Inside the QR code creative boom

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QR code usage has dramatically increased since the pandemic. Now, designers are giving them new creative purpose.

4 min read

An illustration showing black and white QR codes on one side, and a Gaussian blur in green and hot pink on the right-hand side.

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QR codes have been around since the mid nineties, but until recently they’ve struggled to gain any real traction as a widespread design solution. Then, as public health measures prompted restaurants to remove menus and retail shops to increase touch-free checkout options, the functionality of touchless tech quickly became a part of daily life. Now, designers are using QR codes like never before—and the icon is finding its way into nearly every industry from foodservice to fashion to healthcare to live entertainment.


While local restaurants were some of the first businesses to adopt QR codes in response to the pandemic, food and beverage corporations quickly implemented them as well. Coca-Cola developed a ‘pour by phone’ solution for their Freestyle touchscreen drink dispensers in just over a week during the beginning of the US lockdowns in 2020. Chief architect for Coca-Cola's Freestyle machines Michael Connor explains in a press release that pivoting to a QR code enabled system needed to be a smooth transition for consumers. “We intentionally designed this so anyone with a smart device could pour a drink,” Connor says, “When you have a tray or a sandwich in one hand, you don’t want to deal with downloading an app. We took steps to make the solution super-easy, super-fast and super-reliable.


An image of the Health Pass app by Clear on a mobile device.
Health passes utilizing a QR code, like this one by biometric tech company Clear, are becoming more and more common. Image courtesy Clear.

The need for quick and reliable access to services or information during the pandemic has extended far beyond just the way we order food. QR technology has also become integral in accessing vaccine records from our phones. An influx of vaccine passport apps came to market last year like the New York state-run and IBM-built Excelsior Pass or NYC’s vaccine passport, the NYC SAFE app that received some mixed reviews after a bumpy rollout. Clear’s Health Pass has become one of the more popular vaccine passport options. Its streamlined interface allows users to access their vaccination records though a QR code, as well as displaying proof of a negative COVID-19 test for entrance to events or for travel. Clear has partnered with several airlines, and the state of Hawaii, to let visitors skip the mandatory 5 day quarantine period by showing vaccine records and test results through the app upon arrival to the islands.


But the pandemic isn't the only reason QR codes have become more prevalent. The Internet of Things (IoT), a network of connected objects able to collect and exchange data using embedded sensors, has contributed to their increased use as well. The fashion industry has already shown it's not averse to pushing the boundaries of tech by integrating the latest in digital design—and now, brands are embracing QR codes, with garment labels that not only provide additional content and storytelling about the item or collection, but offer more transparency in their supply chain and commitment to sustainability.


Fashion companies like PANGAIA are adding QR codes to clothing tags as a way for customers to learn more about their products. Images courtesy: PANGAIA.



Clothing brand PANGAIA partnered with retail's leading Digital ID platform EON to integrate QR code enabled care labels into each item to “unlock a bespoke digital platform that shows you the journey of your product,” according to the brand’s website. It allows users to trace the lifecycle of the item they bought, from its production, to sale and resale, and even its authenticity. Top designers like Michael Kors and Stella McCartney are also creating Digital IDs for their new collections, as well as Levi’s, which announced a partnership with Scandinavian clothing brand Ganni. Their new capsule collection allows consumers to rent sustainable denim and access exclusive content through a QR code like style inspiration from the brand or stories recorded by previous renters.


An image of two ad spots by Rodgers Townsends utilizing QR codes for the Black Rep Theater.
Creative agency Rodgers Townsend reinvented the look of QR codes in a recent ad campaign for St. Louis' Black Rep Theater. Images courtesy: Black Rep Theater.

One of the most interesting aspects of this resurgence in QR technology is how diverse the industries are that have adopted it, and how it can be both utilitarian and also serve as a visual storytelling device. Creative agency Rodgers Townsend's recent work for the historic Black Rep Theater in St. Louis elevates the use beyond pure function by making geometric patterns of the QR code the centerpiece of large scale ads for the production of Soul Speaks Out. When scanned, the codes in each ad bring the play’s main characters to life through QR-activated teasers of the actors’ performances. The campaign, which won the agency Communication Art’s 2021 Creative Excellence Award, was helmed by Jon Hanson, Creative Director at Rodgers Townsend. He says the process for designing the ads was mostly about visual trial and error. “I had experimented with several styles and color grading techniques before landing on the final QR code design with its subtle rounded edges,” he says. “The greatest challenge was balancing the weight of the photography and functionality of the QR code.”


For all the innovative ways we've seen QR codes evolve, the technology has unfortunately become vulnerable to privacy and security breaches. In yet another edition of This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, cybercriminals are now using the ubiquity of QR codes to reroute unsuspecting people to malicious websites. However, even with this new looming threat, there’s no sign that the QR creative boom is stopping anytime soon. A 2021 consumer poll conducted by The Drum/YouGov found that 75% of US respondents said they planned on using QR codes moving forward. That’s a huge indicator that the pandemic has shifted consumer behavior to the point that the technology, once seen as a hassle, even “unsexy”, according to the New York Times, is now something the majority of consumers are comfortable engaging with. It’s also a new creative medium for designers and brands to explore. As Tamara Alesi, YouGov’s sector head of media, tells The Drum of the report’s findings, “for the first time, QR codes have a real purpose.”


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