Choosing a notebook

Choosing the right notebook is an important factor in how successful your use of it will be. Many factors should be borne in mind, not least the pleasure you feel in having, holding and filling it. There are two main alternatives: a hardback notebook and a loose-leaf file. You might like to keep both types, for different purposes.

A hardback notebook

There are some subtle criteria to bear in mind when choosing a notebook:

Size. The size of your notebook has to be a compromise between being small enough to carry with you wherever you go, and being big enough for the drawings you want to do in it. The notebooks I use are approximately 5¼“ by 8¼“ (135mm by 150mm) and fit neatly into the side pocket of a jacket. In the past I have used A5 notebooks, but I find A4 too big and cumbersome to carry around. 

Opening flat. Choose a notebook that will open flat so that you can scan your drawings easily for inclusion in presentations, essays, websites, publications.... Spiral bound notebooks will do this, but there are some sewn-spine notebooks that will open flat too.

Paper. The paper in your notebook is very important. It should be plain, smooth and white or just off-white. Its weight will be a compromise between being thin enough to be just able to trace through, but dense enough that drawings beneath don’t show through when scanning.

A squared paper insert – 5mm or ¼” squares. A piece of squared paper exactly the same size as the pages of your notebook is an essential addition. It will be useful as an underlay: for keeping notes neat; for help in drawing straight lines and orthogonal plans (and even circles and other curves); and for use as a scale, i.e. for coordinating dimensions in your drawings. (Using an underlay of squared paper is better than using a notebook with squared pages because the lines can be a nuisance when scanning.)

Drawing in a hardback notebook I prefer to use a pencil rather than a pen, so that I can erase my mistakes. I use a 0.5 technical pencil with a B or 2B lead. You need a soft, but not too soft, lead to be able to get the tonal depth to make drawings legible. Sometimes I use coloured leads to clarify diagrammatic drawings.


A loose-leaf file

A loose-leaf file might be more appropriate for keeping at your place of work or having with you in the library.

Size. The size of your loose-leaf file is of less significance than in the case of the hardback notebook you carry around in your pocket or bag. It might be A4 or A5. I prefer A5 because it is easier to handle.

Benefits. The main benefit of a loose-leaf file is that it can contain different sorts of insert:

  • plain paper, for drawings
  • lined and squared paper, for drawings and notes
  • tracing paper, for tracing drawings from publications, geometric analysis, playing with design ideas etc.
  • plastic pockets for keeping newspaper cuttings, photocopies, post cards etc.
  • graph paper, for use as an underlay (as with the squared paper in a hardback notebook)

also, with a loose-leaf file...

  • content can be sorted and re-sorted into thematic sections
  • pages can be removed for tracing and scanning

Tracing paper and pencil do not, to my mind, go well together; they can produce dull and smudgy drawings. (Though I have seen some people produce beautifully clear drawings using this combination). I prefer to draw on tracing paper with a pen. I use a 0.1 or 0.13 technical pen, which gives me the precision I enjoy.