A note on notebooks

“On August 12, 1982, I took a 10 x 7 1/8 inch National Blank Book Company composition book from the supply closet of my then employer, Vignelli Associates. From that moment, I have never been without one.”

Ten years ago, Michael Bierut wrote a column for Design Observer about his notebooks. Over 26 years, he had filled 85 hand-numbered, uniformly-sized, marble-covered books with sketches and lists and ideas. Together, they formed a history of his working life. This piece (or rather the photo that accompanies it, every book stacked high on a chair like some kind of Pentagram monolith) often comes to mind when I'm looking through my own notebooks.

Whereas Bierut's have a sense of elegant consistency and rational process to them, mine are a bit more erratic. Mostly half-full (because starting a new notebook is way more satisfying than filling an old one), they flit from one overpriced faddish brand to another, sizes and shapes all over the place, all frayed bookmark ribbons and twangy elastic straps. They make for a most precarious tower.

Every now and then I'll dig through them, an archeological expedition through my own history for gems of ideas that may be worth revisiting. Surely there must be something worth salvaging from all these years of scribbling?

It would help if I could actually understand any of it. At some point in my twenties, my brain gave up on sensible handwriting and instead switched to a kind of scattered shorthand that only makes sense to my own eyes in the moment. It appears to be mostly uppercase, occasionally straying back into lowercase halfway through a sentence or word. Sentences be damned. It looks like the work of a maniac who's been learning how to forge Cy Twombly's shopping lists.

Viewed collectively, patterns appear. There are lists and calculations and epiphanies and doodles, doodles, doodles. Some pages are crammed with dozens of little rectangles, hastily-sketched thumbnails of book cover ideas. Others have nothing but a single word on them, screaming at me to complete an important task – MAILER or VAT or TUNNOCKS. Every now and then different colours are used, presumably serving some kind of logic or code, or perhaps merely celebrating the fact I'd bought a new BIC 4C.

The mental spillage isn't confined to books, despite my considerable investment in them. I have things scrawled onto stray bits of paper, index cards, Post-Its, bookmarks and envelopes (not to mention the wealth on nonsense saved as drafts in pretty much any app that I can type into). None of it is numbered or dated or in any sensible order.

My teetering tower of notes may hold some meaning, a souvenir of the messy workings behind years of professional output, but it's mostly inconsequential or incomprehensible now. Whatever wonderful ideas I once had, the meaning has been lost somewhere between brain and hand and page and time and can only be inferred from the occasional recognisable phrase that stands out from the rest of the gibberish (basically my notebooks are the written equivalent of Rowley Birkin QC, Paul Whitehouse’s very, very drunk anecdotalist from The Fast Show). All of this underlying chaos can't be good for my work or my mind.

Ten years later, and Bierut is now on book 119. It's an enviable routine, and I'm thinking it's time to rethink this part of my own process. Maybe I can get some order and clarity into my work with a fresh batch of no-nonsense, school-grade, basic exercise books. I'll make a real concerted effort to only fill them – right up to the last page – with legible human language. Notes that serve the future as well as the present, a history worth revisiting. And so the tower grows.

Written for Creative Review