Aron Fay is somewhat of an expert on notebooks. Particularly composition notebooks. You might say he’s a bit obsessive about the details. It’s what you might expect from someone who designs at Pentagram, under partner Michael Bierut. Michael doesn’t exactly hide his fondness for the iconic notebooks that have shaped his creative imagination and the imaginations and centuries of curious souls. See for yourself…
While Aron was obsessing over all the little details of bringing Comp from Kickstarter to reality earlier this year, I had the chance to catch up with him. We chatted about the Comp project, creative inspiration and what drove his process of infusing the composition notebook with passion, new life, and an impeccable attention to detail.
Enjoy the journey!
There are thousands of notebooks and various formats out there. What was the main driver for you to pursue the composition notebook?
So, there’s a bit of a backstory here. I started at Pentagram five years ago. Michael Bierut is known for his collection of composition notebooks that he has used throughout his career as a graphic designer. His library of notebooks is archived here in the Pentagram offices. What drew me to the composition notebook is that it is very utilitarian in its essence. It’s not fussy.
There’s a poster in the office showing a grid of all the Michael’s notebooks. Seeing it, I was fascinated by the everyday objects that we use. Trying to find the origin of the notebook led me on this strange undocumented journey.
I did a year of research talking to marblers and historians trying to piece together the history of the composition book. It was something I was personally curious about. I was able to identify the paper mill that likely first started producing the marbling patterns seen in the composition notebooks from the 1800s in France and Germany. Not much had changed since the 1800s with these books, other than some minor improvements.
From there I began thinking about why we haven’t used modern tools to improve on the long design history of composition notebooks. I wanted to take the form of the composition book but make it sturdier, using well-considered materials.
From the Kickstater video to the finished product, it’s clear that craftsmanship played a role in the sourcing of materials for the books. Can you speak a bit about that journey of bringing Comp to life?
The first thing that I did was to create a custom marbling pattern. I collected and evaluated lots of old composition books and used that to develop a pattern that spoke to me the most. I placed every single dot on the front of the book by hand.
I have a background in print-making and graphic design, and I knew that I wanted to make a lay-flat binding. I also knew that I wanted an exposed cloth binding with the boards layered on top of the binding.
To provide some context, my mother is a textile artist. I pulled my first screenprint when he I was five years old. Later in high school and college I did commercial t-shirt printing. In college I continued by exploring hand-printed lithography and fine-art letterpress. Because of this immersion in print media, this all feels very fluid to me.
Even after I joined Pentagram I still find myself gravitating toward print work. I even worked on a branding project for Mohawk Paper. This tactile work that I still get to be involved with at Pentagram all feeds in to the design and execution of the Comp project.
Much of Comp seems to be rooted in a love for books, beautiful paper, and masterful bindings. So I’m curious because I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately, but as a designer, where do you pull inspiration from, especially on a project like this?
At Pentagram, the work that I do is all based around concrete ideas or a brief. Much of the process is spent trying to solve a particular problem or conceptualizing how that problem can be solved. I like exercising that part of design. It’s linear.
With Comp, the whole project came about from a simple curiosity. My work at Pentagram created an excitement and curiosity to know more about the composition book. That’s where my research began. It’s thrilling when you have time to look into something that you are excited about.
Speaking of inspiration, the history behind the composition format was fascinating. I would’ve never guessed that its genesis was thousands of years ago in Ancient China. Can you speak to what it was like undertaking research for the project? What was that journey like?
All of the notebook covers that were made in the traditional fashion were all hand-marbled. As far as I can tell, the marbling process dates backs to 986 CE in China. Then, in the 12th century, a process called called Suminagashi emerged in Japan.
From there this process made its way over to Ebru, Turkey in the 15th century. The pattern then emerged in Holland in the late 16th century, and then moved to Western Europe in 1630 (France, Germany, Italy) and later to England. These Western European were called the Agate pattern. The Agate pattern shares similarities with the traditionally marbled Turkish pattern also called “Spot” or “Stone”.
Later in the 19th century, a process called “pseudo-marbling” emerged. The earliest documented instance of pseudo marbling dates to the late 1820s/early 1830s in Annonay France by F.M. Montgolfer at his families paper mill.
The agate pattern as we know it today on the composition book was likely of German origin happening around the same time as noted above but was not as well documented.
Around the same time in Strasbourg developments were also happening, but these were less documented.
The pattern we know on the composition notebook today has been called: Agate, Achathe, Achatmarmor.
For designers in our day there are so many modern inputs and distractions from doing true meaningful work. Also there seems to be an incessant onslaught of new tools and trends. How do you fight distractions and the pull toward the new in the work you do? What keeps you grounded?
I actually have the opposite problem. I tend not to be interested in design trends. My inspiration usually comes from sources outside of graphic design—whether that be books, museums or other things I happen to come across. A lot of my favorite designers practiced in the 50s and 60s when modernism was at its peak—ever since I came to design I’ve always appreciated clear, simple design that communicates effectively.
In regards to tools, I often try new tools that can help streamline my workflow or add something to my practice that I wasn’t able to do before. My practice is not predicated on the tools I use—they are simply ways to bring ideas to life.
At a studio there are massive demands on your time along with the expectation to produce the work at a very high quality. When engrossed in this work, you have to plan out your day and then conquer what needs to be done.
“Plan out your day and then conquer what needs to be done.”
In the months since this interview and the initial Kickstarter campaign, Comp has shipped. In addition to the books themselves, Aron is offering up two other unique products based around Comp’s iconic pattern: totes, and pins.
As to what will come next for Comp, time will tell. Aron has lots of ideas. For now his focus is on sharing Comp beyond the reach of the Kickstarter campaign. In his own words:
“We’re opening everything up and trying to get Comp out into the world.”