Tonight as I was aimlessly scrolling down Twitter, I saw some of the best of Graphic Design Twitter praising something billing itself as “a redesign of the composition notebook for the 21st century,” and I decided to engage with a bit of shade. Earlier in the evening, Joe Marianek of Small Stuff tweeted “designers who troll design < designers who design,” which I realized, afterward, was responding to the various critics of this very notebook. As I greatly respect Joe and his work, and with personal heroes of mine like Michael Bierut and Ellen Lupton supporting this project I found myself publicly trolling, I decided to at least step up to Joe’s challenge to, if nothing else, engage with more than 140 characters.
The short version is that Aron Fay, a very talented young designer from Pentagram, took on a personal passion and designed The Comp Book; a meticulously designed version of the ubiquitous marbled black and white composition book, with incredible detailing from the binding to the paper to the cover layout. My first impressions of it are only a few hours old, but they came from the aforementioned designers either tweeting about it, or in the case of Bierut, emphatically endorsing it within the promotional video. As a serious lover of books, meticulous book design, and fetishistic bindery, I started the video with one finger on the donation button.
About halfway through the video, though, during the slow motion product shots that followed a critique of the common mass market composition book, I got off board. Incredible skill, precision, love, and design went into the Comp Book, and, in my opinion, strips it of all meaning and relevance. More critically, and to paraphrase Karrie Jacobs, it falls into the trap of solving easy problems. I don’t begrudge a designer’s desire for an incredible notebook. I’ve used Moleskines, that avatar of lifestyle signaling, for years; I’ve bought (and not drawn in) a lovely Black Dot sketchbook from William Stout. The bold premise of the Comp Book as a direct counterpoint and upgrade to the most common notebook in the world , however, highlighted an opportunity squandered rather than a revelation of design and craft.
Designers, writers, and doodlers have no shortage of premium notebooks to choose from, and if the market will bear another in the form of a postmodern facsimile of a 97 cent composition book for nearly twenty times the price, then by all means, I wish all success to the designers. So much effort went into perfecting the many obvious flaws of the cheap mass-produced notebooks, however, I only wonder if that effort could have gone in a slightly different direction.
Lets back up for a moment and go back to the composition book. Michael Bierut, I’ll assume (and I’d be thrilled to have him correct me), owns dozens if not hundreds of composition books not despite their flaws, but because they’re easy, cheap, and in no way precious. The power of the composition book lies in its ubiquity and availability, and has provided millions with a common paper space to work in. The Comp Book isn’t a contribution to that space, it mimics it from above as a bit of high concept cosplay. Maybe that’s the point and I’m missing it entirely. But if graphic design isn’t just about luxury, maybe there’s a way a designer could look to engage in precisely the space of the everyday user? Surely that would be a bigger and potentially more rewarding challenge.
All of those cheap Mead, Office Depot, and countless generic composition books occupy a particular economic, political, and ecological space and conflict. What labor conditions and global trade machinations allow for the 97 cent price point? What ecological footprint does the raw material, automation, and transport leave? If it even remotely resembles most industrial production in a globalized world, it’s a dire scene. These are wicked problems with no easy solution, and interrogating the mechanisms behind them with the end of fundamentally improving the common product would be a far greater challenge. To a degree, this has been addressed by the Decomposition Book series, which do little or nothing to improve the visual or physical design of the books as such, but at least address invisible factors of mass production and carbon footprint. In addition, they have come close to the ubiquity of the more basic books while engaging in a direct discourse with them. I’m not here to go to the mat for another product or project, however, other than to bring up the other high profile minor market entry into the fray. If the high design response to the “problem” of the composition book is to cloister itself in point-missing luxury when there’s already a conversation going on, there is an implicit admission that high design doesn’t have much to offer beyond aesthetics and luxury, a terrible disservice to the field.
There’s no better way to come across as a killjoy and a bore when telling graphic designers that their projects aren’t solving problems that they might actually have no interest in actually solving. However, I would only hope that the bar for a project actively seeking a hundred thousand dollars in funding claiming to reinvent a design staple should at least be a little higher, and attempt to go beyond easy luxuries and really do some invention.