Designer QR Codes: Beyond Black and White

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A recent design project from Japan infuses contemporary art into ho-hum QR code graphics. To tout Takashi Murakami's ongoing collaboration with Louis Vuitton, Tokyo-based creative agency SET dispensed with the standard black and white pattern and designed a stylized QR code inspired by the artist's work for the fashion brand.

Big in Japan, quick response codes are graphics used to hyperlink physical objects to Web content or multimedia and are often found on posters, billboards and magazines. The Murakami QR code drives traffic to the Louis Vuitton mobile website and, for SET, demonstrates the possibilities of designer QR codes.

SET handles events, video production, ambient marketing, mobile marketing and guerrilla campaigns for clients like Red Bull, Adidas and Heineken. Below, Greg McMaster, creative planner at the agency, talks about the project and the potential for QR codes beyond Japan.

How did the Louis Vuitton Murakami project come about? SET has incorporated art into QR codes before, so what makes this project unique?

QR codes are all individual so marketers know when, where and what time of day the codes are accessed. This direct response is relatively inexpensive to set up, so that makes them attractive, though not visually so. That's where our codes come in.

We were introduced to people at Louis Vuitton who had heard about our codes and quite rightly wanted something that set their code, for an upcoming promotion, apart from the regular ones. What makes this project so special is that it is the first major brand to take a chance with the fully branded codes, not simple just changing the color of the dots. The Japanese are very cautious about new ideas and we have met with some brands that are a little skeptical about being the first to dip their toes into a new pond. We were very pleased that such a respected brand and an equally respected artist were able to sign off on something that although old to us, represents a real shift in the way that the codes can been used.

Some have opined that QR code use in Japan is actually declining in some sectors. Are you finding this?

It has not been our experience that QR code use is declining. I think what might be happening is that consumers are possibly tired of them in their current form. I think this is where a design revolution is needed. People need a reason to click through. We think that codes such as the Louis Vuitton one and others we have up our sleeve will show that simple color and clever ideas will increase use in much the same way that clever advertising gets people to pay attention.

Do you think that this crossover--bringing the worlds of popular culture and art into the QR code space--will fuel more interest in and demand for QR codes beyond Japan?

Already we are being approached by agencies abroad to discuss collaboration. I think that this will indeed open up new possibilities. We are one agency but we are keen to see what happens when others work out how to do it and start putting their creativity into it. The business behind the QR code has its obvious appeal to marketers so I am sure we will see increased use outside Japan. Already examples are starting to creep up - Kanye West, Ralph Lauren, H&M, etc. They just haven't realized how much nicer they could have looked if they had come to us first!

What are the remaining barriers in North America to widespread use of QR codes (for example, cost to users and the lack of standards or preloaded code reading applications)? Is it a technical/infrastructure question or just a mindset question?

I just spent a few weeks in Australia talking up the codes to brands and agencies there and I guess one barrier is the perceived cost. Once flat rate mobile plans become standard, consumers will spend more time browsing and interacting on their phones. The QR code will provide a gateway between the real world and the digital. I saw codes on the sides of buses in Australia promoting movie releases. It was a kid's film and so that is obviously one way the codes will take off abroad. Kids today seem to have no trouble with technology, so a couple of well-promoted examples of youth brand coding will have everyone jumping on the bandwagon and consumers experimenting. Think Ecko tagging Air Force One with a QR code--The next day everyone would know what they are. The technology is there and the consumers are ready. It's up to the brands to make them interesting enough to warrant a click.

You've hinted at animated codes and physical object codes - how will they work?

I am loathe to comment too much on the animated and physical codes only because we want to take things slow and let everyone catch up a bit. We want people to get used to color before we start throwing codes made of Coke cans, golf balls or people's faces at them. I will say that there is an enormous potential for the codes to delight and attract consumers if you give it a little bit of thought. We are currently designing games and scavenger-type hunts using the codes that will again showcase how they can be used in a more creative way.
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