QR Codes: What They Are, How to Use Them, and Creative Examples

It has come to my attention that there are a lot of people that still don’t know what QR codes are. Why is this interesting? Well, because I guarantee that most people have probably seen one, whether they knew what it was or not.

Ever seen one of these before?

Of course, you have. Maybe at Starbucks…

in a magazine…

in a store window…

or on a business card?

These little patterns which are popping up more and more in marketing materials are called quick response codes, or QR codes. Now, that we’ve given a name to these patterns that seem to resemble those old puzzles you had to stare at forever in order to see the hidden 3D image (doing this to a QR code, by the way, simply results in nothing more than a headache), let’s get in to what they are, why you should even know about them, and how to use them.

What is a QR Code?

QR codes were originally invented by Denso Wave, a subsidiary of Toyota, in 1994 to track automotive parts at high speeds. The way the code is designed, it can be read by a camera instead of a much more restrictive laser that is normally used for traditional UPC bar codes. In addition to this, the designers of the code added four larger boxes as standard into the all QR codes. Three of these boxes, the really large ones, help the camera determine the position of the QR code, while the fourth box (smaller than the other three but still larger than the ones that make up the data the code is storing) is used to normalize the image for size, angle of view, and orientation. These innovations allowed auto components to be scanned at a much faster pace than before.

The QR code works in a similar way to a UPC barcode in that data is held in the form of a pattern that can be decoded. This data can be anything from a URL for a website, to contact information, to geolocation data for use on a map. Anything that can be written out in under 4,000 characters or so (depending on the data type etc.).

What caused the QR code to break from the automotive industry and find it’s way into marketing materials, store-fronts, and any printable medium, is the advent of the smartphone and smartphone apps. Android, iOS, Windows Phone, MeeGo, and most other smartphone operating systems all have access to a camera and a QR code app for decoding the images. In other words, most people now have a QR code scanner within arm’s reach at all times.

How To Use a QR Code

If you have a smartphone, you can use these codes quite easily. All you have to do is download a QR code scanning app from your device’s app store, open it and use it to take a picture of the code. It’ll decode the QR code and then do the action the QR code is asking you to do.

Here is a list of good QR code scanners for each of the major mobile operating systems with direct download links.

AndroidGoogle Goggles

BlackberryFree QR Code Scanner Pro

iOS (iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch)Google Goggles

Windows PhoneQR Code Reader


Again, once you have the app, simply open it on your phone and it should have a scan option that will look like you are looking through your device’s camera. Simply aim at a QR code and scan.

Great Uses for QR Codes

QR codes are generally used to save the marketing people the trouble of writing the words, “Visit our site for more info”. But, in certain circumstances, they are being used for some very creative ways of engaging us, the consumers. Here’s a few I’ve found to be pretty creative.

Turbana, the fourth largest importer of bananas to the US, just announced that they’ll be adding QR codes to their bananas. Might sound odd, but hear me out, they have a cool reason. As the farm-to-table movement has picked up in the world of restaurants across the globe, Turbana thought it might be cool to take the end consumer back to the farm. By scanning the QR code, you’ll be presented with info regarding the actual farm where that bunch of bananas came from, their practices, methods, and other info regarding how that banana bunch came into their hands.

Guinness came up with a creative way to use a QR code printed on a pint class. When the glass is empty or even if you put a light beer in it (clearly not a Guinness), it isn’t scannable. Soon as you put a dark, frothy Guinness in the glass, however, the QR code becomes quite clear. Scanning it can then announce to your friends on your different social networks that you’re enjoying a Guinness and even invite them to join you. In addition, it’ll also bring you to a website with more information on your beer so you can then have something to actually do on your cell phone while waiting for your friends to show up at the bar.

Taranta’s in Boston started experimenting with QR codes on their dishes during demo classes and special events. These codes direct people to the restaurant’s website for ingredients and recipes on the specific dish. They also envision using the codes to show people where the ingredients for that dish were sourced in the future during demo classes, or other special events.

A tattoo artist in Paris, decided to try his hand at an “animated tattoo” using a QR code. Check out the video above to see how it worked out.

Now that you know what they are and how to use them, go make people wonder why you keep taking pictures of these little checkered boxes.

Have you guys found any other cool uses? Post them in the comments, will ya?

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