What’s the one thing that all U.S. packaging designs have in common? A barcode. This seemingly random set of lines and numbers was invented by Norman Woodland and Bernard Silver and first used to scan a pack of Wrigley’s Gum in 1974.

Since barcodes are on every package we have designed, we thought we’d try to shed a bit of light on how they are universal, how much a barcode typically costs and what exactly do all those numbers mean.

Barcodes or Universal Product Codes (UPC) are assigned by GS1 US. The first step in receiving you own UPC is to fill out an application and join the GS1 as a member. Membership is not free. To become a member of GS1 and purchase only one barcode could cost about $250 with an annual renewal fee of around $50. These fees can vary depending on how many barcodes you need and the annual revenue that the product will produce.

After your application has been submitted, and you’ve paid your membership fees, you are then assigned a unique identification number. This unique identification number is normally the first six numbers of the barcode. The next set of six numbers typically identifies the product information and is determined by the manufacturer. The very last number is called a check digit. The check digit is calculated by a formula with the existing 11 numbers. This will ensure that the barcode scans correctly.

Today, barcodes have evolved into all kinds of shapes and sizes. Currently, 2D barcodes continue to find their way onto retail packaging and signs. These are sometimes referred to as QR codes or Quick Response codes and typically lead the reader to a website or video of some kind.

So, the next time you’re speeding through the self-checkout line, you can thank Norman Woodland.

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