70s dinner party food: If only we’d had Instagram back then

This was the era of the showboat dinner party, where the upwardly mobile British family would invite peers and colleagues into their homes in a bid to wow them via high-voltage, brightly coloured three-course extravaganzas. It was a time of meals that didn’t just taste out of this world, they looked out of this world, too. In the current climate of clean-eating, social media fascism, the 70s seem to signify a happier, more honest time. We want something that has the balls to be shamelessly, completely and proudly crap. We want a good, old-fashioned 70s dinner party.

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The book 70s Dinner Party by Anna Pallai is published by Vintage. Buy it here.

Old book, new look: why the classics are flying off the shelves


This autumn, though, they’re offering something new: a range of hardbacks offering “unique content” – a collection of an author’s works that hasn’t been presented this way before, or a new translation of a classic. Their design is flamboyantly simple: no dust jacket but a cloth binding, a cream background on which title and author are printed vertically with a single tiny image on the top. Gothic Tales by Arthur Conan Doyle features a descending crow, Homer’s Odyssey shows an image of Odysseus dwarfed by the cyclops Polyphemus, Poems of the First World War offers a soldier’s helmet. They look fantastic – but who are they for? “We’re working a lot with the production team to make them look very collectible and tactile, to appeal to the gift market,” says Gough.

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Review of Design Sprint: A Practical Guidebook for Building Great Digital Products

Design Sprint: A Practical Guidebook for Building Great Digital Products by Richard Banfield
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There’s a lot of evidence to suggest the book wasn’t even proofed before it was published. There are spelling mistakes all over it and even an entire paragraph repeated on pages 158 and 162. 

It’s a short book padded out with irrelevant or uselessly vague anecdotes and photos that don’t relate to the topic under discussion. 
For example page 168 discusses how to use a 2×2 matrix. The text says ‘draw a Cartesian coordinate “+” on a board. A what? How big? Frustratingly there’s a large image on the opposite page… But it’s not a 2×2 matrix. I don’t know what it is, it seems to be random scribbling. It has nothing to do with the text and anyone who has never seen a 2×2 matrix or knows what a Cartesian coordinate + is, will not be enlightened. Opportunity missed. 

It could have been much better – ‘show don’t tell’ is one of the key lessons we get drummed into us at school and if the authors had followed that advice this would have been a fantastic book. As it is it’s frustrating. The ideas are good. The suggested agendas are useful. The execution is poor. 

A particular issue is that the book is clearly focused on digital design. But that clarity is only apparent when you start reading it. This makes it even more frustrating for anyone designing communications, services or other things – there’s a lot of translation needed to make it useful. 
I want to recommend this book as it’s potentially beneficial. But it’s a good example of what’s missing in the literature on design sprints rather than a long-lasting contribution to it. 

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Walden for the 21st century – Kickstarter plan to update Thoreau

Walden Pond

A Kickstarter project is seeking support to publish an ‘updated’ version of Thoreau’s Walden. I’ve backed it, because I like the idea of helping people read the book by making the language more accessible.


Typically, the feedback has not been positive with charges of dumbing down. But what’s more important, that a book remains unread by all but a few, or that its message is more widely understood? I have several ‘translations’ of texts written in other languages: Dante’s Divine Comedy, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, several Chinese novels. And in Italy, Russia and China many people have translations of Shakespeare, Harry Potter and Agatha Christie. And, I’m guessing, Thoreau.

I also have, somewhere, a copy of Romeo and Juliet with the original on one side and an ‘updated’ version on the other for use by schoolchildren. This approach has a long heritage.

Nobody is replacing the original. And they’re not saying the new version is better than the original. It’s just a way of making it more accessible.

In the days before recorded music, major orchestral works were transcribed for piano or chamber groups so they could be performed at home. Liszt transcribed Beethoven’s symphonies, and I’ve heard a chamber version of Mahler’s fourth symphony written by the composer himself. This isn’t dumbing down, it’s levelling up.

There’s no point in treasuring cultural artefacts if in doing so you restrict others from experiencing them.

The Guardian reported on the project:

The poet Robert Frost found that “in one book … [Thoreau] surpasses everything we have had in America”. But according to John Updike, “Walden has become such a totem of the back-to-nature, preservationist, anti-business, civil-disobedience mindset … that the book risks being as revered and unread as the Bible”. Now the designer and writer Matt Steel is setting out to address Walden’s declining readership, with a new edition of the public domain text that adapts Thoreau’s 19th-century language for modern readers. Steel launched a Kickstarter to raise funds for his project on Tuesday, aiming to raise $104,000 (£72,000) to print 2,000 cloth hardback, illustrated copies of his adapted version. The finished book is due out in spring 2017 if the campaign is successful. I want to shorten the distance between 1854 and today so that the lyrical beauty of this excellent text can shine “While widely quoted, Walden is rarely read anymore, and our society’s familiarity with the story is fading,” Steel said. “My theory is that there’s nothing wrong with the story. It’s the 19th-century language that’s problematic. By creating an updated version of Walden, I want to create more opportunities for other people’s lives to be enriched by this book.”

I think that’s a noble aim.

Sadly, I just discovered that because of the negative feedback, Matt has decided to produce an annotated version of the book instead. I think that’s a mistake. Annotated books are for scholars – valuable but not exactly accessible to the lay reader. I hope he changes his mind again and returns to the project people backed in the first place.

