The Art of Scannable QR Codes – A Tale of Abstract Painting, Gay Tours and Weddings Fairs

If you’re looking for a gimmick which divides opinion, look no further than QR Codes.

Critics call the abstract-looking, black and white, scannable codes a complete waste of time, which are largely ignored by the general population.

Fans cite them as a quick, easy and effective way to get information into the hands of smart phone users as and when they want it.

As is so often the case, the reality lies somewhere in between.

Anyone who has eagerly scanned a QR code only to be taken to a non-mobile friendly version of a brand’s standard website is likely to be let down. What’s the point?

Unscannable QR Code on a busy dual carriageway in Edinburgh


Worse, some QR Codes are in the most ridiculous places. Today I spotted this QR code in a totally inaccessible spot – 25ft up on a billboard in the middle of one of the busiest roads in and out of Edinburgh, with no place for drivers to stop.

Simply to take this photograph I had to drive into a bleak industrial estate, hoof it up on to a concrete flyover – and even with camera on maximum zoom could still barely make out the QR Code, let alone actually scan it.

Maybe this could even earn a place in the QR Code Hall of shame – this funny website dedicated to the worst fails involving impossible to scan or utterly pointless examples.

Until recently there’s also been the problem of finding a scanning app and downloading it to your smart phone. Then remembering where it is, opening it and using it, all of which can be problematic if you are in a busy shop or on a cold street wearing gloves.

Increasingly, though, smart phones are shipping with scanning software built in. Indeed, the excellent Nokia 800 Windows phoneI use has a one-touch code scanner which works like lightning. It will happily open the destination URL there and then or just as happily save it for viewing later. Which means I’m regularly scanning codes when I see them – on parked vehicles, magazines, bus shelters etc.

Nokia Lumia 800 Windows Phone

Built in QR Scanner

Once you have the habit of scanning QR codes the true utility becomes apparent. It can be really handy to scan a code and get information you really need or want – like the details of a property for sale or rent when you scan the QR code on a sales board.

Recently spotted a vehicle branded with bodywork for Black Kilt Tours, including a QR code. Since I’ve developed a yen for travelling the Scottish highlands and islands, I scanned it, only to learn it is a service specialising in just such tours – but for gay men.

So while it wasn’t for me, the QR codes still proved useful, sparing me any unnecessary online research, awkward phone calls or the possibility of rather uncomfortable coach trip. Moreover, it stuck in my memory. Brand awareness.

QR Code Art by Trevor Jones

QR Code Artwork

Today I’ve come across what struck me as an excellent use of QR codes, this time in an email newsletter from Edinburgh-based painter, Trevor Jones.  Since he’s a talented, professional artist, his abstract rendition of a QR code is arguably more eye catching than the standard mono square. But it goes further than that.

(* Disclaimer: I don’t know Trevor  Jones, work for him, or in other way represent the artist.)

When I tested whether his artwork was scannable, I was immediately taken to a mobile-optimised landing page, notifying me that to win a unique work of art by Trevor Jones, all I had to do was Like the Trevor Jones Art Facebook page, sign up for his newsletter – or to double the chance of winning, do both.

I duly did both. It was a frictionless process – and an object lesson for anyone else in business looking to build Facebook likes, or even more importantly, to gather qualified email leads.

Mobile optimised QR Code landing page

Mobile optimised

It didn’t stop there though. Jones has deviated from his usual colourful abstracts and there was also an intriguing come on in the original newsletter:

“I’ve just found out my QR code paintings will be on display at the Edinburgh Art Fair 16 – 18 November. I’ll be there over the three days to demonstrate how the paintings work and to answer any questions you may have about them such as, ‘Seriously. Why are you painting QR codes, Trevor? I kinda liked your older work better’.

“Ya, it’s true. I’m getting that but if you stop by the Art Fair I’ll gladly explain what all the fuss is about.  Promise.”

Now, truth be told, I’m a bit of an art pleb. Yet, depending on my diary, I might even look in on that art fair – and if I do, Mr Jones and his QR code will have been directly responsible for influencing my behaviour.

If that’s not enough for you, there’s also a mini site, called Mark of Beauty, dedicated to the artist’s representations of QR codes which he has been painting through 2012.

There he says:

When I began developing this new body of work exploring QR codes as art I realised there would be some who wouldn’t “get it” or who would even question its validity as painting…

“…The general consensus was that this artwork would indeed very likely divide opinions and, as an artist, what more could I ask for? Good art should stimulate debate and I really hope that these paintings encourage this. “

So it’s not only QR codes which divide opinion, but even works of art based on QR codes.

My advice? Don’t write off these little black and white squares as a useless gimmick.  A well-executed example which is of use to the target audience and delivers value, can greatly help them on their customer journey.

Such a campaign  can also make your brand or business memorable (the names Black Kilt Tours and Trevor Jones art are now firmly on my radar).

