Image by Beatrice Sala.

QR codes have been the subject of various cycles of derision over the past 20 years, and yet, walk around today and you’ll find them everywhere: posted on storefronts inviting onlookers to place online orders, or scan a menu for takeout. They’re used to indicate completed health screenings so people can enter schools and hospitals without having to lift a pen. According to a survey conducted in September in the U.S. and UK, almost half of respondents noticed an increase in QR codes since the pandemic began. The technology has reached a level of adoption that’s trending towards that of China, where they’ve been used widely for a decade.

As a communication design, QR codes rely on function over form—they are, after all, meant to be legible to your computer, not to you—but the pandemic has proven their potential outside of the merely transactional. Now that people are used to seeing and scanning those squared off, scrambled messages from one computer to another, designers are already considering how else to use them. Paired with other emerging behaviors and new technology—AI, ethical shopping, a desire for brand transparency—QR codes and the additional layer of information they provide could prove even more useful than they already are. 

Restaurants were among the first to adopt the codes as a way to replace paper menus, a trend that some in the industry believe may outlive the pandemic. The financial and environmental costs associated with printing paper menus, along with the time spent updating them—a task that often involves coaxing a printer into alignment or tinkering in Adobe Illustrator—add up. And more than ever, efficiency is essential to restaurants, says Amy Morris, founder and creative director at The Morris Project, a design studio specializing in the hospitality industry. Morris described a recent exchange with a cafe owner looking to streamline her take-out order experience and capitalize on the time customers spent standing in line outside the store. Why not paint a QR code on the side of the building, allowing patrons to read the menu, scroll through images, and choose what they want before they reach the counter?

QR codes can simplify “the line of communication between where [consumers] spend their money and what effects that has in the world.”

The ubiquity of QR codes in functional interactions (payments, menus, forms) will likely nudge people to engage with them in more ancillary settings, which already has designers thinking of new uses for an old technology. Sarah Williams, partner and creative director at Beardwood&Co, sees the potential for QR codes to tell brand stories that don’t fit within the constraints of package design. This, she says, is particularly relevant for food and wellness companies, where detailing values and bona fides is often as essential as listing ingredients. A QR code could be used to provide context around an organization’s status as a B Corp, for example, something that’s tricky to distill into the copy on a 16 oz bottle. What initiatives does the company invest its profits in? How does it support its workers? In this way, QR codes, once something that most people ignored, offer an opportunity for other rote symbols (a recycling label, a USDA Organic circle) to be reanimated with meaning. For consumers, Williams says, QR codes can simplify “the line of communication between where they’re spending their money and what effects that has in the world.”

That portal into a company’s values is especially important for digital brands, who have built their identities in webpages and social media accounts. Stephan Ango, co-founder and chief product officer at Lumi, a packaging platform used by brands like Parachute and Stitch Fix, saw QR codes as something that could be valuable to his clients and their customers. Lumi works primarily with e-commerce companies, many of which have sidestepped traditional retail and the labels it requires. They don’t need to track purchases in a store, but they do need a way to keep tabs on packaging materials out in the wild. Lumi ID, an offering the company rolled out in March, is a QR code designed to give both companies and consumers a way to know more about an item’s packaging. For Lumi’s clients, the codes solve an inventory tracking problem, especially for smaller companies who operate within third-party warehouses. For consumers, they act as a kind of produce sticker, identifying the source and disposal instructions of a given container. 

“A lot of companies are investing in making more sustainable choices around their packaging,” says Ango. “They want to make sure that [brand] superfans who are really focused on sustainability know that they’re making an effort.” One of these companies is Yes Plz, a weekly coffee subscription service founded by Tony Konecny, who was an early adopter of Lumi ID. The brand had long included QR codes on the inserts in their coffee mailings, as a way to link to paired playlists. Thanks to link tracking, Konecny knew people had been scanning those codes and was game to add another to the outside of the package. Konecny, who often handles graphic design for the brand, says that once he noticed the built-in QR generator in InDesign (the option first appeared in 2013), he found himself using them more and more. Access on the design side wasn’t met with ease for the end user until 2017, when Apple and Android added QR readers into their built-in cameras. Prior to that, smartphones needed a standalone app to read QR codes, which stunted their growth for years.

The idea of QR codes as an avatar for sustainability isn’t something most would have predicted when the technology first appeared. QR codes were invented in 1994 by Denso Wave, a subsidiary of Toyota, and developed to replace barcodes, which had been used to track car parts during manufacturing. The QR code bested its predecessor in a number of ways: it was easier to scan, able to store more information, and it didn’t require licensing. Denso Wave never patented the technology, which opened it up to applications beyond the factory floor. By the early 2010s, brands starting using QR codes as a way to track engagement with print ads and packaging. In 2011, Taco Bell put them on co-branded cups and boxes to promote a partnership with MTV. That same year, Chinese commerce giant Alibaba introduced QR codes as a form of mobile payment with Alipay. By introducing QR codes as a passive design (i.e. something users offered to computers to scan rather than doing the scanning themselves), Chinese companies familiarized consumers with them and provided their utility. Because of the pandemic, that proof of concept is now happening on a global scale. 

“What was once seen as an annoyance is now seen as a convenience.”

Ten years later, “what was once seen as an annoyance is now seen as a convenience,” says multidisciplinary artist Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya. She likes using QR codes in her work because they allow an audience to “very neatly open up a digital component that is perhaps just as important as a physical piece.” QR codes appear on a number of pieces from Phingbodhipakkiya’s recent project for the New York City Commission on Human Rights, for which she’s a Public Artist in Residence. The “I Still Believe in Our City” campaign is a response to anti-Asian bias in the wake of COVID-19 and a celebration of the community’s contribution to the city. The QR codes in the bottom corners of Phingbodhipakkiya’s liveboards and posters lead to an page expanding on the campaign’s message, with links to resources for individuals and businesses. She mused on future uses for the technology: paired with a message-focused mural, for example, a QR code could act as a way “to source feedback or answers to a question from passersby.” 

Shuya Gong, an interaction designer at IDEO’s CoLab, sees QR codes as a “humble technology” that hints at something bigger. For her, they fit into a filtered reality—a layer of existence sandwiched between the plainly visual world (traffic signs, typography) and the higher plane of things we can’t see (quantum physics, consciousness). She compares the technology to wifi: invisible to us, but detectable to computers. QR codes aren’t legible to humans, which allows us to register them and the potential information they hold without having to immediately process it. When we scan codes, we act as mediators. 

But what if we didn’t have to? For Gong, QR codes signal that our society is getting more comfortable with the idea “that there are things that we just can’t see because we build tools to see those things.” To compare the difference between computer and human perception, Gong offers the example of a stop sign. A stop sign was designed for our eyes, but what does a red, octagonal shape at the end of a block indicate to the sensor in a self-driving car? It can be programmed to identify and interpret these signs the way a human would, or, if presented with a QR code, it can do something much more direct. Gong sees uses for QR codes in cases like these, where a computer interacting in the human world could communicate more efficiently with something that speaks its own language, without translation from humans at all.