QR codes have become nearly as ubiquitous on product labels as conventional barcodes.
But while both technologies are used for storing information, QR codes and one-dimensional barcodes typically perform very different functions.
If you’re thinking about including a barcode of any type in your label design, read on. We’ll dive into the QR code vs. barcode debate, explain their differences, suggest appropriate applications for each technology and offer tips for effectively deploying QR codes and conventional barcodes.
QR Code vs. Barcode: What’s the Difference?
When people use the term “barcode” in conversation, they typically mean the striped strips that have adorned retail products since the mid-1970s.
Technically, however, these are just one form of barcode.
A barcode is any method of visually encoding data in a machine-readable form. In other words, QR codes are barcodes. (It’s like an exam question: Not all barcodes are QR codes, but all QR codes are barcodes.)
But for the purposes of this article, when we write “barcode,” we’ll be referring to one-dimensional or linear barcodes (figure A), while a QR code (figure B) is the most recognizable form of two-dimensional barcode.
The original barcode technology, linear barcodes store information using a series of parallel lines of varying width. Machine readers interpret the width patterns and translate them into letters or numbers, depending on the barcode type and its application. (Each line in a barcode does not necessarily translate directly to a letter or number. Some lines can represent instructions, such as “start” or “stop,” or perform error correction.)
A linear barcode’s height can help machine readers and their users with targeting, but height does not impact the underlying code. This is why linear barcodes are called one-dimensional.
Common one-dimensional barcode specifications include Code 39 (which actually encodes 43 characters), the more compact Code 128 (which can handle all 128 ASCII characters), and the Universal Product Code (UPC) widely used for scanning retail items at the point of sale.
Figure A. (“The Label Printers” encoded in Code 128)
Linear barcodes are useful for encoding relatively small amounts of data (such as strings of alphanumeric characters) which identify individual products, product types or components. These individual codes can be stored in databases along with corresponding product information.
One-dimensional barcodes can be read rapidly using specialized barcode readers, such as what you’d see at a cash register. Companies also frequently use linear barcode technology to track and trace their inventory throughout the supply chain.
It’s worth noting that regular barcodes are solely for internal industry use – they’re not designed to be read with smartphones, and the information contained is usually irrelevant to the end user or consumer. If you want your customers to retrieve information by scanning your label, linear barcodes may not be your best option.
Another downside to one-dimensional barcodes is that they are easily rendered unreadable. All it takes is the swipe of a black marker. Because of this, almost all linear barcodes include a human-readable component (such as the numbers at the bottom of a UPC label).
Related Reading: How Track and Trace can Help Secure Your Supply Chain
How Do QR Codes Work?
QR codes consist of black squares against a white background. QR barcode readers scan the codes in two directions, from top to bottom and from left to right, and then offer the information to users nearly instantaneously. (QR stands for “quick response.”)
QR codes can store more than 4,000 characters of text or nearly 3,000 bytes of binary data, thanks to their two-dimensional nature. If the amount of data stored is the only metric considered, the QR code vs. barcode competition is a rout. QR codes win every time.
Figure B. (A QR code pointing to thelabelprinters.com)
Most modern-day smartphones can read QR codes with their cameras and translate them into website URLs or other bits of information. This is why QR codes have become so common in marketing and product packaging design: QR codes allow brands to communicate with their customers beyond the confines of a label or package.
Your brand can use QR codes to:
- Offer extended content that won’t fit on your label. For example, electronics brands can use QR codes to direct potential buyers to technical specs online.
- Update information rapidly without redesigning and reprinting your label, packaging or other printed items.
- Reference your latest certifications.
- Help your buyers access information about sustainability, sourcing and ingredients.
The use of QR codes saw an uptick during the COVID-19 pandemic as contactless interactions became necessary for preventing the spread of the disease. Many restaurants adopted QR codes as a sanitary (and easy-to-update) replacement for menus. According to a September 2020 MobileIron survey of U.S. and U.K. residents, nearly 32% of respondents had scanned a QR code in the past week.
Tips for Using QR Codes
If you choose to include a QR code on your product label, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- QR codes typically include error correction features. In plain English, this means they repeat the same information over and over again. This means QR codes can be damaged or obscured quite a bit and still maintain readability. So, if you want to include your logo or other creative designs over part of your QR code, go for it.
- Be careful not to print your QR code so small — or jam it so full of data — that your customers have to zoom in with their phones to read the code. If necessary, you can shorten your URL with a tool like Bitly.
- High contrast improves barcode readability. We recommend sticking with tried-and-true black and white for QR codes or linear barcodes.
- Remember, a QR code is merely a link to something else. Before asking yourself if your brand needs a QR code, make sure the URL it leads to is ready to go and has a specific purpose. What do you want the visitor to see on that page? What do you want them to do once they’ve read it?
QR Code vs. Barcode: Which Is Right for Your Brand?
As we’ve demonstrated in this article, there is no way to settle the question of “QR code vs. barcode.” Both have their uses, and both are reliable technologies that will be around for many more years to come. The right option for your brand comes down to your application and your goals.
Your label printer can help you choose between QR codes and linear barcodes by asking crucial questions, such as:
- What function do you need your barcode to serve?
- How much information will you need to store?
- How much space do you have on your label for a barcode?
If your label printer isn’t asking these questions, it might be time to search for a more knowledgeable and helpful label supplier. These questions will help you find a label company with the expertise to truly raise the bar on your labels.