Here are two quotes for you to ponder. One on design and one on technology:

“I strive for two things in design: simplicity and clarity. Great design is born of those two things.”

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution”

The first quote you may recognise from Lindon Leader who’s famed designs include FedEx, Disney, and Hawaiian Airlines. The second quote is from Albert Einstein. I chose both these quotes to start this piece for 3 take away words I want you to remember:

Simplicity, Clarity, and Evolution.

All three could be used in the pursuit of great design, or great technology. Both design and technology must be simple for the user to engage with, they both must have clarity of purpose, and both must push the boundaries to get us thinking, discussing, and evolving.

So why am I banging on about technology and design in the same breath like it’s something new? Of course design has evolved. We only have to look at the online design market places, changes from design packaged as software moved to the cloud, and the expanding of designer toolboxes as many designers effectively become “one stop shops.”

all the things you can do with nfc

But, I’m here to talk to you about something a little bit left of centre. And that is technology that’s integrated into your designs. But not online designs. I’m talking about technology integrated into hardcopy materials. That’s right… posters, flyers, retail displays, business cards. Effectively taking paper products and making them smart paper products. So consumers can experience a world beyond what’s just in front of them. A world where the consumer is excited, enthralled, enticed. That world can be summed up with three little letters… NFC.

The next tech wave

robot logo
Robot logo design by C1k.

Ever heard of Smart Cities? Yes? No? Maybe? Well basically think about pre-internet being World 1.0 (offline ONLY). When the internet broke out onto the scene that was World 2.0 (offline + online). So what’s next? It’s where the lines between the internet and our offline reality blur so much it becomes one giant ecosystem. Think about the terms being used today… Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), Augmented Reality (AR), Near Field Communication (NFC).

These technologies are all about speeding up process, hacking life if you will. What’s the next chapter going to look like? Who knows… but what I do know is that it’s estimated that our intuitive perspective of technological advancement in the next 5 years is 32 times that of today, and in 10 years is 1,000 times. Can you even fathom that? I find it difficult but it does indicate that you need to keep abreast of what’s going on in the way of technology now, and into the future.

For this particular article we’re going to focus on one significant piece of technology that can easily be integrated into a hardcopy offering.

NFC: powering up the “call to action”

Visa paywave
via Visa payWave

As a quick intro: NFC is an abbreviation of Near Field Communication. It’s a close proximity protocol…more widely known as “tap and go”. Visa payWave, Mastercard paypass, and Apple Pay are all examples of brands using this technology.

However, all of these examples are in relation to electronic payments. What we are going to discuss is NFC in marketing.

Effective marketing is all about capturing your audience, but not only that it’s providing a “call to action” that is tempting enough for the customer to take that next step, by adding some form of value (or perceived value). It can be as simple as drawing them in to “learn more” or enticing for further interaction with “this product is the best in its class… find out how”.

In a world with so much competition, how does one compete? Well, in a word, you innovate.

NFC tag
An NFC tag, via Demac Media.

Within the realm of NFC there are these groovy little stickers called NFC tags.

They are effectively a sticker with a chip on them. With the right software, and hardware, the owner of the stickers can encode information onto the chip so that, when tapped with a smartphone, the information programmed will be displayed on the users smartphone screen.

You may be thinking that sounds a lot like a QR code. And you are part right. An NFC tag holds information similar to a QR code but does not require a user to look through the viewfinder on their phone… they just unlock their phone, tap, and they’re on their way.

Here are some examples of NFC in use:

This Telstra billboard (Australia) uses NFC to recharge Telstra Pre-Paid accounts. Via Telstra.
The new adidas Telstar match ball for the 2018 World Cup has an NFC tag inside it. Via adidas.

So how can you use NFC?

NFC enables consumers to save time on a number of micro tasks. When I say micro tasks these are tasks you may not even see as tasks, but once you’re in the flow it’s hard to go back. Imagine never needing to manually search for information on your phone, ever again. A little unclear? Here are some examples:

ferngrove wine bottle with nfc tag
Ferngrove Wines uses smart bottles fitted with NFC OpenSense tags as a means of enabling anti-counterfeit protocols. Via Ferngrove.

Scenario 1: You enter an electronics store and you want to look at reviews of a product. While in store you may go online and search “product” + “reviews”. This not only takes time if you have multiple products you want reviews on but can also be to the detriment of the retailer because as you search advertisements of competitors pop up that could sway you as a customer. The alternative would be to have a display with a “tap here for product reviews” sticker located behind it. “Tapping” on this display would launch a product review website that would not only save the customer time (they can tap their way around the store with ease) but also enables the retailers to control the information that is taking the attention of the customer.

NFC in action at Savina Museum of Contemporary Art
Savina Museum of Contemporary Art (South Korea) uses NFC as a means of getting additional information about the artworks. Via Savina.

Scenario 2: You see a movie poster and want to know more about the movie. Your natural inclination is to search online for a movie trailer. The trap with this for the production company is that searching for a particular movie may lead the customer to be shown other competitor movies, so they soon become distracted. If the movie poster had a design that stated “tap here for trailer” the customer could just tap their smartphone and the trailer would be launched. Another option could be “tap here for reviews” and IMDB reviews could appear as well.

Scenario 3: You’re in a retail store and have found the perfect outfit for a night out. However, you’re finding it really difficult to accessorise. Rather than trying to track down a member of staff there could be a display that states “tap here for accessory options”. You could tap your smartphone and be taken to a web page of multiple accessory options for that particular outfit.

