Thursday, May 24, 2012

Wall Planners & Financial Year Diaries!

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, dear Reader, but it's time to start planning! Whether just for yourself, your family, your workmates, your accountant, or for whomever, a plan has always made a big difference and remains more relevant than ever. A brief look back at some lessons and examples of planning has shown me that most of what I've ever been exposed to on the theme of Planning is kind of inadequate.
Let's start at the start. As with most life lessons containing a moral, planning has been addressed in the canon of Aesop's fables. The Ant & The Grasshopper is worthy of most primary school classrooms but strikes me as completely deficient in 21st century relevance. There is an ascetic Ant who spends all his Summer days storing food, even though it's really hot and unpleasant to haul grain from A to B all day long, while a self-indulgent Grasshopper takes it easy, enjoys the shade and lives high on the hog for half the year. Inevitably, of course, Winter rolls round and the Grasshopper ends up more or less starving while the Ant and his brethren enjoy the spoils of their summer toils.
I need to check myself here. Aesop wrote this circa 600BC when work was probably about as simple as storing grain, so I'm sure it would have been a box office smash in Ancient Greece. But nowadays, it just doesn't apply. This is not the fine juggling act of options, decisions, people and tasks that we now call planning, it's more like a single choice played out day after day.
So if Aesop fails us, to where do we turn? If you're like me, when you're in a bind you will Do What Cook Would Do! Captain James Cook, of course. History's greatest Navigator and Discoverer, whose ambition took him 'not only farther than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go.'
Cook was the last Hero of the Age of Discovery. Indeed, his efforts brought that era to a close, along with the rise of the industrial revolution. As brave as Cook was, ever stoical in the face of disaster, and as smart and ahead of his time as he was, he wasn't really a planner extraordinaire. In fact, the best back up he had when losing track of his second ship was to write a message in a bottle, bury it under a tree and carve into the trunk 'Dig Here' before sailing on. This isn't James's fault, of course...what else could he do?
Cook does provide one lesson about planning that applies to us today. He is often lauded as a great polymath because his journals reveal all kinds of insights on botany, geography, ethnography, people management, resource management, political science and philosophy. Cook was none of this and even if he was, nobody in their right mind would take this approach these days. Dilettante now has a negative connotation because the amount of knowledge required in any one role these days is so overwhelmingly large that if you try to cover 3 or 4 bases you'll inevitably be found wanting in all of them. We are in an age of specialisation that requires many people coming together across many facets of a task and each doing a relatively small part expertly. Quality over quantity indeed!
So here we stand. Aesop has let us down simply because he dealt with a time that was far too simple and completely lacked the complexity we now confront every day. Cook even lets us down because, well, it was the Age of Discovery and there was a complete lack of information on which to base a plan and technology with which to implement it. Neither of these conditions exist nowadays, so how do we plan many people coming together across broad and multiple projects with expertise rather than plain old amateur enthusiasm?
I find the answer in a science fiction novel (here's hoping the boss doesn't read how we do things...) by Theodore Sturgeon from 1953 - More Than Human. The novel runs in Sturgeon's methodical, pseudo-macabre style and presents the idea of Homo Gestalt. Six extraordinary people with really strange, unique traits and abilities blend together to act as one organism, becoming this great gestalt consciousness. Sturgeon presents this as the next stage of human evolution but I see it as the ideal way to plan tasks in the 21st century!
Now we're not yet up to literally blending multiple minds into one but with work these days, we have so many specialised tasks each contributing to such a large, overwhelming edifice that it would kind of be ideal! Failing Homo Gestalt, we can actually kind of get close with planning, right? Sturgeon's creation develops ridiculous powers and abilities because all minds are as one and all talents can be directed via the one me, Homo Gestalt is little more than a well maintained Wall Planner!
As there are many facets to any task there are many facets to any plan. Individuals need to diarise tasks and run their own schedules but without that central gestalt consciousness, you'll end up with 5 one fifths of Captain James Cook rather than 5 experts. The difference is the well planned broader scheme, the context for work and effort, the common grey matter that those efforts are channeled through. If we think of consciousness as nothing more than the state of being aware, then Wall Planners, Team Planners and big, obvious, readily available business plans become your gestalt consciousness - a single conductor that waves its baton for your orchestra of specialists!
So do it now! Get planning! You can grab your 18 Month Moleskine Diary now and you will enjoy a Winter in Ancient Greece flush with grain. Or you can grab your Financial Year Diary for yourself and or a wall planner for your team, leave Ancient Greece behind, forget about getting lost in the pacific and touch the next stage of human evolution, vis-a-vis the 9 to 5.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Defy Bags & Craftsmanship

The video above from Defy Bags actually encapsulates a lot of the story of manufacturing, and as such, of society, over the last few's quite interesting (you can watch a nice big version here if you like).

