I battled with the title of this post for quite some time. It started as a tale about “Why QR Codes Are Dead,” but they’re not dead are they? In fact, these dang things are everywhere! From the vehicle driving next to you to the fruit you just picked up from the supermarket. No matter how much I’d like them to be nothing more than a distant memory of yet another silly, outdated and embarrassing trend, much like the fanny pack, marketers still keep them alive. I didn’t want to approach this as a “Do’s and Don’ts of QR Codes” type of article either, so I decided to take the angle of explaining why they exist in the first place and how the repeated abuse of them has, in my opinion, set them on a course towards extinction.


What is a QR Code?

A QR code (quick response code) is considered to be a descendant of the UPC barcode used by manufacturers and retailers for decades to visually communicate a product’s unique serial number and a myriad of additional product details.

Unlike its predecessor, the QR code is perfectly square and reminiscent of a deformed, abhorrent crossword puzzle. As with any scannable code, it has the ability to error correct to account for a low level of wear and tear or damage. Because of this feature, some have taken liberties of inserting their company logo or other design elements into the code, still allowing the code to function as intended.

When it’s all said and done, the QR code can be considered as a visual “link.”

How does it work?

Similar to the UPC code, the QR code is a unique, visual code that once scanned, will translate into an HTTP response. These responses often take the form of a marketing webpage URL or some sort of downloadable resource such as a vCard (virtual business card) or PDF.

So What’s Wrong With QR Codes?

  • A large percentage of smartphones do not have a native QR reader which requires users to find, download and use third-party readers to get them to work in the first place.
  • Potentially malicious codes combined with various susceptible FREE QR code reader apps can leave you and your information at risk.
  • Codes can be difficult to scan due to placement, obstructions, movement, etc.
  • The unaesthetic nature of the code muddies up creative and, in some cases, can often harm conversion.
  • Areas with low or no connectivity don’t allow for users to scan them.
  • They can promote engagement with a user at inopportune times such as:
    • Trying to get a scan off of a billboard or off of another vehicle while you’re driving.
    • While you’re at the bathroom urinal and you REALLY SHOULDN’T be handling your phone…AT ALL.

The Good, The Bad & The Fugly

This all sounds great, right? Well, the truth is it can be, but it is the manner in which the QR code is commonly being used that is ruining it for everybody, and therein lies my internal dilemma. To summarize Scott Stratten (@unmarketing), the President of UnMarketing, from his book “QR Codes Kill Kittens” QR codes have a lot of potential; I love the idea of it except their implementation is terrible. The underlying point being that we all too often try to use tech in business because we can, not because we should.

Let’s take a look at some examples, shall we?

The Good

Some implementations find a way around the general unpleasant aesthetic of this technology and actually allow for it to assist their campaign.

Walmart / Mattel Virtual Toy Store
Walmart / Mattel Virtual Toy Store

The Bad

Other implementations miss the point entirely and use the technology just to use it.

QR Code on the Back of Semi Truck
QR Code on the Back of Semi Truck

Wait, I almost have it….SMASH Image Source

The Fugly

Even worse implementations do themselves more harm than good. Maybe the code does assist in bringing the user to a mobile-friendly version of your website, but at what cost? QR codes are inherently ugly so you either have to tuck them in a corner somewhere or feature them in your ad which can be brutal to your design.

QR Code on a Billboard
QR Code on a Billboard

You thought designers got mad when you asked to make the logo bigger…


QR Codes Are Like Fanny Packs

As difficult as it is for me to admit, I believe that there is a time and a place to use QR codes and they can be situationally helpful. As demonstrated above, they also have a myriad of weaknesses so your implementation will need to be well thought out, and extra care should be taken in planning how you’re going to use them.

Like I said at the beginning of the article, I don’t believe that QR codes are dead, not yet anyway. I think of them like fanny packs; the dang things still show up from time to time and even though they’re quite useful, they can do more harm to your image than they’re worth.