When the anonymous designers of Toyota subsidiary Denso Wave invented the QR code to track vehicle manufacturing processes, I wonder if they knew what they had wrought. Like the UPC before it, the QR code offers the possibility of radically transforming logistics chains. It’s since been taken up by marketers in the hopes that it will drive engagement with advertising. But a QR code is also a tiny (abstract) picture and so it has aesthetic properties. Designers like filmmaker Christian Svanes Kolding are playing with that.
At MoMA’s Talk to Me exhibit, every piece had a QR code attached. Visitors could scan them and find out more about the piece on their mobile phone. Svanes Kolding’s film The Things We Keep was one of the pieces, and so he had a unique QR code assigned. He decided to make a crossword out of it.
"Since I was interested in creating a commemorative souvenir about my film, which itself is a story about souvenirs, it seemed rather logical to use the QR code as a central motif," he says, "The puzzle format allowed me to highlight certain areas of interest that my film covered."
Because the shape of the board was set by the nature of the code, filling out the puzzle became a labor-intensive process of trial and error. It is challenging enough to make matrices of two and three letter words fit together on a preset board. It is more challenging, still, to keep them to a particular theme. "I will probably never reveal how much time it actually took me to make this puzzle," he says.
As QR codes have leaked into the world, marketing departments have seized on them as a marker of the 21st century. In time, this will either seem quaintly dated, like the practice of prefixing "e" on your eBusiness or using Kai’s Power Tools to give your site a page curl, or they’ll become ubiquitous and therefore invisible.
Today’s QR codes are mostly ornamental. They are often in places where you can’t scan them properly (e.g. on subways with no data reception) or safely (e.g on billboards above a highway). Besides, as Adam Greenfield’s Urbanscale research team learned, no one knows how to use them. In a field survey, they found that though most people knew what QR codes were for, only 2 of 28 respondents were able to successfully resolve a URL, "even when coached by a knowledgeable researcher."
Svanes Kolding understands why many people react to QR codes with derision. We all know that the most they are likely to do is bring us to a website that repeats the ad we’re already looking at. But he sees an opportunity for them to be much more. The opacity of QR codes can be turned into a feature if you tempt people’s curiosity with an unusual placement and then ensure they are rewarded with something good.
Svanes Kolding imagines QR codes with geographic intelligence which take into account where you are, that prompt you to take unexpected actions, or that share with you the history of others who have stood where you now stand. "Many opportunities exist in that moment, and it would be a shame to waste such an opportunity due to an advertiser’s lack of imagination."
"A QR code could be seen as having a small role as part of an expansive dialogue, facilitating a conversation through the act of nudging and provoking the user," he says, "That’s very exciting to me."
Svanes Kolding’s playful puzzle with clues is available as a PDF. You can download it, print, and solve it. If you know how, you can scan it and watch The Things We Keep (complete with the soundtrack you couldn’t hear in the gallery).