Japan gives Harry Potter the manga treatment

 Manga Harry Potter

The Harry Potter franchise continues to enjoy huge success in Japan, 15 years after the release of first movie, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The seven films in the series have grossed more than US$893 in the country and been seen in cinemas by more than 78 million people, while Philosopher’s Stone is the country’s fourth highest-grossing film of all time. In 2007, Tokyo was chosen to host the world premiere of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, while The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, an attraction that opened at Universal Studios Japan in Osaka in July 2014, has been credited with bringing record numbers of visitors to the park.

I’d happily pay good money to see a Manga Harry Potter movie.

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Fearless polymaths: irrelevance and creativity


In an interview with the Guardian, Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of American Vogue, talked about a few things – Hillary Clinton in particular. But she also said something that piqued my interest:

“The young people we hire today at Condé Nast are fearless polymaths”

That’s about the fifth time I’ve heard that word in the past week. Admittedly the other four were because I used it. But I’ve had a few conversations recently, with both students and colleagues about the need, as one of my graduates advised current students before Christmas, to ‘be interesting’.

A colleague told me recently that more than one professional illustrator had advised students not to specialise, and to remain flexible, taking an interest in as much as possible and to express themselves creatively in as many ways as possible.

Wintour said the same thing in her Guardian interview:

Wintour used the opportunity to appeal to the younger generation to “not become too specialised” and instead “be intellectually free”


“I urge you instead to seek to be relevant, to be agile and educated.”

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Walking the Tube

Tube Map with walking times

Here’s an amusing trick you can play on people from Newfoundland or Lincolnshire. Take them to Bank Station and tell them to make their way to Mansion House. Using Beck’s map—which even people from Newfoundland can understand in a moment—they will gamely take a Central Line train to Liverpool Street, change to a Circle Line train heading east and travel five more stops. When eventually they get to Mansion House they will emerge to find they have arrived at a point 200 feet further down the same street, and that you have had a nice breakfast and done a little shopping since you last saw them.

Bill Bryson, Notes From A Small Island

No more will you be able to play that trick. London Transport have now added walking times to their map to help you figure out if it’s quicker to go above ground.

It’s not just foreigners who get caught out like this. I used to visit a certain pub with a friend quite regularly. I’d get the tube from Victoria to Oxford Circus, meet up, then then walk up Regent Street or carry on on the underground, then walk the last few meters to the pub. One day she was late so I walked a little bit in the other direction to see what’s there, as random walking in London is always full of surprises.

I didn’t expect this surprise: there was the pub! Literally round the corner.

We’ve become so reliant on the Underground, we’ve forgotten how London is really laid out.

In kids cartoons, 0% of princesses are engineers, 2.9% of characters are black, and Batman doesn’t recycle

Detective Dot book and apps

News via The Guardian of a new Kickstarter campaign to tackle poor representation of girls/women in STEM subjects (or rather STEAM – they quite rightly include the arts where they belong, alongside the other disciplines).

“In kids cartoons, 0% of princesses are engineers, 2.9% of characters are black, and Batman doesn’t recycle. And kids spend up to 9 hours in front of screens seeing this stuff everyday,” explains Detective Dot’s Kickstarter pitch. “We’re obsessed with buying stuff but we don’t know how it’s made or who made it. Kids media is heavily stereotyped. Children, particularly girls and minorities, need positive role models in engineering, science, technology, arts and maths.”

Read the Guardian article here and contribute to the Kickstarter campaign here

Worktown: The Astonishing Story of the Project that launched Mass Observation, by David Hall

Book cover

An interesting review of Worktown in The Guardian, the beginning of the Mass Observation project in inter-war Britain.

You do not learn about birds by interviewing them, he insisted: you watch them, as closely as you can and without trying to guess in advance what the results might be. As for birds, so for the proletariat. Harrisson duly took himself off to the slums of Bolton – usually known as “Worktown” in MO documents – rented a cheap terrace house and summoned dozens of idealistic young men (a few women came later) to go people-watching. It is mainly Harrisson’s enterprise that David Hall portrays in this highly readable, anecdote-rich history.

Read the full review here

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman – fun, with footnotes

Good omens 2

It’s twenty five years since Good Omens was published, as this Guardian article reminds us. I seem to have lost more copies of this than any other book, lending it out to friends and it’s probably my most recommended book. The BBC did a rather good radio adaptation of this last year which is worth tracking down – it includes a cameo from Gaiman and Pratchett. Gaiman had to read the lines to Pratchett to repeat due to his “embuggerance” which led to his death shortly afterward.

Twenty-five years on, the book has lasted surprisingly well. Pratchett and Gaiman’s obsession with tech meant they were ahead of the curve when it came to the “slim computers” that demon Crowley likes so much. Some things haven’t changed: “All that lather comes up from the centre of the Earth, where it’s all hot,” says a member of Adam’s gang. “I saw a programme. It had David Attenborough, so it’s true.” And the real end of the world that Adam foresees is closer and scarier than ever: “Everyone’s goin’ around usin’ up all the whales and coal and oil and ozone and rainforests and that, and there’ll be none left for us. We should be goin’ to Mars and stuff, instead of sittin’ around in the dark and wet with the air spillin’ away.”

I’m still coming to terms with the fact there’s no new Discworld novel to read this Christmas. I’m promising myself a chronological re-read of the whole lot starting in 2016.

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