QR Codes, Microsoft Tags, and NFC Tags

The longest conversation ever to take place on the National Association for Interpretation’s LinkedIn page was about QR codes, Microsoft tags, and NFC tags. These are technologies used in magazine ads, on billboards and T-shirts, in murder investigations, and in many other media that can be scanned using a smart phone to provide a link to a website or other information. In interpretive settings, they can be used to provide access to information that augments the contents of signs or exhibits.

Here’s a quick breakdown of these technologies:

QR Codes
Based on my own unscientific observation, I feel like you see QR (“Quick Response”) codes more than the other two. About a year ago, I wrote a post about them, which, if it had been an interpretive presentation, would have had the following theme: “This is what QR codes are.” (Sam Ham would be proud.) Since then, I’ve heard from a handful of interpreters about how they’re using QR codes at their sites, including this example from Friend of IBD Bob Hinkle at Cleveland Metroparks.

Cleveland Metroparks’ Lake to Lake Trail features six signs similar to these, which are made of vinyl over aluminum, so they can be replaced quickly and easily for less than a dollar each, according to Bob.

You can read QR codes with the camera on your smart phone with an app called a “QR Reader.” I use an app on my iPhone called (wait for it) QR Reader. You can create QR codes extremely easily on a number of websites called “QR Code Generators,” like the one I use called Kaywa.

One criticism of QR codes is that they’re ugly and boring (also criticisms of the IBD blog authors), but Friend of IBD Phil Sexton shared this link to 15 Beautiful and Creative QR Codes, which shows that they don’t have to be. Above are examples from that article—tags for Fillmore Silver Spring, Louis Vuitton’s mobile site, and Corkbin. The article’s author, , points out that the QR code’s “30% tolerance in readability” allows this room for creativity. (Note that Cleveland Metroparks includes their logo in the middle of their QR code.)

Microsoft Tags
Terre Dunivant of Gaia Graphics and Associates wrote a post on her blog comparing the relative merits of Microsoft Tags vs. QR Codes. Terre prefers Microsoft tags for several reasons, including that they offer even more flexibility and room for creativity than QR codes. The examples below (from Microsoft’s website) are tags for Iams, Loescher (a book publisher), and Ciara.

On the negative side, so far as I can tell, you can only create Microsoft tags by signing up for a free account on Microsoft’s website, which I assume will crash your computer. In terms of scanning Microsoft tags, I use an app called Microsoft Tag Reader on the iPhone.

NFC tags
I’ll admit that I have not used this technology. I researched NFC tags to learn more about the rumor that Brett Favre was going to sign with the Philadelphia Eagles, and I was surprised to learn that NFC, in this instance, has nothing to do with the National Football Conference, but rather stands for “Near Field Communication.”

Near Field Communication tags are the relative new kid the block—the Joey McIntyre of mobile data-sharing technology, if you will. NFC tags are different from QR codes and Microsoft tags in that they are actual pieces of hardware rather than printed codes to be scanned. Basically, you purchase and write data to tiny electronic chips, which are then able to share that data with NFC-enabled devices (like some smart phones) that come close to them. The obvious disadvantages to this technology are that you have to create the tags, and not all smart phones are equipped to accept the information. The advantage is that the transfer of data is much easier on the user’s end, provided they have an NFC-enabled phone.

This is technology to watch, but the limited number of people able to take advantage of it at the moment, in my opinion, makes it not quite ready for prime time.

As more and more people have smart phones—including noted Apple critic and new iPhone owner Shea Lewis—interpretive sites are taking advantage of these technologies. But there are questions, of course: What are the best ways to make use of this new technology from a pragmatic standpoint? (Cleveland Metroparks’ easy-switch sign is a good solution.) How do you make information contained in the codes available to those who do not have smart phones? (Note that Cleveland Metroparks has provided a website for those with no smart phone.) How will this technology change in the next six months to 10 years? (If we knew that, we’d be filthy rich.) Can you really justify calling a designated hitter a baseball player? (Clearly not.)

I’m curious to know if you’ve been using any or all of these at your site, and what sort of success you’ve had.

Flush Left, Ragged Right: Getting the Perfect Edge

Have you ever asked yourself, Are my paragraphs the right shape? If not, fasten your seatbelts, folks. It’s typographic minutia time again!

When you’re dealing with blocks of text in an exhibit or on a sign, it’s worth taking the time to make sure your type looks as attractive as possible. One of the things some new designers overlook is the actual shapes of their blocks of text. (They’re probably too busy thinking about young people things, like texting and eating paste.)

I like to set my type flush left, ragged right (or left-justified, in Microsoft Word parlance). Flush-left, ragged-right type creates a straight line on the left, and an organic, ragged edge on the right. I prefer to set my type this way (as opposed to fully justified) in part because it maintains even word- and letter-spacing.

But here’s the thing: There’s a specific shape that you should strive to create with that ragged right edge. You don’t want to leave it to chance.

The text below (James Earl Jones’s baseball speech from Field of Dreams) was flowed into a text box in Adobe InDesign with no attempts at tweaking.