Defy bags was founded by Chris Tag. Chris makes every bag, from start to finish, in Chicago and openly admits that a seed for craftsmanship was planted in his personality during childhood, watching his father and grandfather coming home from work at the General Motors factory in Dayton, Ohio. This was a time when American industry was unrivalled in its power. The American mainland escaped World War II relatively unscathed and so they found themselves, in that most o-matic of decades, the 50s (you know, cut-o-matic, slice-o-matic, grill-o-matic appliances), with a lot of hands, a lot of money and a lot of resources. One of the great industrial booms in recorded history followed as factory after factory was opened, staffed and producing goods, goods, goods!

 For a lot of people, though, the boom wasn't so sweet. As things progressed, all of these amazing machines, inventions and automated processes were being developed and a lot of those hands suddenly found themselves without too much to do! Machines overtook that unscathed landscape and manufacturing went away from the idea of a bunch of people in control of a few relatively simple tools to a bunch of relatively complex machines being operated by a few relatively simple processes.

This was great for quality of life compared to a time when there were no washing machines, no vacuum cleaners, no household appliances but not so great for the quality of those things that had forever existed. Have you ever compared, say, a flat packed dining table to a beautiful dining table from the 40s? There is no such thing as a dining table from the 40s that isn't beautiful, they were made by men with their hands, no bolts or screws or clips, just timber at the mercy of somebody engrossed in what they're doing.

Here's the main point about hand made stuff: there is no loophole for apathy. The work becomes engrossing, the responsibility all yours, the ownership of the task is unmistakable. You can look at the finished product as a direct reflection of fact, you can't look at it in any other way. In short, you do it well.

But back to the 50s and society in general. The space race was on between the Soviets and the States and with each thrilling instalment, this infatuation with automation, with 'technology' just got bigger and bigger. Using your hands became passe. By the time Neil Armstrong was on the Moon, Americans had nothing left to hang on to but their household appliances and unrivalled material quality of life. Vietnam was a disaster, Watergate was around the corner but nobody lived more comfortably than Americans. People were ignoring the aforementioned loophole, because things were comfy.

 But then a cruel twist of irony as the 80s came along and Japan was all of a sudden ruling the world of automated manufacturing. Where Hirohito had failed, Akio Morita and the Sony Corporation had succeeded. All of those once mighty factories, initially staffed with skilled craftsmen, later staffed with shiny machines, were finally shuttered. Veil American manufacturing.

All of these forces still exist; an infatuation with technology, a desire for a comfortable quality of life and a reliance on the economy of automated manufacture. But they are not everything. They are great for basic things but here is where the script gets flipped. We, most of us, the lucky ones, are no longer in a daily struggle for quality of life. Things are comfy. Nor is the idea of 'technology' so novel that we pay attention to informercials about kitchen appliances. Where hand made things used to be passe, we now understand that it is quite the opposite. As Shakespeare wrote for the Merchant of Venice, 'but at the length, truth will out' and we now crave the very things which were taken for granted and seen as archaic 60 years ago - for something that is handmade!

Why? Again, it's that loophole for apathy. The fact that when you hold something handmade, you are holding a direct reflection of the maker. To take the present subject matter as an example, each Defy Bag really does carry this story, that once there were proud men doing work they were proud of, that we lost our way but that at the length, truth will out. Chris puts it well: "I believe you don’t just create with your hands and brain. But with your hands, brain and heart."

There is an individual story, a uniqueness, a personality to each finished piece. It may manifest itself as something trivial and simple but in principle it is everything. If you've seen bags made on an assembly line, you've seen a worker put a piece of fabric into what looks like a giant transparent barbeque, and stand aside for 30 seconds while some science-fiction stitch-o-matic does its work. It looks kind of neat, and I'm sure a child would be really impressed with the speed and I'm sure the robotic accomplishment is an engineering masterpiece but in none of these qualities do I see signs that somebody has put their heart into what they are doing and that the finished piece is a reflection of a craftsman's principles and integrity.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Clairefontaine Notebooks & 'The Source'

A very much wanted delivery of Clairefontaine Notebooks arrived last week, choc full of Clairefontaine Essentials Clothbound Notebooks. I was really excited, we all were. Due to outrageous popularity of late, these guys have been sold out but fountain pen users can now breathe a sigh of relief - they are back!

I am reminded here of that old phrase 'You don't miss your water 'til the well runs dry...' It seems that we at NoteMaker and even myself personally have kind of neglected this amazing paper, the amazing little biography of Clairefontaine. I searched Field Notes for Clairefontaine expecting a bevy of posting about what essentially was the one piece of stationery that 'got me' in the first place and could only turn up a single post, which dealt with the quirks of an infant King as much as the paper in question.

