On August 12, 1982, a young graphic designer by the name of Michael Bierut grabbed a 10 x 7 1/8 inch National Blank Book Company composition book from the supply closet of his new employer, the legendary designer Massimo Vignelli.
Little did he know that a simple office supply, which can be found at nearly every pharmacy and grocery store around the world, would go on to change his life.
Over the following three decades, black-and-white marbled composition books continued to accompany Bierut into nearly every design meeting as he worked his way through the industry to help establish Pentagram, a leading New York City-based design agency whose clients include MasterCard, Verizon, and the Rolling Stones. When one of these composition books became filled to the brim with sketches and ideas, he would simply add it to the stack and pick up a new one.
Today, that stack of completed notebooks in his office stands 112 tall—and counting.
He loves the books so much, in fact, that he even hands out new copies to the young designers at Pentagram soon after they start at the agency, repeating the chain of notebook obsession that started when he was rummaging through his boss’ supply closet.
Five years ago, my boss at Pentagram, Michael Bierut, handed me a composition book,” says graphic designer Aron Fay. “I’ve been fascinated by these utilitarian and ubiquitous notebooks ever since.
A designer at Bierut’s Pentagram by day, Fay has an obsession with paper, printing, and bookmaking that he satisfies with side projects by night. Soon after receiving the standard-issue office supply composition book from his boss, Fay’s two worlds crossed paths. What if he could take everything that was great about the composition book and enhance those qualities by designing an even better user experience?
Over the following months, Fay dove headfirst into a deep research period that involved dissecting the history of the composition book in an effort to understand what made it so great in the first place. During this time, he spoke to a wide range of experts from the fields of design, bookbinding, marbling, rare books, and of course, his own boss, Michael Bierut.
“Composition notebooks, as they are now, have become an important piece of American culture,” explains Fay. “That said, they fall into a category of objects created for utility, that focus less on longevity and more on economy. As a graphic designer, printmaker, and bookbinder, I wanted to create a notebook that uses today’s finest available processes, materials, and design to create something that will be kept, cherished, and used for years to come.”
The result of his deep research and redesign is comp, a modern update to the composition notebook that harnesses everything that was great about the original but adds considered updates made with more modern technologies and processes.
Among others, these new features include a custom handmade marbled cover pattern optimized to balance light and dark perfectly, an exposed spine made from cialux cloth for added durability, extra-thick wrapped covers for increased stability, and a “layflat” binding style that allows for the book to open and be used completely flat on both sides.
“When you look at [comp], immediately it’s recognizable,” says Bierut. “It reminds us of something that all of us have seen all our lives. And yet, it’s taken all the characteristics of that object and made them the best they can be.”
I chatted with Fay from Pentagram’s New York City office overlooking Madison Square Park in Midtown on a brisk autumn day, to gain insight into how he approached the task of redesigning an 180-year-old classic while holding down his day gig at a bustling New York City design agency.
Aron, as a graphic designer at Pentagram, can you tell me what your typical work day looks like?
During the day, I work here at Pentagram. After hours and on weekends, I work on freelance projects and on my own self-initiated projects, like comp.
In my job at Pentagram, I work with clients on a variety of different projects, from identity work to print-based projects to signage and environmental graphics. I’m very lucky in that I get to be a part of all steps of the process, from meeting with clients initially, to communicating with them on a daily basis, to coming up with ideas and designing, all the way through to creating final mechanical files and coordinating with outside vendors, whether they be printers, fabricators, or web developers.
At what point did you realize you wanted to start creating your own product rather than products for others?
I’ve been working on my own projects for as long as I can remember. I was fortunate to grow up with both of my parents in the arts, both of whom encouraged me to experiment with art. I pulled my first screen print at the age of 5 and started getting into photography in middle school. In high school, I got really interested in screen printing, and I screen printed t-shirts and developed photos in a makeshift darkroom in my parents’ basement. In college, I became fascinated with letterpress and continued to screen print—I used these production methods as a tool for communicating ideas. I’ve always been drawn to print as a tool for disseminating ideas and have continued that in my professional life as well.
