How the first world war liberated women’s wardrobes

Design by Sadie Williams. Photograph: Jez Tozer

News of an interesting new exhibition, Fashion & Freedom, at the Manchester Art Gallery from 13 May – 27 November 2016. It’s then touring – see this page for details.

As well as what Helen Pidd writing for The Guardian calls the obvious ‘upsides’ (you know, peace and all that):

the war liberated women from their corsets and full skirts when they were drafted in to run the country while the men were dying in muddy ditches across northern France. After finding that you can’t conduct a bus or forge steel in a floor-length silk day dress very well with a full bustle, these emancipating women started to experiment with far more practical clothes and hairstyles as they carried out their new roles in society.

Read the full story here

Lena Groeger: How Typography Can Save Your Life

An argument I’ve made a lot in the past (as have others) is that as important as we think typography might be, no one ever died because of a bit of bad kerning.

It’s a deliberately flippant and incendiary comment, designed to focus people’s attention on what really matters in design rather than navel gazing and obsessing about serifs and ligatures. But it turns out that typography has more impact on health and safety than you might think, as Lena Groeger points out in this fascinating article:

Even NASA clearly understands the importance of typography — they have a whole report about it. It’s called “On the Typography of Flight-Deck Documentation.” In it, NASA scientist Asaf Degani notes, “Although flight-deck documentation are an important (and sometimes critical) form of display in the modern cockpit, there is a dearth of information on how to effectively design these displays.” Effectively designing those displays can indeed be critical. The report describes an incident on May 26, 1987, when Air New Orleans Flight 962 took off for Florida. Before the plane could reach even a few hundred feet, the captain had to make an emergency landing — and in the process managed to roll onto into a nearby highway and crash into several vehicles. It turned out that the aircrew had forgotten to advance the engine levers, which the National Transportation Safety Board said indicated “a lack of checklist discipline.” But also possibly to blame? The bad design of that checklist.

Read the rest of the story here. I’ll need to be a bit more careful when I dismiss type in the future.

Biodegradable six-pack rings double as fish food

Florida’s Saltwater Brewery has a pretty clever idea for replacing those environment-destroying plastic rings holding your Tecate cans together: animal food. Technically, the rings are a combination of wheat and barley, leftover from the brewing process. The brewery hopes the biodegradable (and fully digestable!) packaging will help stop marine life and birds from choking on plastic.

Read the full story here

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. 

View all my reviews

Why doors don’t work – an introduction to human-centred design

This is a great little video explaining the concept of Norman Doors – doors that don’t work the way you think they should. It’s a wonderful primer on the concept of human-centred design, well worth watching whether you’re interested in design or not.

We’ve all had experiences like this…

How the internet is trying to design out toxic behaviour


A few years ago, Facebook managers noticed a rush of complaints from users about friends posting photographs of them that they didn’t like. The pictures weren’t explicit; they just reminded users of something they would rather forget, or made them look stupid. These complaints were invariably rejected because no rules had been broken, yet friendships were being strained as a result. “We tried saying, ‘Why don’t you just message the person?’, but people didn’t quite know what to say,” says Milner, adding tactfully that not everybody “has the social skills” to resolve such petty squabbles. So, Facebook introduced social reporting, which works like a teacher gently helping kids in a playground dispute to resolve things between themselves. Complainants get a template message to send to their friend, explaining how the picture makes them feel and asking politely for its removal. Usually, that’s all it takes – it is, says Milner, “helping you have an empathetic response” that leaves everyone feeling good. “We set up our systems to encourage people to be nice – to think about things before you post.” It’s a classic example of what BJ Fogg, a Stanford-based behavioural scientist who specialises in the psychology of Facebook, calls persuasive design: if you want people to do something, don’t explain why, just show them how. Humans learn by imitation, which means modelling nice behaviour beats lecturing people to be nice.

Read the full story here

How to write the shortest joke in the world

A deer

Quite an interesting article here on how to write short jokes, which should also be of use to writers, especially advertising copywriters.

It begins by suggesting that one of the funniest and shortest jokes is Jimmy Carr’s ‘venison’s dear, isn’t it?’.

Micro-gags like Carr’s also illustrate a central tenet of classical joke craft: for some jokes to work, the teller must remove certain details from the transmission. In the joke above, the spoken information is just four words: (1) venison’s (2) dear (3) isn’t (4) it. Everything else, everything that makes the joke a joke – “venison meat comes from deer, and is also quite expensive, so you could say that deer is dear” – is carefully omitted. This extra information is called the exformation – deliberately discarded, but semantically essential detail. Carr’s joke simply wouldn’t work if all the exformation was included with the transmitted information. But why?

By whittling away the joke to its leanest form and leaving the rest implied through exformation, Carr invites the audience to connect up the dots. Our servile brains jump at the chance to fill in the blanks – automatically and with synaptic haste – and it’s this that makes us laugh. I’m not sure that we have the philosophical or scientific tools to understand exactly why this is, but it probably comes down to an atavistic pleasure mechanism where our neural circuitry is rewarded for empathic behaviour. In other words, the laughter is your brain patting itself on the back for catching Carr’s drift. What could be more social, more communal and more team-building than reading another’s thoughts and understanding more or less what they mean? Certainly, pseudo-mindreading like this would have been evolutionarily advantageous for our ancestors waging war with elemental beasts out there on the pre-metropolitan plains.

Read the full article here

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.

Punctuation matters: See how novels look without words


It’s an author’s words, rather than their punctuation, that we think of as defining their style. But as Adam J. Calhoun found out this week, the periods, colons, semicolons, and commas a writer uses can have just as much impact on their output as their choice of language. In a Medium post, Calhoun stripped the words out of some of his favorite books, leaving them as streams of pure punctuation. The results showed a stark contrast between the way authors use the tools in their texts, with some exhibiting a preference for dialogue, some using commas and semicolons to construct breathless sentences, and some making almost exclusive use of the most common marks to tell their stories.

Via The Verge

More thoughts on digital design education

I was invited to share my thoughts on digital design education over on Medium as a contribution to the Interaction Design Education conference being held at the end of the month in Helsinki.

It’s a more considered response to the original article that sparked all this off – this time with some rather interesting facts and figures that demolish the argument that digital design education is ‘broken’.

For example:

According to the Design Council, digital design contributed £30 billion to the UK economy and £12 billion in exports in 2013. This grew 39.3% domestically and 58.3% globally from 2009–13. It the fastest growing design sector in the UK representing one in four design companies operating in the UK and employing 608,000 people (nearly 40% higher than in 2009). 68% of those working in digital design have a degree or higher — the largest proportion of all design disciplines.

Head on over to Medium to read the article, and please add your voice – whether you agree or not:

No, digital design education is not broken