So shame on me - it was only in a time of dire Clairefontaine shortage that I realised how great the Essentials notebooks are and now, as repentant as any sinner, I'm here to divulge my thoughts on Clairefontaine paper.

I remember this fairly vividly. It was whilst innocently thumbing through a Rhodia Pad (as we stationery fans know, Rhodia paper is made by Clairefontaine) for the first time that I first 'got' design stationery. I don't mean that I began to understand the appeal or the idea on an intellectual level. I don't mean that i saw it as a source of economic independence. I mean that I got it, a visceral sensation down to the marrow of my bones, and I have since counted myself one of the many who have fallen under this Siren's song, almost certainly never to return.

I couldn't believe it. I hadn't even written on it. That, I proceeded to do with a 3.15mm lead Lamy Scribble, a 4B lead made for sketching, it is agreeably smooth on the worst paper. I think I was transported back to some childhood nirvana, the sheer joy of making any mark and getting that instant gratification of seeing yourself transposed onto paper. I was just making wholly unintelligible loops and lines here and there over that pale blue 5x5mm grid, actually giggling, incredulous at even the idea of comparing this paper to what I had previously known.

I've since learned a little bit about why Clairefontaine's Mill in the Vosges region of France is so amazingly good. In 1858, Clairefontaine set-up in a Paper Mill that itself was built in 1512. They started making stationery, as opposed to just loose leaf paper etc, in 1890 and were the first to make school notebooks, those petits cahiers, for all of France.

That Clairefontaine is a Paper Mill first and foremost is incredibly important. They have this tunnel vision for paper quality and they are quite unique among widely available, consumer-marketed stationery in this capacity. Clairefontaine has absolute control over the whole process of manufacturing. This might sound rather unremarkable but paper quality is a microscopic thing and tiny differences make a huge impact, as anyone who has had their fountain pen or rollerball feather on poor paper will attest. From one notebook to the next, Melbourne to Toulouse, your paper will be exactly the same. I mean, other brands' paper may look the same, may even feel the same, but once you start writing on it, testing the integrity of that sheet, how closely interlocked those fibres of pulp are, how amicably it abides the application of your ink or pencil lead, you can sometimes be disappointed. When you source your paper from a third party, unfortunately these tiny details of quality just aren't your call.

Not with Clairefontaine notebooks. Never, in fact. The best fountain pen in the world may skip from time to time or you'll run out of ink. Your iPhone can have a tantrum and your MacBook can give you that spinning wheel. Your car will break down, the train will be late and you might even break the strap on your backpack. But as a daily tool goes, that thing you rely on for your work, Clairefontaine's paper just will not let you down. Ever. Paper is overlooked in this capacity as a tool but it totally is. I find few things more frustrating than writing across a page and having the poorly made sheet shed itself of paper fibres, like a leper, which then get drawn up into my nib and disrupt the flow of ink. Or writing with a ballpoint and having those little blobs of loose papery swill accumulate under the ball. It's the equivalent of Microsoft Word crashing just as you start to move the cursor towards SAVE after a good hour of work!

As I seem to have started a little rant here, I may as well finish it. I really want to use both sides of the sheet of paper and few notebooks give you the reverse side in mint condition. I mean I can live with a little 'echo' and so long as I'm not using a dark ink, I can even deal with some bleeding from time to time but there is no comparison for turning the page over to find two brand spanking paper adonises ready to take your thoughts. We at NoteMaker have turned away some really cool stuff because it's performance in this regard does not cut it.

That's kind of the practical side of why, personally, I love that Clairefontaine paper. But there are other reasons beyond basic utility and reliability and I think these can be seen as arguably just as important. Clairefontaine is a Paper Mill, it is the source, the undiluted, inviolable beginning of the final product. It's the farmer's market of paper! That whole slow food movement is all about getting back to the source of your food, right? Many authors, Michael Pollan probably the most widely read of them, have made quite a fuss about why we should worry about this. It's not just gastronomy at play here, it's a deeper human phenomenon as far as i can see. We love, probably need, to know and to trust the provenance of the things in our lives. To do so is comforting, a form of honesty with the inanimate objects in our life.

We all worry about this. It's why universities have a rigorous peer review system for original research and it's why we subsidise and rely on University research so much. With each degree that we move away from that source (think about an article in Nature vs an article in New Idea) things get progressively shakier. Can you trust it? How far have we deviated from the source?

To sum it up, Clairefontaine is really one of very, very few stationery makers who can show you exactly how, from start to finish, they make that amazing paper and bind it into a notebook. They are singular in the quality of those notebooks.