But while making the process of finding information easy for us, the beauty of NFC is that it requires active participation. What I mean by that is that it requires us to actively seek out information to launch on our phone. This is the antithesis of technology like Bluetooth Beacons that interact with our smartphones whether we like it or not. When we focus on what we’re after our brain is more geared towards engagement and recall.

So as you can see the main things that NFC has going for it are speed and ease along with being able to control if we want to receive information. But is it really that easy?

Android vs iPhone (iOS)—the debate continues

There always seems to be a debate when it comes to these two operating systems. However, when it comes to NFC there is one winning, and one waiting.


Android is a dream with this technology because… it just works. Now I won’t be flippant by saying “all Android phones work” but most do. Big players like Samsung work. The Android phones unlikely to work are many of those being manufactured in China as they are built without NFC capability. The reason is twofold: 1. It’s cheaper and 2. with so many (an estimated 1 Billion users per month) on platforms like WeChat the emphasis is on the use of QR codes as it’s so widely accepted. This shouldn’t be a huge issue. Just see the paragraph below for a solution that covers everyone.


Apple have kept their cards very close to their chest with what they are enabling with NFC. In iOS11 they finally opened up NFC for developers to start building solutions into their apps (or utilise solutions they had already built). In further upcoming iOS updates we’re expecting they’ll keep improving the functionality. So at present unless a customer has an app that is downloaded with an NFC reader, they cannot read NFC tags.

The solution

The solution that has been used pretty widely is to add a QR code in addition to the NFC tag so there is an “interaction” pairing that enables you to cover off iPhones, Android with NFC, and Android without NFC. Oh and for those of you who don’t know… if you open your iPhone’s camera and hold it over the QR code it will launch the information encoded on the QR code. So as a combo—NFC tag and QR code—there is no additional app needed.

Designing for NFC

nfc billboard
New billboards in San Francisco and Washington feature embedded NFC chips. Via Clear Channel Outdoor.

Before I mentioned NFC you probably either had never heard of it, or you want to use it but aren’t sure how to integrate it into the design of your products. So if that’s you, and you work in design or want to start using NFC, then think about the regular person on the street, and how likely they are to interact with this technology. That’s the challenge we are faced with. As you would have seen with the examples outlined there’s a huge benefit to this technology and it’s only a matter of time before it takes off in a big way. So what do we do for now?

Well, for starters, don’t create it as an afterthought. The problem with the QR code in particular in western society is that it was created as a little box on products with no explanation. And no company created an app with a built-in QR code reader that was particularly useful to the population. Things could have been different but they aren’t, and now we’re stuck with a situation where most people don’t know what that black barcode thingy is, nor how to use it. Let’s not make the same mistake with NFC.

So when I say don’t create it as an afterthought I mean make it big enough, bold enough, and sexy enough to get attention. It’s not just to plonk on marketing materials and hope there will be engagement. We want there to be a call to action. Something that will clearly save time or provide additional benefit (launch a product review, movie trailer, download a coupon etc.).

5 tips to get your NFC design right

So how do you design for it? Well, there are no hard and fast rules, but here are a few pointers:

nfc foursquare check in
Foursquare let’s you know you can check in using NFC by tapping. Via Foursquare.

1. Put the word tap somewhere. Customers need to know what they are to do and most of them will be familiar with “tapping” phones or cards for payments.

2. Give instructions. Differentiate between iPhone and Android use of interaction—until iPhone iOS enables more functionality. What I do is put “tap or scan” and have some text stating the step by step process (depends on the size of your real estate and what you have to work with).

If it’s on a poster you want the poster to be big enough so customers can read the instructions, if it’s in a store then you may have a poster at the entrance stating something like “interact with us” with instructions. Use your judgement on this.

NFC plus QR code
NFC combined with QR code. Via tap4offers.

3. Add a QR code. Now this is somewhat controversial. I recently sat down with a VP from probably the largest NFC marketing company, globally, and they stated they don’t do it. They’re backing themselves even though only about 50% of customers are likely to interact. In my opinion this can be extremely damaging to a brand.

I firmly believe that if we’re here to help customers save time and get the information they need then we need to make life as easy as possible. So my recommendation is, add a QR code until users have an alternative that either matches or exceeds the ease of using a QR code. Just ensure you are following all the correct design principles for QR codes. FastPrint in the UK break it down well in this article on how QR codes work.

the n mark
The “N mark”. Via NFC Forum.

4. Add the “N mark” if you wish. There’s an “N-mark” which is the international symbol of NFC. However, who knows about it? Probably not many. I’d be sticking with creating a logo where you can decide whether you put the acronym NFC in the logo or not. But I would say having the word “tap” is essential and you may want to have some curved lines to demonstrate a technological transmission of information. As I indicated above, whomever is running the campaign, can always look at the insights that are being gathered and refine the process. Are customers interacting? What device types are they using? What can we do to improve take up?

5. Keep an eye on what other companies are doing. This is still a pretty new space so there are no global design rules around NFC. Everyone is still finding their feet… but who knows you may find a formula that works wonders.

Now that you know the basics, you’re all set to experiment with NFC and explore all the wonderful things you can do with it. Good luck with designing for NFC and if you have any comments feel free to add them below and I’ll do my best to answer your queries.

Need the perfect design for your NFC product?
Look no further: our designers can create just about anything for you.