Laying Out Bar Code Graphics By Hand

At home over the holidays I came across a box of personal stuff that had a large, industrial paper cutter. This paper cutter was part of the many supplies I purchased in high school to manufacture CDs and CD-ROM cases to sell my shareware software in stores. Using the Internet it was easy to purchase everything needed: empty CD jewel cases, writable CDs, CD labels, paper cutter, high gloss paper, shrink wrap plastic, and shrink wrap gun (like a hair dryer).

For the graphic design of the CD label and the CD case, I laid out everything using PageMaker and Photoshop to get it just right. In retrospect, I’d give myself an A for effort and a C+ for the actual quality of the visual design. One aspect of the CD case design was putting together a bar code. I paid a couple hundred dollars to get a UPC number and set to work on a bar code. After looking at bar code generation software, which cost $50+, I decided to hand craft a bar code in Photoshop.

Bar codes work off a strict formula that involves the width of lines and spacing between lines. Everything has to be precise and perfectly laid out otherwise the scanners won’t be able to read them. Imagine zooming in on Photoshop to the maximum level and hand crafting lines to a precise millimeter-level width. Needless to say, it was a tedious and exacting process that was better left to technology.

In the end, when the CDs and CD cases were done and shrink wrapped, I took them to several stores in town that had agreed to sell the product on their shelves. After convincing one of the stores to take several on consignment, I casually asked the manager to scan the bar code to make sure the UPC number was returned successfully. Success! I had hoped I had laid everything out correctly but without a bar code scanner I had no way to test it (iPhones didn’t exist back then).

While it worked out in the end, I realized during the process that my time was better spent on productive tasks that couldn’t be automated with software. Generating bar codes is a perfect task for software and spending a few dollars on a product to take care of it made sense. Now, I repeat to myself the saying “you have to spend money to make money.”

The next time you’re working on something that isn’t the best use of your time, and there’s an affordable substitute, remember the bar codes.

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