The Composition Notebook Redesigned

Brooklyn-based graphic designer Aron Fay has become obsessed with the history and evolution of the composition notebook, and has taken on the task of adding his own contribution to the lengthy lineage of the canonical classic, updating both the cover pattern and the design of the book itself. The final product, the upcoming Comp, is an elegant notebook, with a flawlessly balanced design, mesmerizing in its ornamental symmetry, which sustains the essence of the marbled composition notebook design.


The design of the composition notebook, Aron discovered through extensive archival study, has not changed considerably since they first surfaced centuries ago – this in spite of the leaps and bounds in which book manufacturing processes has developed. Intrigued by the prospect of adding his own print to this run of work, he decided to create a more sophisticated version of this widely-used product, a project for which his lifelong background in printmaking and graphic design put him in good stead.


The Comp is a profession of love for all those nostalgic “paperphiles” who revel in the smell of what could be, of great expectations, and of thrilling possibilities. Sometimes the appeal of these timelessly charming pads is just the feeling you get when pen touches paper, a subtle, inaudible scratch, or a smooth slide that gives an irrational sense of pleasure. We spoke with Aron Fey to find out more about how one tackles modifying an an institutional classic.

The Plus: How did you get into graphic design in the first place?
Aron Fay:
I was always encouraged to draw, paint and make things. At the age of 5 I pulled my first screen print. Fast forward ten or so years to high school where I found myself screen printing again. I loved the process of it and perfecting the print as much as possible. I was then incredibly lucky to study with some great professors in college in the fields of graphic design, printmaking and book arts, where I was able to really hone my skills and learn that design (at least to me) is about engaging with larger ideas as opposed to strictly being a formal exercise in making something look good (although that’s part of it). For me, print and design have always been intertwined, and very much part of my own practice.


TP: How did your fascination with the composition notebook start?
Wondering where these books came from I went online, thinking I would find a quick answer, but surprisingly couldn’t find any centralized information about the origin of the composition book. I found that strange given how ubiquitous the composition book is in our culture (especially in the States).

The research part of the project turned out to be incredibly interesting to me and has been about a year-long process. I went through the special collections of rare book libraries, looked at marbling samples from the 1800s, tried to Google Translate old German texts, and cold called marblers, bookbinders, and historians. I eventually found out that the iconic ‘agate’ pattern—the pattern used on the fronts of most composition books today–originated in the late 1820s/early 1830s in Germany and France through a process called pseudo-marbling. The first documented instance of this type of pseudo-marbling happens in Annonay, France, at the paper mill of F. M. Montgolfier.
Throughout all of this research, it became apparent to me that these books hadn’t really changed much since they originated. Pseudo-marbled covers eventually became replaced by printed ones, the binding went from being hand stitched to stitched on a machine, and paper production became more and more industrialized over time. Other than these industrial modifications, these books have largely been unchanged over the years.


I was interested in why that was, given the new advances in printing, binding, and manufacturing over the years. The pattern isn’t proprietary, so it differs from notebook to notebook and manufacturer to manufacturer. I thought about designing my own version of the pattern, and applying some of the things I appreciate in my favorite books and notebooks—heavier uncoated paper, lay-flat binding, and thicker covers—to create my own version. That’s essentially how comp was born.

TP: How did you manage to create the balance between white and black and redesign the pattern in such an elegant way?
Formally speaking, the first thing I knew I wanted to do was to create a pattern with separate articulated shapes, as opposed to a pattern that’s vein-like or interconnected—this provides a more graphic look in my opinion. I also knew I wanted to use a smaller pattern than traditional books to fully take advantage of the the detail in the printing process that we’re using. In order to achieve the balance between light and dark shapes, every shape was individually placed to create the pattern—it was a labor of love.


TP: How do you think the “comp” will be received by fans of the composition notebook?
I hope that it will make people think about everyday consumer objects that we often take for granted, like a composition book. The funny thing about comp is that if you remove its pattern from the front cover, its a different notebook entirely. It’s been an interesting experiment in a way to test the boundaries of what makes a product identifiable and recognizable under its known label.


TP: What motivates you the most in what you do?
The thing I love most about graphic design is constantly being exposed to new people, places and things. I work with clients who work in industries that I would have never have come to learn about before if I wasn’t doing this. To me, this keeps the design process exciting. I’m a curious person, and so when I can learn about what other people do and try to help them in my small way with the thing that I know how to do, I find it incredibly gratifying.