Creating artistic QR codes

What they are, how they work, and when you should consider using them

Most QR codes look similar: A series of black and white squares laid out in a fairly predictable way. Custom versions generally include different colors, a frame, or a logo in the middle.

Some QR codes go further by embedding an image in the background and adjusting the QR code pattern to accommodate it. These are often referred to as artistic or halftone QR codes.

In this article we will share some examples, explain what we know about artistic codes, and go through some reasons why you should or shouldn’t use them.

Artistic QR code examples

4 Artistic QR code examples

If you search for "qrtistic QR codes" or "halftone QR codes" you will get plenty of examples, but we have added four here to give you an idea of what we're talking about.

The first is the most common type. The background is a black and white image of a cat's face. You can still see the important parts of the QR code clearly.

The second example uses large "SCAN ME" text as a background. This example is to show what's possible when using simpler text/icon based backgrounds. Using a detailed image like a cats face leads to a complex looking code. With a simpler background, the resulting QR code isn't far from a standard QR code.

The third example pushes the boundaries further. The background is an illustration of a puppy. There are only a few colors so the overall design isn't too noisy.

The final example uses a photo of a dog as the background. This is the one that is most likely to have issues with certain scanners, but seems to work quite well when I try them using an iPhone and Android phone. The position patters and alignment pattern are still quite clear as they are black squares on a white background.

These examples give you a good idea of the range of artistic QR codes that can be created.

How artistic QR codes work

There are various levels of complexity that can be used when creating artistic QR codes, but I'll explain the simplest method (mostly because it's the only method I understand).

Assume we have an image we want to use as the background of a QR code. Here are the steps we take.

  • Adjust the image so it's the same size as the QR code we want to create (e.g. 512 by 512 pixels).
  • If we want a black and white background, convert the image using a method called "dithering".
  • Next, we overlay the QR code over the image.

Here's where we adjust our QR code. Each square on the QR code is called a "module."

  • We now identify the modules that are used to make up the vital parts of the QR code and ensure we leave them as they are. These help scanners detect the QR code.
  • Next, we go through each of the remaining modules and split them into 9 individual squares. Each module is now a tiny grid of 3 by 3 squares.
  • For each of the modules, we keep the center square as it is (white or black), then make the other 8 squares in the module transparent so that we can see the background image through them. We can also delete those 8 squares.

That's pretty much all there is to it. This method results in QR codes that seem to scan fairly reliably (at least in my experience). The key is to ensure the center square in each module is the color it's supposed to be (black or white).

More complex methods result in QR codes that are still reliable, but give you an even clearer view of the embedded image. I don't really understand how they work so I'd struggle to explain them, but you can learn more here.

When to use artistic QR codes

At Hovercode, we are fans of QR codes that are somewhat distinctive. The classic black and white square is great, but a few small modifications can lead to a QR code that works well, fits nicely into your designs, and stands out enough to be noticed.

If you want to go further than adding a logo to your QR code or using a round frame, an artistic code is worth considering.

Based on what I've seen so far, they work best in cases where the QR code itself is a major part of the design.

If your business card, leaflet, or poster is quite minimal apart from the QR code, making it more artistic is a great way to stand out without causing the whole design to become too cluttered.

When not to use artistic QR codes

If your design already has a lot going on, it's better to go with a QR code that's close to the standard. As your QR code is a call to action, it needs to stand out so people know where to scan to take the next step. If the design is already quite dense, an artistic QR code will be harder to spot.

The other obvious thing to consider is scannability. While artistic codes seem to scan quite well, they will never be as reliable as a classic black and white code. Using artistic codes is also best avoided if scannability is key and distinct branding matters less.

If you're unsure, it's better to avoid artistic codes.

Whether you go with an artistic code or a regular one that has been spiced up with a logo and a frame, it's super important to test your QR code to make sure it's easy to scan with various devices.

We're thinking about adding more artistic QR code options to Hovercode, but want to make sure we do it in a way that results in QR codes that work well. If you have any feedback or ideas, we'd love to hear from you.

If you want to learn more about artistic QR codes and how they work, here are some recommended resources: