The History of QR Codes

March 31st, 2020 · 6 minute read

If you've been in marketing, advertising, or graphic design for awhile, you may remember the sharp rise and subsequent fall of Quick Response code (abbreviated “QR codes”). This technology debuted in 1994 as a means of tracking parts in vehicle manufacturing operations. It wasn’t until 2010 that marketers began to see potential for advertising purposes, and smartphone developers rolled out QR reader apps. Unfortunately, QR codes initially failed to take off and became a relic of a meager attempt to digitally enhance print media. However, as Wired Magazine observed, marketing-oriented QR codes were simply ahead of their time. To be successful, they needed two things: a critical mass of users with smartphones, and smartphones that could easily scan the codes. Both of these things now exist — and so the QR resurgence has begun... 

The Early Days

QR codes were originally used as part of the Japanese automotive industry’s digital architecture. Denso Wave Incorporated, owned by Toyota, was commissioned with the task to expand the amount of information that could be stored in a barcode. The resulting QR technology provided an easy means of attaching inventory status and other information to factory parts.

In time, other nations and industries adopted QR as a means of streamlining production and tracking inventory. Barcodes were also in use, but they were the standard codes you see on products at big-box stores. They could hold 20 alphanumeric characters, and as you may have noticed at the supermarket, they sometimes take a while to scan. The beauty of QR, unlike standard barcodes, was that it could hold more than 350 times the number of characters, and that meant that it could store complex information, such as a status update or, more commonly, the location of a digital document. A QR code generator can be used to create a code, like Flowcode. 

The Rise and Fall of QR Codes

Businesses that wanted to improve the speed and efficiency at which they organized their assets quickly seized upon the technology. It wasn’t long before marketers figured out that they could encode any sort of alphanumeric information in the codes — including URLs. In an age when marketers were figuring out digital advertising, this capacity seemed like the answer to a prayer. After all, print advertising was expensive. What if marketers could use QR codes to help guide consumers to a destination that was cheaper to produce?

However, consumers were capable of figuring that out on their own, and within a few years, QR codes seemed laughable in the face of a digital renaissance. Plus, marketers were eager to connect with the millennials, a generation of digital natives who didn’t need QR codes to access information. To many marketers, QR codes were a complete waste of ink. Those who attempted to use them could expect to be mocked as “behind the times.”

Even in their original usage in factory production, QR codes soon failed to accommodate the large amount of data that needed to be stored. They had to be printed at a fairly large size, which made them useless for small parts such as microchips. But while there was industrial demand for improvement, marketers kept on their merry way by marketing for mobile browsers and nascent social media apps. 

The Age of Smartphones

In 2010, 62.6 million people in the United States used smartphones. That may sound like a lot, but compare that to 2020, in which that number is predicted to more than quadruple to 272.6 million. Smartphones are now so ubiquitous that most consumers are using them to navigate their world. With such a digitally enhanced existence comes an expectation that businesses will follow suit. These days, consumers are looking for a mobile-focused shopping experienceeven if they’re in a physical store. That means that companies that don’t offer mobile apps, responsive websites, robust social media presences, or means of paying with one’s phone are being left in the dust. 

Meanwhile, QR codes had quietly been getting more powerful. Marketers rediscovered them and, in an apparent attempt to make up for their rejection, fully embraced them as a means of enhancing product packaging and merchandising. The key was to envision QR codes as a complement to smartphones, rather than the other way around. 

The QR Code Comeback 

Indeed, it was a social media app, Snapchat, that helped renew marketers’ interest in QR codes. The forward-thinking company used the technology to generate their “Snapcodes,” which allowed users to instantly view and follow other users’ profiles. Suddenly, it was obvious how powerful QR technology has become.

The ever-enterprising Apple seized upon the chance to distinguish itself. 

In 2017, with iOS 11, the iPhone’s native camera could instantly recognize QR codes.  With that, the need to download a separate QR reader — the final hurdle to widespread adoption — was gone.

Now, most smartphones can recognize QR codes, and businesses in a wide range of industries are realizing the immense potential that this technology offers. By focusing on smartphones as the tool and QR codes as the route, marketers can unlock myriad opportunities for their consumers. OR rather, let the consumers do it themselves. 

QR codes offer an inexpensive means of giving consumers easy access to digital information that enhances what they see in a real-world environment. Consumers are already using their smartphones to search for more information about a topic or product of interest. Now, marketers can tap into this tendency by using QR codes to guide what the consumer accesses.

What’s Next for QR Codes?

During QR’s latent years, an ostensible competitor, near-field communication (NFC), came on the market. While NFC is useful for wireless pay and digital enhancement for some luxury products, it’s more expensive than QR, and fewer devices are NFC-enabled. However, it seems that both technologies will continue to rise and evolve. QR codes will likely be used primarily in print materials or in situations that require longer user engagement, such as in educational settings or event spaces. NFC is currently used for payments and other “instant” consumer actions, and may continue to grow into that use case.

For now, QR is the cheaper option, and it’s versatile enough to meet a wide variety of business needs. It’s affordable and easy to print QR codes on business cards, product packaging, posters, or any other marketing materials. Whatever ideas you may have for implementing QR, you can head over to and get started generating codes for free, with their super powered QR Code Generator. Take advantage of the comeback!


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