This article is written by Andrew Gossen (@agossen), Senior Director for Social Media Strategy in the Division of Alumni Affairs & Development at Cornell University, and informal advisor to Alumni Futures.
QR ("quick response") codes are finally entering the North American mainstream. Just a year ago, most advancement professionals had never heard of them. Now all you need to do is read a magazine or check out the Twitter activity around #qrcode to discover how much interest there is in the codes' unique ability to connect physical objects to the mobile web.
As is often the case, higher education lags behind the private sector in adopting a new technology. It’s an encouraging sign, therefore, that people are experimenting and beginning to take advantage of QR codes. QR codes add additional dimensions to the static print pieces that have been staples of institutional advancement for so long – business cards, postcards, posters, and more. Most of the attention thus far has focused on the connection between the real and online worlds. However, Asian and European designers have realized that QR codes have potential as visual objects in their own right. This approach, called design QR, has enormous implications for branding in higher education.
[Design QR has enormous implications for branding in higher education.]
The QR code gets the job done, but there’s not much to recommend it graphically.
However, these basic QR codes contain much more data than is actually needed for a scanner to read them. This means we can alter a percentage of the image without making the QR code unreadable. And code designers can include colors and logos or illustrations in their designs. As long as the colors stand out in sufficient contrast, the scanner doesn’t care if it’s black and white or purple and blue.
Combine these two variables in the hands of a good graphic designer, and you have a branding opportunity. Here at Cornell, we’ve begun to experiment in this area.
For Reunion, we wanted a new, unconventional QR code for our Reunion Mobile website. University Communications’ Design Director Clive Howard worked the iconic McGraw Tower into the design, adding visual pizzazz and a Cornell theme (click the images to view larger versions).
By selecting sufficiently contrasting colors, he provided a number of choices for the design. All of them point to the same site:
Thanks to these options, our marketing collateral appealed to alumni more than last year's merchandise. Which of these t-shirts would you rather wear?
He used Cornell’s red and white color scheme over a silhouette of the city skyline and the Statue of Liberty, elegantly evoking the prospect of a formal Cornell technology and applied science presence in New York City.
The use of QR codes in North American higher education must continue evolving in this direction – it simply makes sense to do so.
[What are the challenges of using Design QR in your marketing efforts?]
Clive shared his thoughts on the practical challenges of design QR:
- The goal is to create a strong graphic that is easily understood but that does not add to the busy-ness of the existing QR code.
- Once you have selected a visual element (such as McGraw Tower), you delete elements of the original code and test to see if it still works. The added graphic should be as large as possible without interfering with the code's translation. Test the code on as many devices as possible and monitor successful web page launches.
- Color contrast plays a huge part in readability by scanners. The code needs enough contrast to register the differences. Once again, test to verify that it works.
- Color also plays a large part when reproducing the QR code on promotional pieces. For example, for Reunion 2011, we adjusted the screening process for the t-shirt application to make sure that the QR code could be read on fabric.
The mobile web is growing rapidly, and QR codes effectively connect the physical world to the Internet. At the same time, they can serve as an additional component of an institution's or an event’s graphic identity.
How will your institution take advantage of this opportunity?
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