucking ugly.

Here are some examples of terrible QR codes usage in action:

QR Codes are the Tramp Stamps of the Design World by Theory Magazine Staff
Scanning this QR code brings you to the morgue.

QR Codes are the Tramp Stamps of the Design World by Theory Magazine Staff
Driving an unmarked van is mysterious enough, unmarked QR code van? That’s just creepy.

QR Codes are the Tramp Stamps of the Design World by Theory Magazine Staff
In case you are wondering, StrawAds.com no longer exists. I wonder why?

QR Codes are the Tramp Stamps of the Design World by Theory Magazine Staff
Just lower your $400 iPhone into the tank so you can and learn about… toilets?

QR Codes are the Tramp Stamps of the Design World by Theory Magazine Staff
You are seeing that right, a QR code on an infomercial. Quick! Scan it! Wait, it’s gone.

QR Codes are the Tramp Stamps of the Design World by Theory Magazine Staff
This ad is for Presbyterians with ten foot arms who have the power to stop wind.


If you are going to put an ugly ass pixel grid on your design that, when scanned, takes you to a website, at least tell us what the website it is. That way, even us “non-scanners” can find our way to your crappy promotion page. (I’m looking at you, Mr. QR code on my fucking banana.)

If you still feel so compelled to use a QR code, be sure to use a service that has tracking analytics. Also, your code better point to a mobile friendly website. For God’s sake, if your marketer is so savvy, you better make sure your web content is optimized for all viewing platforms. Its called responsive web design. Google it.

Also, keep in mind, there always needs to be an incentive for the victim who is scanning your QR code. Entice them with a deal, or more information that can’t fit in your ad or promotion. Without incentive, QR codes are a complete waste of space and an eye-sore.
Image recognition technology (IRT) is evolving quickly. These black and white pixelated poop squares are not going to last. The future is in Google Goggles, a downloadable image recognition application. This technology allows anyone to snap a photo of something like a national monument, and the the application instantly finds related information online. Currently, Google is making the system able to recognize different plants and leaves, enabling curious people everywhere to educate themselves about mother nature. Google has also launched “Project Glass” where augmented reality is accessible through a heads-up-display installed in special eye-glasses. Heady.

Instead of blindly insisting how awesome QR codes are, challenge youself to re-think how effective our technology is utilized for marketing a product, idea or information. Think beautiful, simple, and engaging. The idea behind QR codes could provide a foundation for technology to grow into a seamless tool. We should all be critical of how we use our technology and always question all advertising.

So please, if you must use a QR code, do it wisely, otherwise it might end up on the WTF QR codes blog.



Posted on: June 16, 2013 by Brian Thabault