Yet there’s even more. Maybe you could use a QR code in an imaginitive way to help collect email addresses or to help spread your monthly newsletter? Somewhere along the line you might just help influence the behaviour of possible clients too.

This may not have painted a picture quite as eye catching as those by Trevor Jones. So here are a few more links to really clever and creative use of QR codes:



There’s Nothing New Under the Sun – Or On Twitter

Media Frenzy

Social Media Kerfuffle Is a Carbon, A Clone and a Copy

Wise old newspaper hacks will tell you there’s nothing new under the sun. Every story has been told before.

In the accelerated, amped-up world of Twitter, this has been amplified and exaggerated to rather ridiculous extremes.

If you’ve picked up a newspaper or surfed the news blogs today, chances are you’ve come across the latest social media firestorm, involving schoolgirl magnet Claire’s Accessories and the trendy jewellery designer Tatty Devine.

It all kicked off when the social media savvy folks at Tatty Devine blogged on Wednesday asking ‘Can you spot the difference?‘ – and laid out a series of their clever jewellery designs alongside, er, remarkably similar-looking trinkets being flogged by Claire’s.

When the design team at Tatty Devine came up with necklaces that looked like the contents of Top Cat’s trashcan (fish bones, half-peeled bananas and curly, comedy moustaches), they probably didn’t expect they’d be calling Officer Dibble to investigate allegations of intellectual property theft.

To the casual observer, it seems a pretty cut and dried case of the big, faceless corporation ripping off the edgier and way cooler small business to cash in – and that’s why the social media world has lit up with this story. Everybody loves an underdog, especially when the ‘wee guy’ comes out fighting against a villain of pantomime proportions.

In fact, Tatty Devine’s latest blog post yesterday (Thu) confirmed the company intends to take legal action, while offering thanks to its army of social media supporters:

We want to say a big thank you to everyone who commented, and for all the support on FacebookTwitter and Pinterest too. We are truly heartened and impressed by the amazing response on this issue.

Here’s the thing though. If you’ve been around in social media for a while, this whole stramash (that’s Scottish for ‘kerfuffle’) might sound remarkably familiar.

That’s because it is almost a year since one-women jewellery designer Stevie Koerner took to social media to highlight how faceless fashion giant Urban Outfitters had magically come up with silver trinkets which looked exactly like hers.

Indeed, in May last year I pulled together this wee zooming, video thingy (check it out, it’s on Prezi, which is waaaay cool!) to show how the whole thing turned into a massive PR disaster for Urban Outfitters.

you can view it here: (last I looked it had been viewed 2116 times).

Last year’s case in America was driven by Twitter, Tumblr and Etsy. The Tatty Devine brouhaha (I think that’s French for ‘kerfuffle’) has been fuelled by Twitter, Facebook and … Pinterest. That in itself is very telling indeed.

Pinterest is the scorchio , shiny new social media darling – and what it tells is that the media team at Tatty Devine are no slouches, especially since the insanely fast-growing site is still ‘in Beta’ and accessible by invitation only.

Tatty Devine on Pinterest

And the point is? Just a whimsical thought that copying jewellery designs is a very naughty no-no that will get you a nasty knuckle-rapping. But copying (and let’s face it, this really is a carbon, copycat, clone) a social media guerrilla strategy against a bigger rival is … well, PR genius.

Congratulations to the very smart social media team at Tatty Devine on a public relations success story.

They’ve managed to give a bigger rival a reputational bloody nose for shameless imitation, while pulling the same trick themselves yet somehow passing it off as the sincerest form of flattery.

Coulson’s Last Hope For Crisis Management – At Least Phone Hacking Happened Before Twitter

Andy Coulson's regnation

Crisis which couldn't be managed

So, Andy Coulson fell on his sword.

Neatly he repeated the well-worn maxim that the PR man should never become the story, stating: “When the spokesman needs a spokesman it’s time to move on”.

As guiding principles go, it’s a good one and few in PR or media relations could justify becoming the centre of a news story.

Yet such a turn of events is survivable. The rules of crisis management apply even to troubled spin doctors: acknowledge the problem; address it rapidly and transparently; concentrate on the facts.

But the prime minister’s most trusted media adviser wasn’t really brought low by a mobile phone hacking scandal from five years ago. As David Cameron regularly pointed out, Coulson paid the price for that by quitting the Editor’s chair at Britain’s biggest Sunday newspaper.

Coulson was actually scuppered by the claims of innocence which let him leave the paper with his head held high. Effectively he quit the NoTW saying: “I’m an honourable guy, so I’ll shoulder the responsibility, though I was never complicit in the wrongdoing.”

His problem is that precious few – including the Westminster and political media – believe his claims that he was blissfully unaware of widespread use of phone hacking at his paper thought (he’s repeated it so often he might just about believe it himself).

In crisis management terms, how do you concentrate on facts, when your central ‘truth’ is almost universally derided as a fabrication? And what does that do for the notion of ‘transparency’?

