Sketchbooks – A Designer’s Best Friend

I first started using notebooks when I had to go to school with a bag full of them. They were soon to be representative of the tyrannical education system with straight lines running across them like horizontal prison bars. They dictated that I write as per their guidelines and each notebook being dedicated to one subject meant I had no business writing anything else on them. Of course, I rebelled and while the start of each book began with a clear handwritten non-cursive font, the end pages contained the chronicles of my rampant imagination in the form of typography, doodles, graffiti, ravings, and what have you. I eventually sprouted wings and flew out of the Tower of Systemized Education and found myself scribbling on books with blank pages. There was something pure and pristine about them that every time I turned over a new leaf, my soul was refreshed and rejuvenated. The past was forgotten, mistakes forgiven, goals lost and nothing but pure potential lay before me – the ever fertile Field of Infinite Possibilities.

A Designer’s Best Friend

Sketchbooks and other types of journals have been used by artists, travelers, intellectuals and other creative individuals for hundreds of years. We have accounts of historians and scribes of ancient civilizations maintaining records that till today speak eloquently of a world we never saw, yet can vividly relive by the magic of words and sketches. Today’s modern sketchbooks are characterized by a spine which allows the book to lay open flat, an elastic fastener around the pages and ivory colored, smooth paper with perhaps rounded edges. Behind every successful artist, designer or writer isn’t the latest edition of Photoshop or a Wacom tablet but the traditional and unassuming sketchbook which is more often than not a collection of messy drawings and half-baked ideas on pieces of paper. This unassuming mess of paper and ink is the creative backbone of any designer’s process of creation.

Bits and Pieces, Odds and Ends

It’s the one thing in art and design that’s remained constant. It’s just a box for holding notes and notations,Steven Heller, designer and the co-author of Graphic: Inside the Sketchbooks of the World’s Great Graphic Designers. I remember once collecting scrap paper from a paper recycling yard and stitching them together to create a wad of papers on which I’d speed sketch profiles and portraits of people I’d see at the railway station. I spent hours everyday at various stations, on the train and at coffee shops sketching incessantly without a care. This was instrumental in the formative process of losing my inhibitions as an artist and overcoming the fear of perfection and exactness. While they are just that – a box of papers and notes, sketchbooks can become so much more. They are the windows to the journey of creative minds of designers and artists as we grow and experience the world around us and the expression within us. A collage of images, letters and colors; reality meets it’s imaginative epiphany in the plethora of pictures and paragraphs.

Journey over Destination

How we get there is often better than once we’ve got there,” says Steven Heller, referring to the difference between the importance of the process as compared to the outcome or result. I think that echoes the spirit of ancient Eastern Philosophy that has held the journey over the destination or goal. Lao Tzu has been known to comment that a good traveler is not intent on arriving. Similarly I believe a good artist is more focussed on the process of inspiration creation than the outcome that lays wide open for all to behold. Focusing on the means and not the ends might appear counterintuitive at first to the field of design, which inherently seeks to solve problems; but more often than not the beauty lies in the creation and ideation process. Leonardo Da Vinci’s designs for a machine that flew never left the ground, yet those very sketches dictate the form factors we see in helicopters and hang-gliders around the world today. Often the thoughts and philosophies of a designer or artist can serve to inspire and instigate more than any sketch can.

Art, Politics and Pop Culture

When the statement is strong it has impact,” explains Steven Heller. “Politics is part of our lives. It’s not a four letter word for designers, it is part of our DNA.” Artists, writers and poets are known to often aligned with various political ideologies and agendas in the past revolutionary times, yet today’s arena is no less exciting and eclectic and while designers seem indifferent to political views, they are often expressing their personal opinions strongly in the form of essays, blogs, manifestos, satirical art and caricatures. Pop culture can often serve as a vehicle for propaganda even if it appears to be futile and frivolous at first sight. Shepard Fairey’s HOPE posters of Barack Obama are firmly entrenched as a pop culture icon as much as a political one. Ironically enough the posters are based on Fairey’s own Obey sticker campaign, and the image used is a re-appropriation of an Associated Press photograph. So art, politics and pop culture as we know it are not forces apart but an amalgam of media that rely on the hands of a creator to bring together into a force to reckon with. The reason to contemplate on these forces is to observe the common process involved in resurrecting each or all of them. Great politicians and spokesmen have been known to draft speeches and pen their inspiring and often revolutionary ideas in their journals while artists like Da Vinci preserved his ideas to inspire generations to come.

Sketchbook Brands


Moleskine is characterized by a spine which allows the book to lay open flat, an elastic fastener around the pages and ivory colored, smooth paper with rounded edges. Although these books are highly sought after due to their famous name, there are many alternatives which have just as much quality.

Anything Book

The Anything Book can be used as an idea book, travel log, journal and even an appointment book. With a faux leather cover, it is all of 160 ruled pages and comes in black, red, blue and green. The paper in the book is a heavier alternative to that found in a Moleskine, and has no problems absorbing ink.


The Ciak is found easily at bookstores such as Borders in the US, or at Amazon online. The Ciak’s customizable design fits easily into a pocket and comes in an array of colors. It is held shut with a black elastic band just like the Moleskine.

CR Gibson

CR Gibson offers bound personal journals in a variety of colors and designs and these are composed of an acid free, lignin free paper that is easy to write on and absorbs ink very well, while holding up well over time. The spiral notebook also comes in a variety of designs and colors and comes with regular stock paper.

Circa Notebooks

Circa Notebooks offer easily personalized notebooks with everything from simple translucent covers to elegant leather-bound covers with ruled to grid paper options.

Piccadilly Notebooks

Piccadilly notebooks look very similar to Moleskines, but are way cheaper for the same size or page count and come in a wide assortment of sizes, colors with lined, grid or plain pages.


Rubberband is a newcomer on the block and yet has an impressive range of products from planners, file books, block, memos and of course the quintessential black book. Their soft cover white book series are especially impressive.

Other notable products in no particular order are Cartesio, Quo Vadis, Awagami Guildhall, Markings, Allen’s Journal, Rhodia, Alwych, Miquelrius, Xonex: Ru and the pocket Blank Book.

Infinite Imagination

In the sands of time, everyone is mortal and everything we create is at best ephemeral. For our creations to stand the test of time, ideas must be preserved, if not for posterity at least for the sake of inspiring future generations of creators. Think of your sketchbook as a physical archive of your imagination, your process, your journey through life. Respect your mind space and breath life into imagination by penning your thoughts and ideas and designs on paper. Pay homage to that essential and most basic tool of all – the humble sketchbook.


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Ritesh Reddy

Dr. Ritesh Reddy, PhD aka Reddy2Go is a Creative Generalist, who uses the magic of the written word and the allure of the visual medium in conjunction with bleeding edge technology to creating communication collateral for the New Media. He believes in the power of the individual & inspires independence through the Freelance Firestarter. In the spirit of selflessly sharing knowledge with the community for the betterment of society, he does not charge any fee for the same.