I started posting [the notebooks found during research] to Instagram as a way to share them with others, and am planning to set up a site to help document the history of these books with the hopes of preserving their history.
Can you give us a more in-depth explanation of comp and how the idea for it manifested?
It started with a natural curiosity about the origin of these notebooks.
I went online thinking I would find a quick answer, but surprisingly couldn’t find any centralized information about the origin of the composition book. I found that strange given how ubiquitous the composition book is in our culture. So I decided to dig further and soon I came to realize that I wasn’t going to be able to find the history of this object by itself. Instead, I was going to need to piece separate information about the origin of the marbled cover, the binding, and the interior paper, together in order to come closer to the answers I was looking for.
The research part of the project turned out to be really interesting. I went through the special collections of rare book libraries and looked at marbling samples from the 1800s. I tried to Google Translate old German texts, and cold called marblers, bookbinders, and historians. I eventually found out that the iconic ’agate’ pattern—the pattern used on the fronts of most composition books today–originated in the late 1820s/early 1830s in Germany and France through a process called pseudo-marbling, a term coined by Richard J. Wolfe, who wrote what is considered by many to be the most thorough account of marbling history written. Dick was also very kind in speaking with me over the phone and talking about how pseudo-marbling came to be and where I could find more information about it. He has dedicated over 60 years of his life to paper marbling and to documenting the history of the process, so he was a really great resource.
At the same time all of this research is going on, I had also started collecting old composition notebooks. I now have close to 50 dating back to as early as 1860. I started posting them to Instagram as a way to share them with others, and am planning to set up a site to help document the history of these books with the hopes of preserving their history.
Throughout all of this research, it became apparent to me that these books hadn’t really changed much structurally speaking since they originated. Pseudo-marbled covers eventually became replaced by printed ones, the binding went from being hand stitched to stitched on a machine, and paper production became more and more industrialized over time. Other than these industrial modifications, these books have largely been unchanged throughout the years.
I was interested in why that was, given the new advances in printing, binding, and manufacturing over the years. On the one hand, they haven’t needed to change—composition notebooks are beloved because they are inexpensive and accessible, and they’ve worked for years the way they are. But on the other hand, one of the most interesting things I found about composition notebooks is how many variations I came across. The pattern isn’t proprietary, so it differs from notebook to notebook and manufacturer to manufacturer. These differences become even more magnified when you start to look at old books and new books, books produced in different countries, and so on. I thought about designing my own version of the pattern, and applying some of the things I appreciate in my favorite books and notebooks—heavier uncoated paper, a lay-flat binding, and thicker covers—to create my own version. That’s how comp was born.
Once you had your “lightbulb moment”, how did you approach the process of turning the idea into an actual product?
I spent about 8 months researching before I even had the intention of creating a notebook. When I did have the idea, I made a list of the things I needed to do to make that happen in my composition notebook. As a graphic designer, I’ve produced books and notebooks in the past, and it’s always a process I enjoy. Beyond the design, there were many logistical things that were new to me, such as talking with IP lawyers and setting up a business.
How were you able to apply principles of your own craft to your own creation—so to speak?
I’m interested in making things that last and contribute to our world in some way, shape, or form—even if that means just making people think in a different way about a common product we don’t necessary think about.
What was the biggest struggle along the way?
I’m a designer who’s used to making things, so researching in a very academic way was very foreign to me at first—I’d say that was the biggest obstacle to overcome. Once I got into it, though, it became a lot of fun and became one of the most rewarding parts of this project.
During this time, how did you keep the so-called “hustle” alive while holding down your day job at Pentagram?
It’s a lot of work. Organization and managing your time efficiently is key. I try to always be mindful and smart about the decisions I’ve made throughout the design process, and work with people who I know are equally as thoughtful in their field and may know more about a certain aspect—printing, shooting video, what have you—than me. It helps to be working on something you are really interested in, and finding other people who are just as excited about it as you.
