How QR Codes Work and Their History

You’ve seen QR Codes everywhere, from billboards to print ads to virtual business cards and beyond. From scanning product labels to accessing event information, QR Codes have completely revolutionized the way consumers interact with information.

But where did they come from, and how do QR Codes work? Below, we’ll discuss their history, how they work, and some of the best modern use cases for these little pixelated square patterns.

What is a QR Code?

Before we dive into the history of QR Codes, it’s worth taking a crash course in QR Codes basics to learn what exactly a QR Code is. 

A Quick Response Code is quickly readable by a cell phone. Chances are you’ve seen and used them, but many people don’t know how they work and what happens behind the scenes when someone scans one.When someone scans a QR Code, it uses a combination of spacing as a type of Matrix barcode (a 2D barcode) to convey a multitude of information. As a result, QR Codes have a wide range of uses across all types of industries, such as retail, marketing, and logistics.

The structure of a QR Code

The modern-day QR Code consists of seven parts. Each creates a pixelated pattern that looks similar to a crossword puzzle. Each pixel’s placement has a specific purpose that conveys certain information through the code, such as the:

  • Print direction

  • Timing

  • Error tolerance

  • Empty spaces to differentiate the code from its surroundings 

Static vs. Dynamic QR Codes

Despite their intricate structures, QR Codes can be surprisingly flexible depending on if they’re Static or Dynamic. In fact, weighing the differences of Static QR Codes vs. Dynamic QR Codes is a vital step toward using QR Codes to their fullest potential.

Static QR Codes permanently link QR Code readers to one link. The benefit of that permanence is that once a Static QR Code is printed, you don’t need any subscription or features to connect people to a page as long as it’s readable. 

On the other hand, you can change a Dynamic QR Code’s destination link even after the code has been printed—no need to reprint and deploy all new codes.

On top of that, Dynamic QR Codes allow you to see statistics like how many people have scanned them. Although those features require a subscription, QR Code Generator’s Dynamic QR Codes give you actionable insights. 

If you know where and when people are showing interest in your product, then you know how to invest your resources. This data can lead to greater return on investment (ROI), time savings, and customer insights that’s otherwise only available through trial and error.

QR Codes vs. Barcodes

While QR Codes and Barcodes are similar in practice, QR Codes contain more information because they have the ability to hold information both horizontally and vertically. Barcodes only use horizontal information. While Barcodes work wonderfully for situations like scanning supermarket items, QR Codes have a much higher capability of transferring information, likely what has made them increasingly popular due to their versatility.

Left side: QR Code, right side: bar code.

The history of QR Codes

Like the development of many technologies, QR Codes were created out of necessity. QR Codes actually started out as barcodes with their typical purpose: for supermarkets.

In the 1960s, Japan experienced a wave of economic growth. Supermarkets expanded from selling just food items to selling clothing and a wide range of other commodities. They soon realized they needed a way to keep track of everything.

Before barcodes existed, cashiers had to manually enter individual items, which took a long time. Due to the health issues created by these heavily repetitive actions—like carpal tunnel syndrome—supermarket managers knew they needed to find a solution.

Who invented QR Codes?

As a result of the growing need to lighten the burden on supermarket cashiers, the  point-of-sale (POS) system was born. It allowed items to be scanned individually and then registered by a computer.

But then supermarkets faced another obstacle: Barcodes could only store up to around 20 alphanumeric characters of information and function within one dimension (one coding direction).

DENSO WAVE and their lead developer, Masahiro Hara, invented the QR Code to solve this problem by developing a 2D Code (two coding directions) to hold more information.

They first came up with the idea of the square because their research showed that it was an easily distinguishable shape. This also boosted the speed at which scanners could read information (up to ten times faster than with barcodes). 

The combination was a jackpot. DENSO WAVE made the QR Code public in 1994 without maintaining patent rights. The use of QR Codes spread like wildfire.

How did QR Codes become popular?

QR Codes were first used in Japan’s automotive industry. They quickly recognized these codes’ versatility and began to use them in production, shipping, and transactions.

Following that came the subsequent societal demand for more product traceability—particularly in food and pharmaceuticals. Later on, in 2000, the ISO international standards added QR Codes to their list, allowing them to reach an international level of recognition. Later on, with the invention of the smartphone, there was no stopping the increasing rate of its popularity. Everyone now had their own QR Code scanning mobile devices in their pocket.

Other types of QR Codes

Many are familiar with the standard Static QR Codes. However, there are actually many types of barcodes and QR Codes with different capabilities.  Here are a few of the most popular versions:

Micro QR Codes

As the name implies, micro QR Codes are small enough to fit on smaller items. They save that space by printing fewer position detection patterns in smaller margins. The tradeoff is that micro QR Codes hold less information than regular-sized ones.

Micro QR Codes in comparison with a normal size QR Code.

iQR Codes

On the other end of the spectrum, iQR Codes provide more data than a regular QR Code while remaining the same size. They can also be sized down while retaining the same amount of information.

The rectangle shape of an iQR Code


FrameQR Codes were developed in 2014 to allow for more creativity in the QR Code look. QR Code Generator offers a wide range of customization features,  including color, shape, type, logo, and much more.

How do QR Codes work?

So, how are QR Codes Generated? Before we dive into the mechanics of QR Codes, let’s lay the groundwork for understanding how these versatile codes function. 

