Photo by Kai Samela
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. I always have one at my desk. I take one with me to every meeting. I am now in the middle of Notebook #85. It's in front of me right now. Together, these well-worn books create a history of my working life that spans three decades.
Notebook covers, 1982 to 2008
I tend to be obsessive-compulsive, and I am very picky about the notebooks. No fancy Moleskines for me, just standard-issue office supply composition books.
I use them in order. Tibor Kalman once asked me why I didn't have a different notebook for every project. I have to admit, this would be more useful. But I don't. I fill each one up and then move to the next one, the projects all jumbled together. Starting with the third one, every one of them is numbered. Except for two at the very beginning that used gridded paper, they have blank, unlined pages. I hate gridded paper (but not as much as lined paper.) There have been times when it's been really difficult to get unlined composition books, which I gather are oddly unpopular. One time I found a supplier who would only sell them in bulk and I bought a whole boxful. I thought these would last the rest of my life, but I gave a lot away, which I regret. Now they're gone.
Covers of Notebook #25 (September 20, 1993 to May 14, 1994) and Notebook #26 (May 18 to August 24, 1994)
At the beginning I used to customize the covers. Those were the days when I used to handmake every birthday card. After a while it started to feel like an affectation. Nowadays I tend to just write the number on the front. The marbled cover, beloved by Ettore Sottsass during his Memphis period, may be iconic enough on its own.
Santa Cruz fashion catalog color studies in Notebook #3 (to November 21, 1983 to December 6, 1984). Note hideous gridded paper
There always seems to be a lot of interest in designers' sketchbooks, but I call these notebooks for a reason. I've seen other designer's sketchbooks and I'm always impressed by how much creativity is on display. Not in mine. Page after page contain nothing but records of phone conversations, notes from meetings, price estimates, specifications. I keep the random doodles to a minimum. Someone looking at those pages would think the book might belong to a lawyer or, more likely, a party planner. Every once in a while, though, there are some drawings that would suggest that the owner was a designer.
Fool for Love poster sketches in Notebook #21 (March 25 to July 12, 1992)
For instance, this looks like a designer's sketchbook, doesn't it? These are ideas for a poster to promote a friend's production of the Sam Shepard play Fool for Love, a contemporary western about a disfunctional relationship. Pages like this, where I seem to be methodically working through a series of options, are actually fairly rare in the notebooks. I must have been stuck somewhere with nothing else to do. The final poster looked nothing like any of these sketches.
Celebration, Florida, town signage sketches in Notebook #23 (January 14 to June 15, 1993)
These are more typical of the kinds of drawings you find in the notebooks. They were done in one of the early planning meetings for Disney's new town of Celebration, Florida. In meetings with lots of people around a table, you can take notes and sketch without attracting much attention. (This is especially true if you're a graphic designer surrounded by a lot of architects.) Unlike the Fool for Love sketches, this one turned out more like the sketch.
Minnesota Children's Museum identity sketches in Notebook #27 (September 10 to November 21, 1994)
The notebooks function like a security blanket for me. I can't go into a meeting unless I have my current notebook in my hand, even if I never open it. Because I carry one everywhere, I tend to misplace them a lot. Losing one makes me frantic. Everyone who works with me gets used to me asking, "Have you seen my notebook anywhere?" which I assume gets irritating after a while: sorry. I've left them behind in clients' offices. On one occasion, I left one on the roof of a cab on the upper west side. I ended up walking ten blocks, retracing the taxi's route, until I found it on Broadway at 63rd Street, intact except for some tire marks.
Only twice have I lost notebooks and never found them. One was left behind somewhere in the sprawling corporate headquarters of United Airlines in Elk Grove, Illinois. The other, #45, disappeared at Heathrow Airport. That particular loss was extra sad since it contained a drawing my then 13-year-old daughter Liz did that she claims is the original sketch for the Citibank logo. (She changed the t in Citi into an umbrella; of course, Paula Scher may have already had that idea.)
Brooklyn Academy of Music Next Wave Festival sketches in Notebook #30 (April 15 to July 10, 1995)
Looking back at the books, I'm surprised at how often I got the idea for certain solutions at the very beginning. These are pretty much the first sketches for the identity for the Brooklyn Academy of Music, most of which feature chopped-off sans serif typography. You can see there were pages before and after that are pretty much more of the same. This is pretty much how it all turned out, and not that different from the way it is to this very day.
The same is true for the Minnesota Childrens' Museum, above, which ended up using photographs of children's hands, an idea that I wrote down while I was on my first visit there. When I'm feeling smug and self-satisfied, I tell myself that, like Mozart, my ideas emerge fully formed, and I need only transcribe them as they come pouring out. In more common, less secure, moments, I wonder if I I'm lazy, if I settle too soon. How many other, better ideas might be out there if I took the time to look for them?
Cover sketch for "Tibor Kalman, Perverse Optimist" in Notebook #42 (November 24 1997 to March 10 1998)
Like most designers, I get asked a lot about my process. A lot of my ideas are so simple and dumb that a simple dumb drawing is all it takes to describe it. I probably did the drawing for the cover of Tibor Kalman's monograph in a meeting. Picture on the front, stacked type on the spine: what if we did something like this? That's how it came out. If a process is supposed to have steps, to reflect a method, that isn't much of a process.
Museum of Arts and Design sketches (left) and Libeskind monograph sketches (right) in Notebook #82 (October 22, 2007, to February 2, 2008)
The markings in the notebooks are often a kind of terse shorthand that I don't think would be comprehensible to anyone but me. On one hand, the sketches for the Museum of Arts and Design identity on the left are pretty clear. (I was really infatuated with that alphabet and filled pages with it for weeks, not that different from my binge on bubble letters in the second grade.)
The other scribbles, however, are the initial sketches for the book that was eventually titled Counterpoint: Daniel Libeskind, done in a meeting with the architect and the publisher. They don't look like anything at all, and I don't think I ever showed them to anyone. But they helped focus an image in my mind that was not that different from the way the book looked when it was published nine months later.
"To do" page and picture of Dorothy in Notebook #82
The last page of my notebook is traditionally the place where I write down things I have to do: proposals to write, phone calls to answer, upcoming presentations. I cross them off as I get them done, as a lot of other people do, which is satisfying. I also shove a lot of stray ephemera into the pages, as well as the occasional treasure, like the 32-year-old snapshot of my wife Dorothy that I carried around for a few months before writing about it here on Design Observer.
Hearts by Drew and Elizabeth Bierut in Notebook #22 (July 13, 1992, to January 11, 1993)
When I look at these notebooks, many of the references bring back memories, some decades old. But other times I frankly can't remember why I was writing these things down. Did I ever call Dilland? Whatever happened to Executive Sign? What was the Lefand Alliance? In many ways, the act of notetaking and sketching is an end in itself for me. Many of these pages, filled with trivia as they are, are destined never to be looked at a second time.
That makes the occasional encounter with life beyond the office all the sweeter. Growing up, my kids knew they weren't supposed to draw in my notebooks, but that never stopped them. Thank God. I have them to thank for my favorite pages.