Kickstarter is a great platform in that it lets you create a project the way that you want to create it, and it allows for a wider diversity of projects to come to fruition without relying on established companies.
Once you felt comfortable with the direction of your product, how did you approach the branding and execution as a Kickstarter campaign?
For the first eight months, the project was a pretty solitary endeavor, apart from the aforementioned experts that I spoke to for research. After the research phase, I designed the pattern and book, found a printer I wanted to work with and went about prototyping. Once the prototypes were complete, I had the help of some very talented friends to get the Kickstarter going. I worked with Brandon Kuzma for the video, Brian Kelly for the photography, and Edo Van Breemen for the video score. I also worked with my friend Alex Daly, who has been my mentor and has helped with the publicity for the campaign and has a ton of experience running Kickstarter campaigns with the business she owns called Vann Alexandra.
As I mentioned too, everyone I’ve spoken with has been incredibly generous with their time: Paul Vogel, Caroline Weaver, Dick Wolfe, Sid Beger, Chela Metzger, and Michael Bierut, and many more have all donated their time in helping make this project a reality—I’m forever grateful to them.
Do you think more designers and marketers should use Kickstarter as a playground to see if their ideas have “wheels,” so to speak?
I think a misconception that people have about Kickstarter is that you just throw up a project and see if it works. In my experience, there’s actually a ton of work that has to go on behind the scenes to make it happen. It’s not just making the product, it’s figuring out how it will be fulfilled, shipped, making sure it’s legally viable, and promoting it when the Kickstarter launches. Kickstarter is a great platform in that it lets you create a project the way that you want to create it, and it allows for a wider diversity of projects to come to fruition without relying on established companies. Like anything, though, you have to be willing to put in the time and effort to make that happen.
As Fay clearly emphasizes, committing to a particular level of time and effort is usually the most important factor when approaching anything worth doing. That said, pursuing side projects doesn’t necessarily have to feel like “work,” so long as you approach them from the right angle—an angle that fosters an existing passion or desire to create a genuinely better experience.
After understanding more of Fay’s story, we can identify unique traits that attributed towards his success of at least getting a quality product and brand out into the world, whether he successfully launches it through Kickstarter or through another method:
He saw an opportunity in something he was already passionate about.
Having been involved with making books for years, Fay already knew who to go to or where to ask questions rather than starting from the absolute bottom. Since this was also something he was already passionate about, it was something he could also enjoy doing.
He found a familiar story that would help sell the product.
It can be challenging for anybody—even Apple—to convince people to part with their hard-earned money for a product that they’ve never experienced before. In the case of the composition book, however, Fay chose a product that most people have used before and had some sort of a history with. By simply enhancing this existing and well-known experience, he doesn’t need to do much convincing to grab the sale.
He connected the dots using existing skills, tools, and familiarities.
Since he’s trained as a designer and knows how to make books by hand, it was easy for Fay to put two and two together to work through his various prototypes using skillsets he already had rather than outsourcing critical design decisions and potentially wasting money.
He utilized his network rather than tackling everything himself.
Alternatively, for components of the project that he knew he would need help with, he outsourced these jobs to his professional network including photography, videography, and marketing strategies.
He committed to seeing the project through before he began.
Kickstarter allows creators to create projects the way that they want to create them. In doing so, this allows them to pick what they want to spend time on and what they don’t. When he set out to do the project, Fay knew who to contact when the time came for support and planned accordingly.
So whether you’re a designer, a marketer, or come from any background, really, pursuing a Kickstarter project can be a great way to exercise your creative muscles using the skills that you already have. You never know, a great beginning to your own Kickstarter story may already be hiding on your desk.
To get your own comp notebook, the Kickstarter campaign will be active through Wednesday, November 23rd.
All Product Photography by Brian Kelley
All Other Photos by Brandon Kuzma