Work tip: Do it analog — the Designer's Notebook

by Carlo Carino in , , ,


Smart. Easy to forget. Ultimately essential. Your notes only need to make sense to you. It's fall fast and dirty at the capture stage.

The notebook sure seems like an obvious thing. We take it for granted, leave it behind, grab any scrap of paper handy, or write on the nearest clean napkin.

As I've become more experienced in the field, I've come to realize how important it is to keep my notebook in my bag at all times.

Some designers are legendary for their notebooks, such as in this story from Michael Beirut, on Design Observer.

 "On August 12, 1982, I took a 10 x 7 1/8 inch National Blank Book Company composition book from the supply closet of my then employer, Vignelli Associates. From that moment, I have never been without one. I always have one at my desk. I take one with me to every meeting. I am now in the middle of Notebook #85. It's in front of me right now. Together, these well-worn books create a history of my working life that spans three decades.

Now that's a feat of mindfulness to which one can aspire.

A Taskmaster and Memory Keeper

My notebook, which is a Pentalic Illustrators Sketchbook, 8-Inch by 5-Inch, Espresso is one of the most valuable things I carry daily.

Whether I'm in a design session, meeting, or just sketching, it adds tremendously to my sense of security. Every action, idea, exchange, and offhand suggestion goes into the notebook. Nothing is forgotten. Doing it this way has another benefit. It's a lot like the way thumbnail sketching on paper helps you work out solutions to design problems before you ever touch a computer. Writing down everything as it happens gets your mental engine working on solutions in the background.

Size Matters

Make sure your notebook is large enough to show quick sketches and diagrams to other people. I used to carry around a hip-pocket-sized Molskine sketchbook, which served me well at the time.

However, to share a drawing during a meeting, I'd have to pass the notebook around. People would have to squint. That wasn't ideal.

Carrying around a larger book is more cumbersome, but the benefits more than make up for it. The larger pages accommodate my noodle-like idea-stage drawings, wild scrawling and multiple nested mind maps. Best of all, I can keep the book in my hands and the pictures are still visible to people across the table.

It's not sacred

Don't spend any time deciding what does, or does not, go from your pen to the page. If it's on your mind, then it's notebook worthy. Sketches, phone numbers, random thoughts, nervous doodles, it doesn't matter — it's all fair game. The time to judge those ideas is later.

If you ever say to yourself, "I don't need to write that down," take it as a signal to get out your pen and start writing.

By the way, use a pen. Erasing is forbidden if you want to do this right.

Paper or Pixels

I've gone back and forth between using paper and an iPad for my notes over the years. I love using the iPad for most things, but I really enjoy the immediacy of scrawling in a notebook. Maybe it's just conditioning, but sketching on a screen makes me think 'end product,' instead of 'rough drawing.' If you don't have that particular mental block, I recommend the app Penultimate available at the iTunes app store for $0.99 . It's easy to use and just feels the most like a real notebook of any app I've used.

Penultimate on the iPad

Analog Thinking First

As digital workers, many designers stray from the analog basics. If you adhere to at least one old-school method, make it a notebook (or simulation, thereof).


Skill Gathering with, "Master Your DSLR Camera."

by Carlo Carino in ,


Level up your skills with a truly educational iPad app. "Master Your DSLR Camera," from Open Air Publishing Inc.

Save a place for this on your home screen.

I like to be in on every stage of a project when I can. One of the early steps in most design jobs is original photography. I've got a few friends who are professional freelance photographers. I've also worked with some truly great ones who produce outstanding work. If you're lucky enough to find one that will let you direct a photo session — stick with them.

But as a designer, the there are many situations where you'd do well to become a halfway decent photographer yourself. Some examples:

  • Location scouting
  • Conceptual planning
  • Limited time and/or budget
  • You don't have time to do a lot of post-processing on bad photos

I took photography courses in high school and college. One of these classes was even taught a real-life Pulitzer Prize winner. But those lessons never seemed to stick. I've wanted to be a better photographer ever since.

The real leap forward in my development came when I got "Master your DSLR Camera" from the iTunes App Store earlier this year. After several months using the app, I can truly say I've made a lot of progress. Now I'm almost where I want to be.

Click to enlarge. The outside of DFS Tumon Bay Galleria. Shot just after sunset. I never could have taken this a year ago.

It's promoted like an interactive book, but I think it's best to treat it like your own tag-along photography expert.

It is all of the following and more:

  • Comprehensive
  • Professional looking
  • Authoritative
  • Interactive
  • Ambitious 

But best of all, it's made for exploration.

Ideal ideas and instructions for most any situation.

It's the kind of app/book you use when you have your camera in hand and ideas in your head. When you know the look you want to achieve, it's ready to show you how. All while increasing your understanding of your camera and it's myriad settings in the process. I can't overstate how well this works as a learning tool.

On the down-side, navigation through the app takes some getting used to. There many times where I tapped in the wrong place, bringing up windows or switching screens to unintented places. But once you get past the hurdles, real magic awaits.

It's got well organized lessons, HD video tutorials, and interactive camera-setting simulations.

The app lets you drag the slider across to simulate the effect of various shutter speeds.

Let me say that once more — interactive camera-setting simulations. Just mind blowing.

It's available on the App store for $9.99. I don't know how valuable it might be to true photography professionals. However, if you're a designer who wants to become more versatile by improving your photo skills, it'll be more than worth the price.