How far can a UPC be integrated into a package design?

I'm like to include a custom UPC code like the following as part of a proposal, but my boss is worried that if it's too "design-y", it will be too hard for a clerk to find, or that it won't scan properly. While I've found many examples, I haven't found much literature on designing custom UPC's. Are there any best practices for this sort of thing?

Here's an example of what a complex transformation might look like:

enter image description here

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    Do you have a scanner to test with? That would be the ultimate deciding factor.
    – Scott
    Apr 29, 2015 at 18:39
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    At least my bar code readers all seem to be able to read somewhat distorted barcodes. And seemingly it reads this one. I would still not do this.
    – joojaa
    Apr 29, 2015 at 18:39
  • Yes, I have a scanner, as well as some virtual ones on phones and such. It scans just fine, as long as the angle isn't too oblique. My question has more to do with the choice of using a UPC as part of a design instead of having it sit on its own in a corner. Apr 29, 2015 at 18:50
  • I purchased a cylindrical "on the go" charger for my phone that had the barcode encircling the entire thing, with no numbers at all, it just looked like varied black bands around the tube. I actually thought it was a cool trick to incorporate the barcode into the product like that.
    – Manly
    Apr 29, 2015 at 18:55
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    Remember that a UPC is pure functional design. Don't lose site of it's purpose. I think your boss has some very valid concerns.
    – DA01
    Apr 30, 2015 at 5:34

3 Answers 3


Your design does not meet the requirements for barcodes as outlined by GS1 US, the organization responsible for publishing and maintaining UPC standards. The standards are available on their website; specific information about best practices is available in the GS1 General Specifications (PDF link). Additionally, some retailers explicitly disallow this type of creativity in their package design requirements (see note at end).

The most immediate issue I see with your design is it is not human-readable. Sometimes barcodes just won't scan due to a number of reasons, so there needs to be a fallback. From section 5.2.3 on page 249 of the General Specifications:

Human Readable Interpretation

The human readable digits shall be printed underneath the main symbol and above the Add-On Symbol.

It also does not meet the height requirements (page 244):

Symbol Height

In EAN-13, EAN-8, UPC-A, and UPC-E barcodes, the bars (dark bars) forming the left, centre, and right Guard Bar Patterns shall be extended downward by 5x (e.g., 1.65 millimetres (0.065 inch). This shall also apply to the bars (dark bars) of the first and last symbol characters of the UPC-A barcode.

It's difficult to tell from your image if that's a 3D interpretation of a "twisted box" or if that's the actual barcode you want to use. Either way, another aspect to consider is the symbol dimensions (page 243).

Nominal Dimensions of Characters

Barcodes can be printed at various densities to accommodate a variety of printing and scanning processes. The significant dimensional parameter is X, the ideal width of a single module element. The X-dimension must be constant throughout a given symbol.

If your design does meet all the relevant standards, there might be some room for creativity with barcodes. Some examples can be seen on this article:

As long as the fundamental vertical lines function properly, there are no real limits to what an artist can design around a standard bar code – as these real-and-working scabable images illustrate in stark black, white and monotone color.

various unique barcode designs

One important thing to keep in mind is that some (usually larger) retailers explicitly do not allow for these kinds of barcodes ("animated barcodes", as I've seen it termed"). This would be detailed in their vendor barcode requirements document, if they have one. So, be prepared to swap it out for a standard barcode if necessary.

  • Well, the example was just a test case, but the question still stands if the width is constant. For instance, if the UPC formed a 'frame' that ran the outside edge of a package. That would surely scan, but it may be confusing to anyone who would use it. Apr 29, 2015 at 18:41
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    @justvolleyball whether or not this will cause confusion for cashiers might be more of a User Experience question
    – JohnB
    Apr 29, 2015 at 18:47

I would advise to not get "creative" with the bar code design. There are standards for using bar codes.

The basic idea of a bar code

Every barcode begins with a special start character and ends with a special stop character. These codes help the reader detect the barcode and figure out whether it is being scanned forward or backward.

How to barcode reads the lines

A barcode essentially is a way to encode information in a visual pattern that a machine can read. The combination of black and white bars (elements) represents different text characters which follows a set algorithm for that barcode type. If you change the sequence of elements you get different text. A barcode scanner reads this pattern of black and white that is then turned into a line of text your computer can understand.

Basically the scanner will read the widths between the black and white areas.

From: http://www.barcodesinc.com/faq/

There are best practices to printing bar codes but you do have some wiggle room. The smaller the barcode the harder it will be for the scanner to read. In my experience for QR codes, I would not go smaller than 1".

Based on this information, I would not deviate away from using the standard UPC barcode that is the 1D (linear) code.

  • Noted, but even if the design is completely linear, there is some room to give it some form. Many packages mask their UPC or add elements to give it more character. Apr 29, 2015 at 18:52

Offset printers do not like to work with UPC codes that are truncated to less than 1/4'... flexo printers prefer bar codes at 100%, no truncation, if your package is a flexo bag or wrap, you will need to have a UPC no smaller than 130%. Don't forget, ink spreads on paper, or substrate. Your final UPC should be ordered to printer spec with proper magnification and BWR (bar width reduction) Bar width reduction ensures scanning success after printing.

There should always be at least 1/8" clearance around the UPC of white space or the Quiet Zone that it is called. The ensures there is no interference when when the scanner reads the bars. The human readable (digits below the bar code) are just that, a readable, that does not require a clearance as the readable does not scan....

The bar code is not to be meant as a graphic element, it is a way to track prices and inventory for the supplier. My advice is to leave this alone. its far to expensive to be forced to reprint all your packaging if your UPC is unreadable.

Donna Driscoll Graphic Project Manager

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