Dog-eared and covered in ballpoint doodles, the humble composition notebook has been a mainstay of teenager knapsacks for the better part of the last century. And not just students love them. Jean-Michael Basquiat and Roy Lichtenstein were aficionados of the comp notebook. So is Pentagram partner Michael Bierut. In fact, Bierut is such a fan, that a composition notebook is the second thing he hands new designers after they join Pentagram (the employee manual is the first).
Five years ago, Bierut handed Aron Fay such a notebook on his first day at the prestigious New York design firm. Fay (who, full disclosure, is the partner of a Co.Design staff writer) has become such a fan that, today, the 27-year-old designer is launching Comp, a sophisticated redesign of his favorite notebook. Comp gives the classic notebook the premium look and feel of more upscale notebook brands, like Moleskine and Baron Fig.
According to Fay, the reason he and other designers he knows love composition notebooks is because they are humble. "To me, the appeal of composition notebooks is they're not fussy," Fay says. "Haven't you ever bought a Moleskine or some fancy German notebook, gone to write something down, and felt like it was judging you? Composition notebooks don't do that. They're really utilitarian objects that make you feel like it's okay to write something down in them."
Even so, Fay says there are aspects of the composition notebook that drive him crazy. Paper quality is a big one: composition notebooks are designed to be cheap, and so the quality of the paper suffers for anyone writing on it with anything better than a cheap Bic, let alone the fountain pens Fay prefers. Composition notebooks are also bound cheaply, meaning they don't fold flat when opened. The composition lines inside the notebooks, while useful for grade school students, are irritating for a design professional. Finally, the typography various companies usually put on their composition notebook's covers tend to be inappropriate at best, a hodgepodge at worse. For Comp, Fay set out to address all of these failings.
The most distinguishing characteristic of a composition notebook is the cover, so Fay started there. Invented around 1830 by French papermaker F.M. Montgolfier as a cheaper (if less beautiful) way of marbling paper, pseudo-marbling is the paper printing technique that gives composition notebooks their distinctive, black-and-white cover patterns. Fay says that different composition notebooks use different patterns—some blobbier, some veinier, some lighter, and some darker—but for Comp, he tried to design a platonic ideal of a pattern that more purposefully matched his preferences. "I like the shapes in the pseudo-marbling to be very well-articulated, where the shapes are organic and self-contained," he explains. So that's what Comp has.
The biggest difference between Comp and some cheap Mead notebook, though, is the binding. Like higher-profile designer notebooks, the Comp lays open when flat, and uses a fine Italian cloth sewed across the spine to add extra durability to the binding, as well as a lush tactile feel. The covers of Comp are also stiffer than a normal composition notebook, making it feel "more like a hard cover." The paper has been given a luxe upgrade as well. While traditional composition notebooks use paper stock that's as inferior as 58gsm, Comp has lush white 120gsm paper, thick enough that you can write on one side with a fountain pen, and not see anything on the other side.
Available today for preorder on Kickstarter, Comp is easily the highest-quality composition notebook ever designed. Which prompts the question: Has Fay robbed the composition notebook of the very humility that makes it so approachable? Maybe a little, admits Fay, but cheap composition notebooks will still be for judgment-free doodling. It's just that Comp will also be around for when you want a little more out of your notebook.
[All Photos: Brian Kelley]