Continue reading

How to slice and dice the media to fit the categories in Facebook Groups





There’s never been more amazing time to be involved in the media – but how would you categorise what we do?

Facebook has a pretty clear idea of where we all fit in. And since Mark Zuckerberg’s social network is the biggest of the new kids on the block, I suppose we’d better be paying attention.

If you haven’t already heard, Facebook has set the  social media digerati abuzz this week, with the launch of its new Groups function.

Twitter, techsites and the blogosphere have all been positively oscillating as commentators trip over one another to froth or fume at the networking giant’s latest announcement.

Never one to miss a bandwagon I thought I’d jump on by testing out Facebook Groups for myself.

Since the idea seems to be to engage likeminded people, I planned setting up a Facebook group for those who listen to Quiet News Day (, the weekly media podcast I put together with co-host Shaun Milne.

With his background in journalism, mine in public relations and a joint interest in social media those are three subjects we talk about regularly – while also touching on tech, search, marketing and even advertising.

But when I tried to find a niche for a Quiet News Day Group, I was totally outfoxed by Facebook’s categorisation system.

While, it’s a fairly broad church, I was pretty sure there would be a “media” category. Nope. Here is the rundown of how Facebook has decided to segment those of us in the media game: Continue reading

Why Having 5 More Friends Than a Chimp Could Help Google Defeat Facebook

How Many Friend's Does One Person Need?

Professor Dunbar's Book

It’s rare to meet someone who has a number named after them.

This week I briefly met and spoke with Professor Robin Dunbar, the charming Oxford University anthropologist who enjoys exactly that accolade.

Five years ago ‘the Dunbar number‘ might have remained an esoteric concept: talked about in rarefied academic circles, but barely pricking the consciousness of the wider public.

The unstoppable rise of social networking changed all that.

With the advent of Facebook, Twitter and the peer-to-peer internet phenomenon which has enveloped us in just 60 months, the Dunbar number has become a bona fide mathematical rarity – a numerical concept which transcends academia to become part of popular culture.

Okay, I might be stretching it to suggest it has gone mainstream. But anyone who dips a toe into the ‘science’ of social media will pretty soon come up against the Dunbar number.

If you have any interest in understanding the behind-the-scenes workings,the foundations or the likely social consequences of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn (as opposed to just using them), then you probably want to know something about the good Professor’s work. Continue reading

From Mashable To Shagable – Or How Geeks Are The New Gods

Pete Cashmore in Scotland On Sunday

Scotland on Sunday's Eligibles

Great to see the founder of, getting the recognition he is due here in his home country.

However, Pete Cashmore isn’t being feted for the amazing achievements of his website, which reports the latest in online and social media news.

Nah. He’s actually graced the pages of Scotland on Sunday as one of the nation’s 25 most eligible bachelors (coming in at an impressive number 4).

Little surprise really.  The 25-year-old is at the helm of one of the hottest properties on the web.

As founder and CEO of mashable, he runs a multi-million pound business in an arena which was once a geeky backwater – but is now one of the planet’s sexiest sectors.

Tech knowhow aside, it helps that Cashmore is also a lantern-jawed lothario, with  handsome, camera-friendly features.

As a result he is regularly photographed with the many attractive women who queue up to meet him at parties and other tech-sector bunfights.

You can read Cashmore’s full biog at mashable and I also enjoyed this article, which seemed in awe of his ability to attract women.

Putting aside my envy, I have to confess I love this guy too! Mashable is one of the best, most useful sites on the web and is on my regular must-read list.

I’m also glad to see the young tech-star getting any sort of recognition in Scotland.

It might be the case that just about everybody with enough fingers to type with has got a Facebook account or a Twitter stream. However, the reality is that most of them still don’t much know or care what goes on behind the scenes.

Understandable, really. I wouldn’t expect EastEnders fans to be able to name the director general of the BBC and most newspaper readers couldn’t name the editor of their favourite title.

However, in Banchory-based Cashmore (at least he spends time in the Deeside town, when he’s not on playboy duties in either New York or San Francisco) Scotland has a genuine social media superstar.

So it might be doing him a bit of a dis-service that he is now earning mainstream media recognition more for being shagable, than for mashable.

But it’s a start and I suspect he’s not complaining.

At Holyrood Partnership PR Scotland, we’ve had a client feature in Scotland on Sunday’s annual list of the nation’s 50 most eligible singles.

Being a true gent, Thomas Ashdown, founder of online business Citylets, only smiles wryly and refuses to comment, when asked what a mention in the list did for his love life.

My guess is that it can’t do a man’s chances any harm, so it seems inevitable that Mr Mashable’s  mention in The Eligibiles 2010 will see him doing even more to put the “social” into media this year.

Perhaps a name change might even be in order – Pete Catchmore.

Good luck to the jammy sod.