Barcode printing best practices

Barcode printing best practices

Before you start printing your barcode symbols, there are a few things you need to pay particular attention to. A barcode is good only if it can be read by a barcode scanner. Let’s see what the key factors are when it comes to printing barcodes and how Labeljoy can help you.

1 – Choosing the right size

First of all, you need to carefully consider who will be reading your barcodes: is it for internal use? Is it for the European market or the North American market? Is it for shipping? Your first step is to choose the right symbology, so that when your labels are read, they can be properly interpreted by your customers.

Here’s a table to help you decide. It shows barcode symbologies generated by Labeljoy and the corresponding main area of use.

EAN 13, EAN 8

European market

UPC A, UPC E

North American market (USA, Canada)

ITF 14

Shipping cartons

Code 39, Code 39 Ex.

US department of defense

Code 93, Code 93 Ex.

Canadian postal service

Interleaved 2 of 5

Distribution, Warehouse, 135 mm Film

Industrial 2 of 5

Legacy only: Airline tickets, photofinishing, warehousing

Codabar

Legacy only: libraries, shipping, and medical industry

Code 11

Telecommunication

Code 128

General use, globally accepted

GS1 128, EAN 128

GS1 international standard for the shipping industry

Postnet, Planet

US postal service

Data Matrix

Electronics, US department of defense, Aerospace industry

QR Code

Advertising, industry

Basically, if you are printing labels for items that are ending up on a supermarket shelf, you need to choose between EAN 13 and UPC A (depending where your market is). If you are printing labels for in-house only use, choose Code 128. If you need to print a large quantity of information, choose Data Matrix. If you are printing an advertising label, choose QR Code so that your symbols can be read by any smartphone

2 – Dimensions

Each symbology was designed with a specific set of rules that not only regulates the encoding (text that turns into bars) but also defines the size of the bars, the distance between bars, the size of the human readable text, the aspect ratio and the overall size of the symbol.

Linear barcode symbols such as Code 128 are made up of the following elements.

Dimensions of barcode

All symbols generated by Labeljoy already contain all the elements needed to ensure proper scanning. Keep in mind that since all label elements are freely moveable and resizable, you might inadvertently create a barcode symbol that is not easily readable or not readable at all. For example, if the symbol becomes too wide or too short, then the original design specifications will become compromised and readability is no longer ensured.

Here’s an example of a barcode symbol compromised by bad dimensions:

Barcode size

Labeljoy features an automatic sizing functionality for barcode elements that can help you create properly sized barcode symbols. Double click your barcode element and go to the Advanced tab. Check out the setting in the Size mode combo box: When set to Manual, the barcode is freely resizable and you are in charge of defining a size that can ensure proper readability.

Advanced barcode settings

On the other hand, you can select one of the three Auto size modes.

Size mode of barcode

When Size mode is set to one of the three possible Anchor values (Anchor left, Anchor center and Anchor right), the size of the barcode element will be automatically calculated using the barcode specification of the selected symbology. This way you can be sure that the generated symbol will preserve its readability.

In this case, all manual resizing is disabled: the Width and Height text boxes are disabled and you’ll only be able to use the mouse to reposition the element but not to resize it. This functionality is intended for two purposes:

  1. The symbol is encoding static data and you want to make sure its size is properly setup to ensure correct readability.
  2. The symbol is connected to a data source that contains variable length data, and you want the size of the symbol to shrink or expand according to the encoded data, so that readability is preserved.

In this last scenario the size of the barcode changes at each location, the Anchor point selection will determine which side of the element will be kept Anchored and which will vary:

  • Anchor left: The left side of the element is fixed and the right side is changed according to contents.
  • Anchor center: both the left and the right side are changed to preserve the horizontal center point of the element.
  • Anchor right: The right side of the element is fixed and the left side is changed according to contents.

Generally speaking you should never make a barcode symbol smaller than its default size. Your label design might require you to make it a bit larger, which is fine if you keep the enlargement within about 20% of the original default size. Also pay particular attention to the aspect ratio: when changing the size of a barcode symbol, make sure you vary both width and height proportionally. An important factor to consider is the type of barcode reader that will be used: if you are working in a closed environment, then you can test if the symbols you produce are properly read by your scanners. But if your printing labels for the outside world make sure you keep things as simple as possible.