I have traced the paragraph and represented its shape to the right. (If my wife is reading this, she is just now realizing that she is married to the sort of person who traces the shapes of paragraphs.) You can see that it creates a haphazard shape. To my eyes, the short first line and the subsequent ski-jump slope shape are particularly unattractive. (Speaking of James Earl Jones, I’m just noticing that the shape above looks like a profile of Darth Vader’s head.)

Below, I have altered the text (through minor adjustments to letter spacing and a few hard returns) to create a more desirable saw-edge shape. The first line is longer than the second, then subsequent lines roughly alternate.

You can see that the right edge of the type still has an organic feeling to it, but it has a more pleasing, consistent look than the original, unmodified version.

Obviously, it’s not pragmatic to do this with every paragraph in a book or a magazine, but if you have three or four blocks of text on an interpretive panel or wayside, attention to this level of detail will make your work that much more attractive.

And speaking of trying to be attractive to people, I think I need to stop having my wife read these posts.

PowerPoint Wars

Have you ever spent time during someone’s PowerPoint presentation wondering what they were thinking when they created it? Hopefully I’m not the only one. I often have a difficult time watching some use PowerPoint. I was reminded of this recently when the PowerPoint slide to end all PowerPoint slides was created.

The full story, presented by the New York Times, explains the roar that came from one slide displayed by General McChrystal in Kabul. It has made its round on social media networks and even made it to The Daily Show.

When watching a PowerPoint presentation, I find myself trying to figure out the presenter’s way of thinking in developing the presentation aide and paying little or no attention to the presentation. I have this same problem when my wife is talking. Occasionally, I’ll see that PowerPoint presentation that hits you like a slap to the face, leaving you in wonder with what the designer has done. Again I’m not paying attention because I want to know how they achieved that effect. My wife also employs the slap in the face technique in order to gain my attention.

Here are a few tips and tricks that you can use that will make your PowerPoint programs rock, or at least be more tolerable.

Think Inside the Box: Paul and I live and die by the grid. It’s our lot in life. PowerPoint has a grid system that you can easily apply by simply clicking on the view tab and then clicking on the gridlines box. It is the Microsoft version of a grid, which means it works quickly and efficiently, didn’t cost extra, but is not as sexy as something offered by Apple. (That’s right the grid can be sexy.) By following a grid, flow and organization is improved. IBD (the book not the blog) takes a more in-depth look at lifestyle improvements by applying the grid.

What the Font: This happened to me just a few weeks ago. I put together a presentation that I was really proud of and when it was up on the screen the typefaces that I painstakingly chose were not present. I didn’t save my presentation in the correct format to encapsulate the fonts and the computer that I was displaying from didn’t have the same fonts installed as my computer. PowerPoint will make some decisions for you—decisions that I would rather my two-year old son make—by substituting fonts for you, but here’s how you solve that problem: In PowerPoint 2007, choose the office button, choose the PowerPoint options button, choose save in the list, choose the box for embed fonts in file, and then choose embed only the characters used in the presentation (best for reducing overall file size) or embed all characters (best for editing if the file is going to be shared).

Smart Art: PowerPoint 2007 has made an attempt to break out of the problems related to overused, predetermined screen layouts. The Smart Art allows you to transform those ever-present bulleted lists into graphics that may or may not help improve the communication of your point. The fact that Microsoft Office 2007 calls this “art” scares me and is reminiscent of the ubiquitous Word Art available in other Office 2007 programs. Smart Art may be destined to be the new typewriter, screeching tire, or laser sound effect. There is always a time and place for a laser sound effect (primarily Star Wars reenactments) but never in a presentation (unless it is a presentation that you are trying to annoy me, which may be a valid use). If used appropriately the function could be an asset but I’m afraid once it becomes more commonplace and the most popular templates get overused and abused.

Thematic Approach: Did I even have to write this? Sure I did, because I’m guilty of it. I find myself thinking about the presentation design concepts and elements long before my presentation is complete. My wife thinks about dessert long before the appetizer is gone. As interpreters we need to remember that the basics of program development apply to the creation of a PowerPoint presentation. Take into consideration purpose, theme, audience, research, organization and then review your purpose and theme before designing the program.

Remember that it was created for businesses but you are responsible for making the decisions to improve the presentation. PowerPoint is a tool for interpretation not the interpretation or intended to replace the interpreter.

Comic Sans saves the day

Yes, we’re hard on Comic Sans here at IBD. In fact, a month or two ago, I wrote that using it makes a designer look like a hack. So rather than kick a typeface when it’s down, I thought we’d give it its due. The above video, called “Font Conference,” presents Comic Sans in a new light.

Regarding my own interest in this video, there are two possibilities (perhaps not mutually exclusive):

1. It’s a funny way to anthropomorphize some of the common typefaces we’ve all come to know and recognize.

2. I am a bigger nerd than I thought I was. I am aware as I watch it that I am laughing out loud at jokes about typefaces, but I can’t help myself.

Regardless, there are a number of funny, quotable lines (“Pencil, telephone, hourglass! Diamonds, candle, candle, flag!”), but the top honor, in my opinion, goes to when the font Ransom, holding Courier and Curlz MT hostage, demands placement in a variety of media, including Microsoft Works. Times New Roman responds, “You’re insane. Nobody uses Microsoft Works!”