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QR codes get the designer treatment

QR codes get the designer treatment
SET QR, a New Zealand tech company, is hitting QR codes with the design stick.

QR codes – those little black and white fuzzy boxes now seen on everything from shower gel to books – have so far been a blight on carefully designed packaging and products.

QR codes for Time magazineSure, they’re practical; they pack a powerful punch of information, and once scanned by a smartphone, will take the user to an expanded portal of information – a website, text, photos, downloads. But they’re sure as heck not pretty.

The ugly little box is no more, as far as Kiwi company SET QR is concerned. From its tiny Wellington office and a flat in downtown Tokyo, the company takes standard QR codes and inflects them with individual, branded personalities. It’s something of a design revolution.

QR codes were first created in Japan in 1994 and have since soaked the mainstream culture; some 50 million people there use them every day. We’re a little slower in New Zealand, however, and the boxes have only recently become mainstream.

With smartphone penetration expected to surpass the billion mark by 2013, QR codes are a marketer’s dream.

SET QR partner Ollie Langridge saw the writing on the wall for the designer potential of QR codes.

The idea was initially thrown up by the company’s “designer guru” – a Kiwi expat living in Tokyo who has to remain anonymous as he also plays guru at a major ad agency, which presents a conflict. Inserting logos, different designs and more of a “feeling” helps project the “true identity” of a brand or business, Langridge says.

For the UK native, creating designer codes is a process that took years to perfect. The biggest challenge is in creating a designer code that can be read by the multitude of scanning systems available for smartphones. The codes come with a guarantee: that they can be read by all the top 10 global systems.

“We’ve taken a long time to be able to actually sort out how to make them readable not only on just one QR scan system, but on the top 10 global systems,” Langridge says. “That is our measure of expertise.”

There’s a 15 percent variability built into any QR code, which is how it’s possible to fiddle around with it to such a large extent.

“We used this as leeway to insert designs and logos into them so they could be branded, thereby turning a negative trait into a positive advantage.”

SET QR’s code for Louis Vuitton, based on artwork by Takashi Murakami, has been featured on thousands of design and technology sites. Wired readers voted on the best of three codes customised for the magazine by SET QR, while Moet et Chandon’s code appeared on drink coasters in bars throughout Tokyo

Codes aren’t constrained by size, so upper limits are only determined by printers or the ability of the smartphone to read the whole code in one go.

Several of SET QR’s codes have been featured on billboards, such as a series done for Time magazine in the US, but it hasn’t yet had the same pick-up here.

The company’s charges within New Zealand for the designer codes are $5,000 for multinationals, $3,000 for everyone else, barring charities and not-for-profits, who get a mate’s rate of $1,000.

From the client end it’s pretty simple; they supply a URL, a high-resolution logo and a brief, if they choose. They then own the design in perpetuity and no further costs apply.

Langridge says the company has no “real competitors” in the market, even globally.

“It’s taken years to perfect what we do. We can safely call ourselves world leaders, and the designer QR code is a Kiwi invention.”

The newfound niche “fits the link” between the graphic design and print world with that of the digital world, Langridge says.

Perfecting the designer codes might have taken time, but the demand for them is booming and SET QR’s impressive client list now includes the likes of Time, Moet, Louis Vuitton and Disney. Langridge estimates 95 percent of the company’s clients are international, but several local companies have caught on; New Zealand clients include Netfilms and charity @ heart (formerly Heart Children NZ).

As demand for designer codes is destined to soar, the company continues to enter complex territories, venturing next into moving QR codes and animations.