3 – Contrast

By default, all barcode symbols, regardless of the symbology, are created with black bars (or modules for 2D symbologies) on a white background. This choice of colors makes the symbol very easy to scan. When barcodes were first invented, barcode scanners were not as evolved as the ones we have today. Therefore, a high contrast color scheme was a must to ensure proper scanning.

Industrial 2 of 5 symbol with black bars on a white background

Barcode white background

Today things are different: a modern hand-held barcode scanner has more processing power than tens of computers combined in use in the 60’s and the latest CCD scanners are capable of recognizing elements far more complex than just barcodes.
It’s not uncommon to find barcodes designed to better fit the graphic environment they belong to. Labeljoy enables you to create barcode symbols with a colored background, even a fading one, and/or colored bars:

Code 128 symbol with blue bars on white background

Barcode blue bars

EAN 13 symbol on a pink background

Barcode pink backgorund

QR Code symbol with dark green modules on a fading background

QR code with fading background

 

4 – Rotation

Labeljoy enables you to freely rotate all elements on the page. This applies to barcode symbols as well. For example your label design might require you to have a barcode element rotated by a 45 degree angle:

Rotated QR code

This is all perfectly fine: barcode scanners and smartphone don’t expect you to scan symbols while being perfectly aligned to their base angle. Keep in mind that, again, the simpler you stay the better chance you’ll have that your symbols will be easily read in a large variety of different environments.

One thing to keep in mind is that computer screens have far less resolution than any standard ink-jet printer. That’s why your rotated barcode element on screen might look a bit jagged, but it will turn out fine once it’s printed:

Rotated symbol on screen (96 dpi)

Rotated symbol 96dpi

Rotated symbol on paper (600 dpi)

Rotated symbol 600dpi

 

5 – Printing

Printing is the most critical element in the process of creating barcode labels. Most of the times, it is the only culprit of all barcode scanning issues.
Linear barcode symbols become unreadable if just one of the bars is damaged or not printed correctly. This is due to the fact that linear symbologies do not implement any error correction algorithm: all bars are needed to make sense out of the symbol.
On the other hand, 2D symbologies implement error correction algorithms that make it possible for a scanner to correctly read a partially damaged symbol. Nevertheless, if you are printing a 2D barcode, you shouldn’t rely on its error correction capabilities to ensure a proper read: always strive for the best possible result when it comes to printing barcodes.

For this reason, here’s a quick list of things you should always check before printing barcodes:

  • On an ink-jet printer, make sure ink levels are ok and that printing heads are clean.
  • On a laser printer, make sure that the toner level is fine and that printer rollers are clean.
  • On a roll printer, make sure that ink ribbons are working properly.
  • Test your barcodes possibly with an outdated scanner: if it works with an older scanner, chances are your symbols will be read anywhere.

Here’s an example of an unreadable barcode symbol due to bad printing and heavy damage:

Damaged barcode

And here’s a quick list to sum up all designing tips discussed so far in this tutorial:

  • Choose the right symbology: decide based on your customer requirements. If it’s for in-house only then you are your own customer, decide based on your infrastructure capabilities (scanner type, type of data to be encoded, etc).
  • Use default dimensions for each symbology.
  • Keep it simple, unless you have a specific requirement use black bars on a white background, avoid background transparencies.
  • Always honor the quite zone: do not put text or graphics too close to the symbol or it might end up being unreadable.
  • Do not put text or graphics on top of a barcode symbol.
  • If you need to include more than one symbol, make sure there is enough space between them, or else scanning a specific symbol will become complicated.

6 – Applying the labels

One last important aspect to discuss is the physical process of labeling that is performed after a label has been printed. Sometimes, even if you follow all the rules, you end up shipping out an unreadable label because you didn’t pay enough attention while attaching the label to your items.

Here’s a list of guidelines that might help you avoid the most common mistakes:

  • Choose the right paper: make sure that once the label comes out of the printer, the ink is dry so that while handling it you won’t end up inadvertently damaging barcodes.
  • Pay attention to the glue: there are tons of different label types out there; some have permanent glue while others are for attaching/detaching. When choosing the paper, make sure it has the glue that fits your needs.
  • Avoid warping when possible: if you apply a barcode label on a small jar a horizontal barcode symbol may end up not being readable. Rotate the barcode by 90 or 270 degrees.
  • Watch for liquids: if your labels need to be in humid environments or exposed to the weather, there are specific labels out there, search for weather-proof labels.
  • Watch for transparent films: if your items will end up wrapped in plastic film, test the readability of the barcodes.