1. Encoding information

One of the easiest ways to think about QR Codes is that they have their own language that can only be interpreted by scanners.

For example, when a QR Code is made, data like a URL is converted or encoded into the white and black square pattern you see. The different regions of those patterns convey specific information.

The three large squares in the corners orient the scanner. Next, the smaller squares throughout the code, known as positioning markers, help the scanner correct any skewing due to the positioning. 

Then, there are even finer details. For instance, timing patterns are lines of alternating black and white squares that map the size of the data regions.

Lastly, the version information determines the size of a QR Code. Since people frequently handle these codes and leave them outside, they can become damaged or dirty. The format defines the amount of the QR Code,  separated into four levels, that can be damaged before its readability is affected.

2. Capture and scan 

One of the best parts of QR Codes is that you can simply open the camera app on a smartphone and point it at the code until it scans. Today, this feature often comes as a native part of your Android or iPhone’s capabilities, so there are no extra apps to download. 

However, many apps offer advanced features or are great options if your phone doesn’t scan QR Codes already. 

3. Decoding Information

As the code is scanned, your phone or the app you’re using interprets what it reads. Specifically, it focuses on the data region to find the information that it will then decode and present to you.

At the same time, error correction algorithms work within the format to retrieve data from damaged or dirty parts of the code.  

4. Taking action

Finally, the scanner responds to the information it decoded from the QR Code. If it’s a URL, that means asking if you’d like to open the corresponding webpage or doing so automatically.

What are the uses of QR Codes?

There are a ton of uses for QR Codes. Seriously. We’ve got a comprehensive guide with examples, but we’ll summarize a few below.


Example of QR Codes on business cards

One of the most popular QR Code ideas is for business cards. This could come in handy when you’re at a networking event, speaking to a lot of people quickly—without much time to exchange physical business cards.

Instead of carrying around a stack of cards for events, you can use digital cards with QR Codes. The vCard Plus QR Code makes uploading business card details directly to your smartphone simple!

An additional advantage is that you aren’t limited to the space on a traditional business card. With a digital version, potential clients or partners can view you on social media, get contact information, or even book an appointment with you.

Product packaging

Creative QR Code idea on a product packaging

Many people are familiar with codes on supermarket goods, but they have a place on other consumer products as well.

For example, say you have a seasonal product available for Christmas. You can use a PDF QR Code to attach a special recipe directly to that product in a manner that doesn’t detract from the packaging design.

Further uses for product packaging could be adding Social Media QR Codes to gain more followers.


QR Code used on a form in a clinic

One way to ensure medical staff provides the best possible care is by getting customer feedback. QR Codes allow patients to fill out surveys and feedback forms on their own time using Feedback QR Codes. This works well with an online booking system, so you can send these surveys automatically after an appointment.

Personal use

Add QR Code on invitation cards

Say you’re planning an event like a surprised birthday party where you need a reliable way for attendees to RSVP. You can simplify this process by sending invitees an Event QR Code with all the details and a way for them to RSVP and add it directly to their calendars.


A gym using a QR Code on a billboard to advertise

You’re probably used to seeing billboards and other print ads offering discounts for gym subscriptions—especially around New Year’s. But marketers can make these ads even more effective by adding a Coupon QR Code directly to the graphics. Combine it with a limited offer and a link to your website, and you’ve got an easy way to reach new customers with much less work involved.

Restaurants and menus

Restaurants face the constant challenge of printing, maintaining, and updating their paper menus. After all, changes to the menu or a single mistake could call for the entire set to be reprinted.

QR Codes solve that problem by linking to digital menus that are easier to update. Plus, any customer with a smartphone can quickly access it without waiting for one to be brought to them. 


Many vendors can benefit from QR Codes. For example, if you’re at a farmers market and need to pay for produce through Venmo, the vendor could show you a QR Code that takes you directly to their Venmo account instead of searching for it.

Companies that provide home services like HVAC and plumbing can also present customers with QR Codes as soon as their services are complete, so the payment is processed sooner and with fewer hurdles.

Benefits of using QR Codes

Many people are already using QR Codes in their daily life or as a part of their business since they bring the following benefits to the table:


There’s no arguing that QR Codes are the fastest way to connect to a webpage or network or find payment information. All someone needs to do is scan the code, and they can connect without entering a URL or searching for the correct information. 


QR codes have dozens of use cases across virtually every industry. They can link to menus, scheduling forms, healthcare forms, and anything else hosted online.


QR Codes are easy to make and post and offer a reliable way for customers and potential customers to connect to your business. They’re also a cost-effective way to advertise your services—especially when compared to traditional print ads.


QR Codes’ small size also makes them easy to place in many different locations. For example, think of the size of your average dinner menu compared to a QR Code. They also easily fit on most product packaging.

Unleash the power of QR Codes with QR Code Generator

Are you ready to see how QR Codes can make connecting to your business more efficient? 

QR Code Generator makes it simple to create, manage, and track your QR Codes in one place so you can use them to their full potential.

Sign up for QR Code Generator now to see how they can connect your business to a new world of possibilities.

Tobias Funke

Tobias Funke is Bitly’s Vice President of Product. With a background in software engineering, he has a decade of combined experience in product development and the QR Code space. Tobias leads a team that developed one of the most successful and popular QR Code generators available. His entrepreneurial and growth mindset helps build products that continuously disrupt the market. You can connect with Tobias on LinkedIn.

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