Making an Iconic Notebook Even Better

Whether in elementary school, middle school, high school or college, chances are you’ve used a composition book, aka comp book. Their iconic black and white marbled covers have graced the desks of not only students, but also artists and designers alike. In his Design Observer essay, 26 Years, 85 Notebooks, Michael Bierut recounted the many books and many memories and many, many drawings and notes each and every one of his composition notebooks contains. Bierut gives his staff members at Pentagram their own composition notebooks when they join his team. Aron Fay received his when he started at Pentagram more than six years ago. When he saw a poster promoting an exhibition about Bierut’s 90 notebooks, it set Fay on a quest that proved to be life changing—and notebook changing.

Composition Book Curiosity

It’s not just Pentagram partners and designers who are loyal to composition notebooks. They’ve been used by the likes of artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, as well as the famed Eddie Vedder, who reportedly pens his lyrics in them. Award-winning designer Michael Bierut has used them since August 12, 1982, and he passes this tradition on to his team members starting on day one. Fay, who is an associate partner on Michael Bierut’s team at Pentagram, began to seriously ponder the composition notebook—and especially its recognizable marble cover—when he saw a poster for Bierut’s exhibition “30 Years 90 Notebooks.” Observing all of the covers together on that single poster made Fay wonder about the iconic marble pattern, and everything else about them that makes them different from other notebooks—and also recognizable.

Exhibition poster for Michael Bierut’s “30 Years 90 Notebooks” at the College of St. Rose. Poster designed by Hamish Smyth, Pentagram, image courtesy of Michael Bierut

But getting to the bottom of why the notebook covers look the way they do wasn’t as easy as Googling it. Fay read as much as he could on the subject, even going to rare book libraries. One book, Richard J. Wolfe’s Marbled Paper: Its History, Techniques, and Patterns, proved to be especially helpful. Fay even interviewed Wolfe, helping Fay confirm a lot of his early research, and also discover new information.

Putting Research to Work

Fay learned that traditional marbling dates back to 986 CE in China, and was used during the 12th century in Japan and 15th century in Turkey, all the way up to the 16th century in Holland. It then spread throughout Western Europe in the mid-1600s. Fay discovered that the process of pseudo marbling had been documented as early as the late 1820s to early 1830s in Annonay, France. F.M. Montgolfier created pseudo marbling at his family paper mill. Fay believes that similar processes were probably happening in Germany at the same time, although much less has been documented about that.

The composition notebook’s marble cover we know today has been called Agate, a pattern that shares similarities with marbled Turkish patterns called Spot or Stone. Having learned all about the notebook’s marbled covers, as well as paper and binding, Fay wondered, What would happen if I could create the ‘best version of this’ for myself? But rather than creating a luxury object, something coveted and cherished that’s meant to sit on a coffee table and impress people, his composition notebook would have to function—and function well. Fay’s version would have a custom cover, use new binding techniques allowing it to lay completely flat with heavier cover materials. Moreover, the interior paper would be of a higher quality compared to the thinner, lighter-weight paper found in many of the other composition notebooks.

Fay, who has an art background, knows paper and knows printing, having pulled his first print at age 5. He’s done screen printing and hand-printed lithography. That background not only served as a solid foundation to learn about paper, binding, and printing, but it also made his mission to learn about notebooks more than a mere passion project. He saw the value in making something that lasts, something high quality. “I know the potential that a book can be when it’s bound correctly and with good paper.”

He set out to create a high-quality and functional notebook, taking the project to Kickstarter. But would other people want these notebooks—made in his own vision—just because he wanted them? The answer came in the amount of 1,641 backers who pledged $100,607 to help make his Comp notebooks a reality. It wasn’t a question of Would other people want these?, but rather, Who wouldn’t want these?

Beyond the Basics

During the assembly process, Fay insisted on the best materials, as well as the best production methods. He’s visited all of the manufacturing facilities, and was on press for printing the interiors and covers and also present at the bindery. Printed in Belgium and bound in the Netherlands, Comp is far from any composition book you’ve ever used. But the only way to find out exactly how far Comp is from the competition is to pick a notebook up for yourself. They’re available from retailers in New York, London, and Tokyo, among others. However, you can purchase them directly from the Comp website since they ship worldwide. They also sell a pretty nice looking tote bag and pin there too.

Now that we’ve seen Fay’s vision for the ultimate composition notebook become a reality, the obvious question is, What’s next? Agendas? Pens? Maybe book cases to hold your Comp notebook collection, be it 9 or 90 of them. Fay won’t give away any secrets about future products or offerings, but he does suggest that there’s more in store for consumers, and that Comp is meant to last. We’ll see the next, next thing from Fay in the (hopefully) near future. And because Comp notebooks veer so far from the competition, there’s a good chance that whatever Fay releases next will do the same.

Learn how to talk to clietns about branding and position yourself as the expert with this HOW Design University course