Barcodes: Do's and Don'ts - Can's & Cannot's
January 28, 2015 6:48 PM   Subscribe

So, my little food business grew significantly in the last year and the future is making the idea of my products finding shelf space in retail outlets a very strong reality. With that, I will be putting barcodes on my labels.

I can't seem to find concrete answers to two questions, and while I see plenty of examples on store shelves kind of answering my questions, I am always looking for more and more input.

1. Does the barcode need to be placed over a solid color background to be read properly by barcode scanners?
2. Let's say a typical barcode is 1" horizontal x .75" vertical. In hopes of minimizing the distraction of a bar code, would it be safe to create one that is: 1" horizontal x .5" or even .3" vertical?

As I think I understand, the barcode scanner reads the dimensions of the black lines and doesn't really pick up what's in the background, so if my label has a faded distressed image in the background, as long as the black lines of the bar code are vivid and clear, it should not be an issue.
Also, in regards to the sizing, A shorter version of the barcode, does not affect the pattern of the barcode lines which lie horizontally, so making a shorter version of the BC won't affect the bar code scanner either...

I have seen both of my questions basically answered on store shelves as I have spent the last few weeks basically picking up every product i can when in stores looking for examples.

Can anyone let me know if I am thinking this through properly. Just need a bit of concrete validation before I proceed. Gratzi
posted by TwilightKid to Work & Money (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe this guide (pdf) could help? It's from 2002, put out by the Association for Automatic Identification and Data Capture Technologies. Maybe you could contact them and ask if they have more recent resources too.
posted by aka burlap at 6:56 PM on January 28, 2015

You're probably going to have to adhere to the GS-1 standards and guidelines (tutorial, autoplays), as part of the agreement you sign when you apply for a UPC.

I do not know what the current GS-1 requirements are, you should definitely read them closely. Know also that if you were to contract with a very large reseller, they may also dictate the placement, size, and format of your barcode.

I do lots of barcoding for internal use (warehouse shelves, basically) and even a cheapie scanner is surprisingly good at reading squinched and odd barcodes, but readable is not the same as legal for trade in the US.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:03 PM on January 28, 2015

Shrinking the vertical dimension will directly translate to a more difficult to scan barcode. Supermarket scanners don't trace a laser line neatly aligned across the barcode. Instead they project a fan of angled beams so they can recognize a barcode in any orientation. As long as a beam sweeps across the full length of the code, it will recognize it, even at an angle. But if you reduce the height of the lines, then diagonal beams that would have scanned a full size code will not hit some of the lines at the ends.

If you must shrink the barcode, it's probably better to shrink it in both dimensions rather than only vertically. But that makes it harder to read too.
posted by ryanrs at 7:03 PM on January 28, 2015

Creativity is allowed, although this is going bigger, not smaller.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 7:14 PM on January 28, 2015

Response by poster: If the 12345 67890 is considered the standard, but what I would love to do is Code128 version...

Everyone seems to understand what I meant, but thought a visual might ..i
posted by TwilightKid at 7:22 PM on January 28, 2015

Code128 is a different symbology -- that is, it's a different way of encoding information. There's no guarantee that, even if you were encoding the same set of digits assigned as your UPC, any given POS terminal could read it if you used Code128. The standard doesn't just define which symbology you have to use, though; it also defines the dimensions of the code. There are some allowable variations, but none, I think, that allow for a reduction in the height.

Here's what says (emphasis mine):
EAN/UPC Symbols differ from ITF-14 and GS1-128 Symbols because they are scanned by retail omni-directional scanners. This means that EAN/UPC Symbols have a fixed relationship between symbol height and width. When one dimension is modified, the other dimension should be altered by a proportional amount.

Because of this relationship, EAN/UPC Symbols have a nominal height and width specified. A range of allowable sizes from 80% to 200% of the nominal size are also specified and a figure showing the range of dimensions can be found in GS1 General Specifications, Section 5.1, Appendix 7.
posted by hades at 8:32 PM on January 28, 2015

Or, to go straight to the source, here's the current specification: GS1_General_Specifications.pdf

You want section Dimensions and Tolerances. I don't seen an Appendix 7 in section 5.1, so that previous text must refer to an earlier version of the specifications.

Really, though, when you buy your product codes, whoever you buy them from should be able to tell you how you can use them.
posted by hades at 8:51 PM on January 28, 2015

Best answer: There is a huge difference between the "12345..." one, which is UPCA, and the Code 128 one (which is encoding some unknown number), and that is the encoding used to create the barcode. Simply, "Code 128", "Code 39", and "UPCA" define the symbology (the white and black bars) used to encode the data you're showing. The little dangly bits that drop below the barcode and separate the numbers in the UPCA one are entirely cosmetic and really don't need to be there. You can make a UPCA that looks "clean" (like the Code 128 example; a little bit short with all the bars the same height) and it will be fine. What you really don't want to do is put a Code 128 barcode on your retail product and expect it to be scanned.

GS1 specs notwithstanding, you can play with the overall height of your barcode with little detrimental effect. See for example plenty of weird UPC codes found in retail.

I deal with producing readable barcodes for applications including retail and can tell you the most critical thing to readability (after using the correct symbology, and providing contrast between the dark and light elements) is maintaining the correct ratios between the dark and light bars, and the different bar widths themselves. If you look at the UPC in your picture you'll see that there are three widths of both the dark and light elements. The thickest ones are three times as wide as the thinnest ones, and the middle size is two times as wide as the thin ones, and the various dark ones are exactly the same widths as the corresponding light ones. This is generally referred to as the barcode's x-dimension and maintaining the correct ratios are much more important than the overall height.

To answer your questions:
1. Solid is good; I'd recommend against "faded & distressed". What you ultimately want is high contrast between the light and dark elements, as seen by a red laser. Stick with black and white, really.
2. As noted above, the impact of shortening a barcode is reducing its speed of recognition. In practice I think you'd be fine with 0.5" high. 0.3" is pushing it a little. You have to balance the headaches you're passing along to the retailers with your aesthetic.

You can easily find barcode generators via google, and you can drop their outputs straight into label art. Play with the height, just make sure you don't degrade the edges of the lines or adjust their width ratios.

Fun Fact(s): Notice the leading 0 and trailing 5 in the UPC example in your image? The 0 is part of the number you are encoding and the 5 is a check digit. The so-called "UPC code" for this product is 01234567890. The reason they are "outside" the barcode is to make sure there are adequate "quiet zones" on either side of the barcode. Quiet Zones are one of the other "top things that people don't think about that will severely impact the readability of their barcode". In practice you want at least 0.25" of your background color both before and after the barcode.
posted by achrise at 9:13 PM on January 28, 2015

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