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Humble bar code gets its art on

Companies are getting playful with product codes, adding clever images to the familiar black-and-white striped bar code.

The bar code, that strip of black-and-white stripes that adorns nearly everything you buy, has been an unchanging symbol of consumerism for decades.

Lately, however, companies are starting to loosen up about the look of those parallel lines, and more playful product codes are starting to appear on the shelves. Several design firms are catering to this emerging market, including Design Barcodes and Vanity Barcodes.

And why not? If we consumers, not to mention cashiers, the world over have to look at these graphics all the time, they can at least be interesting. Anything beats having prison bars called to mind every time you pick up a loaf of bread.

Most creative bar codes use the vertical lines themselves as elements of an interesting design, rather than simply putting a pretty frame around the code. The familiar black-and-white stripes become falling water, hair, buildings, train tracks, a stack of magazines, or even trod-on chewing gum.

So why only now? Partly because it's tricky to pretty up a bar code while making sure it remains functional. And, as The Wall Street Journal's Sarah Nassauer reports, cost is an issue:

Adding a vanity bar code can be expensive because new packaging is needed. Nestle has gradually included vanity bar codes when redesigning packaging or launching new products. The company started in 2008 with smaller brands and those that don't come in many flavors (and therefore require fewer bar code variations).

I'd like to see companies get creative with the newer 2D speckle-patterned bar codes. They may not be iconic like the original, but they're showing up on packaging more and more.

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There's an irony to adding art to bar codes. For years, artists have added bar codes to art, plastering the original, simple, meaning-rich icon on buildings, people, and animals, and incorporating it in all manner of artworks. Some, like Scott Blake, have made careers of doing so.

But of course, the whole creative bar code trend could be short-lived. If RFID tags and the like catch on as expected, all bar codes will be relegated to history books and online photo galleries--and, perhaps, art museums.