The world of barcodes can be confusing for us designers. It’s stuffed full of jargon and confusing technical language and, frankly, it’s not too exciting. However, its important to know your stuff because mistakes can be costly and embarrassing. Luckily, barcode errors can be easily avoided if you remember a few details…
1. Talk to your printer
No, not your trusty inkjet… However, if you’re planning on sending your files to a commercial printer for printing on a press then communication is key. Speak to your printer and ask them for barcode specs. At the very least, they should be able to tell you bar width reduction, minimum bar height (aka truncation) and scale (aka magnification).
2. Think about colour contrast
Contrast is everything in barcodes. You want as big a contrast between the bars of your barcode and the colour its printed on. If possible, go for a black barcode on a white background and you shouldn’t have any problems.
If you must colour your barcode then avoid colouring it red at all costs. The laser that scans barcodes is red too so red codes almost certainly won’t scan. Aim for nice dark bars on a light background and you shouldn’t go too far wrong. If you’re unsure, print some test codes in your planned colours and try scanning them.
3. Don’t mess with the font
Barcode fonts are usually OCR-B or Helvetica. It’s possible to change the font as you see fit without stopping the code from being scanned, although we’d strongly recommend against it. If you change the font, make sure the text is still easily readable by the human eye – if your code doesn’t scan, someone is going to have to read and type that number!
4. Make sure you get the bar height right
This is sometimes called truncation. In short, its the height of the bars that make up the code. Generally codes will have a bar height of between 12-16mm. If the bar height is too small then your code may not scan. Again, its always best to check with your printer to see what specifications are needed.
Think about where your barcode goes on your artwork. If its on curve, e.g. on a can then make sure the bars go with the curve of the can. If possible, put the barcode where it’s unlikely to get crumpled or distorted.
6. Quiet Zones
A quiet zone is an imaginary border around the bars of your code. You shouldn’t have anything printed in that area. No text. No graphics. Nothing. If you print anything in the quiet zone it can confuse a barcode reader and your code may not scan. Generally speaking, 2-3mm is plenty. If in any doubt, it’s better to have too big a quiet zone than to small. The minimum quiet zone is sometimes indicated by a ‘light margin indicator’ on some bar codes. This is usually a ‘>’ symbol to the left and/or right of the code number.
7. Test your code
Print your code out and scan it to make sure it works. There are free apps for iOS and Android e.g. Zbar which will at least verify that the code is readable and contains the right number/text. There are also more expensive solutions for industry.
8. Avoid barcode fonts
Its possible to buy barcode fonts where you simply type your number in, change the font to your barcode font and hey presto, you have a barcode. These are not professional solutions. Avoid them! You cannot add bar width reduction which rules out production on most professional presses. Also, you may have issues if you send your document to someone who doesn’t have your font. Or worse, someone who has a subtly different version of your barcode font.
9. Don’t distort the code
Once you’ve created your code in your barcode software (did we mention that Barcode Basics for Mac OS X is a rather excellent barcode generator?), resist the temptation to scale it, stretch it, warp it etc. If you find you need a bigger or smaller code then regenerate it and replace it.
10. Use a reputable barcode generator
You tend to get what you pay for… to a certain extent. There are free barcode solutions but they are usually font based which means they’re not useful for serious work (see the section on avoiding barcode fonts above). However, don’t be fooled into spending a fortune on an app stuffed full of functions you’ll never use. Apps such as our own Barcode Basics will do the job for under $10.