How to use QR codes in research and teaching

Nowadays it is hard to not see QR codes printed in advertisements, on products, and everywhere else. QR codes are one of the biggest trends in marketing right now, and you might wonder: can QR codes be of any use for academics? I say yes, and I urge you to use your own QR code everywhere it makes sense. That is, whenever there is an opportunity to supply an offline audience with additional online information including, but not limited to, your personal webpage, a research paper that accompanies your talk, or web resources that supplement your lecture.

This post is about the basics of why, where and how to use QR codes in your research and teaching. In addition, it will also suggest a few design tweaks that allow you to blend QR codes with the surrounding context (e.g., the keynote slide or a poster). And if you invest some time you can even closely integrate a QR code with your overall self-branding efforts.


What are QR codes, exactly?

QR codes are two-dimensional barcodes that kind of look like somebody with severe ADD tried to paint his own chess board: A scramble of black and white squares in seemingly random order, with only three corners bringing some structure to the chaos.

QR Code

The idea behind QR codes is to link offline environments with online content via a mobile device. Most often, a QR code contains the address of a webpage that is displayed in your browser (or the QR scanning app) once you have scanned the code. However, a QR code can hold any other textual information.

A really good iPhone app for scanning QR codes this is Paperlinks (free, iTunes link): its fast, reliable and ad-free. You can also scan QR codes with your iPad (second generation and older).


Why and when would you use a QR code

QR codes are a great way of giving additional information about either yourself or your research and teaching portfolio. For example, I display QR codes on conference posters, on presentation slides, and on class handouts to point my audience to additional information. You can also display a QR code outside your office’s door to give people an alternative way to reach you when you aren’t there.

The great thing about QR codes is that they are super easy to make. Hence, you can provide very specific web addresses that are tailored to the task at hand. In case of presentations and general use, it might be best to link to your main webpage like I do in the example above and below. However, you can also link directly to a research project you present: I use to do this in poster presentations. In handouts for my class, I include QR codes that link to youtube videos or other additional information that students might find helpful to prepare and review the class.

One thing you should keep in mind is that QR codes are deciphered using mobile devices – most often phones. If you link to your webpage via a QR code, it would be nice if your webpage is readable on a small screen (look up “responsive design” in a search engine for learning more about that). I admit that academiPad doesn’t use a responsive design right now (shame on me!), but my main research page does. Go and scan the barcode with your phone, and you will see a different layout as if you visited my research page on your Mac.


How do you make a QR code?

There are plenty of online and offline tools to make your own QR code. On the mac you can use QREncoder (free, App Store link), and on the web you can use this free QR code service from RACO industries. Creating the actual QR code is dead simple: You specify the information the code should provide (e.g., a web address such as in the “Content” or “Properties” box and tell the app or webpage to create your barcode.

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QR codes are ugly, are they not?

The only problem with QR codes is that by default they are not a piece of beauty. The standard black on white design has a very functional appearance that might conflict with your overall design and branding efforts.

A very simple step to mitigate this problem is to change the color scheme of your QR code, so that the box with the code blends in with its environment. On the Mac, your can use the pre-installed “DigitalColor Meter” to inspect and chose a color available in the vicinity of the QR code to replace the standard black.

Tip: It is always a good idea to have strong contrasts in a QR code. Yellow on white will be difficult to read for many apps. Inversing the colors (e.g., white on black or blue) might also confuse some scanning apps, but its worth a try if it benefits your design.

Here is an example how I use color to fit a customize QR code into the handout for my students. Note that my students are given three different ways to access the online supplement: A “click here” link for when they read the handout on their computer, a QR code to scan when they read a printed hard copy, and a backup link to know where to find the supplements – just in case everything else breaks down.

QR code in lecture handout

A QR code can be used to point students to an online collection of supplements or to individual youtube videos. Many students prefer to print out lecture slides in order to prepare and review class content. Since many students also own smart phones, QR codes are a great way to link their offline study habits with online content that is relevant to the course.


Show off with a Designer QR code

If you want to take your self-branding to the next level, a Designer QR code is the way to go. Lets face it: even when you use a different color, the sharp edges and the noisy appearance of a QR code is nothing that I would like to start and end a conference talk with. However, these are also the exact times when you have to show your QR code. What a dilemma!

The way out is to follow one of the latest trends in marketing communications: Designer QR codes. The cool thing about QR codes is that they allow for some “margin of error”: even if some of the code is not readable by the scanner, the message (e.g., the URL) is still fully recognized. That means that you can replace some of the boxes with other information, such as your initials or a logo that you use in your self-branding.

In addition, current scanning technology will work even when you shave off the corners from each square. Using image editing apps like Pixemator ($15, App Store link), you can in a few steps smooth the edges and add some color to your QR code, turning what was once a cold and industrial image (as shown above) into a warm expression of your individuality.

I combined these two design tips to come up with the following QR code. It contains exactly the same information as the first one in this post. Go ahead and scan it to see for yourself.

Designer QR code

It takes some effort and therefore you won’t want to do this with every QR code you generate. But for your main QR code that points to your website, your design efforts will pay off in two ways: First, a nicely designed QR code is more likely to encourage your audience to scan it. After all, you offer something special there, which might be more worth checking out. Second, you demonstrate some taste, skills and digital literacy by using QR codes, especially when they are nicely designed.

If you are interested in how you can create your own Designer QR code, please follow academiPad on twitter and email/RSS. I will share detailed steps of how I created my Designer QR code here soon.

Disclaimer: All images by academiPad. This post contains affiliate links. 

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  1. Hello.

    I am working on a study that investigates the ease at which cell phones can scan various types of designer QR Codes. I am trying to get as many people to participate as possible and wanted to share the oppertunity with everyone here. The survey can be found at and will only take a few minutes to complete. The general results will be posted and updated weekly at


    Kevin Berisso

    • Jo says:

      For those of you who are interested in seeing what can be done with Designer QR codes, I recommend taking Kevin’s study. You will see some interesting concepts of how you could tweak your QR code, and whether it is likely to work.

      Kevin, will we see a guest post on academiPad when your study is done?

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