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George Carlin once joked that when you get to Heaven, you get back everything you ever lost. By Carlin’s impression (NSFW), Saint Peter or whoever else would greet him at the pearly gates with every item he’d misplaced:

“Here you are: seventy-nine pairs of sunglasses, two hundred and twelve cigarette lighters, four thousand nine hundred and eighty-three ballpoint pens.”

By his own account, Carlin was a prolific note-taker—in one of his final interviews, he described himself as “a writer who performs his own material.” That’s one reason for the high number of lost pens, but of course, he was also poking fun at the crappiness and disposability of a typical ballpoint pen. It’s the kind of thing you never keep. 

There are two problems with cheap ballpoint pens: (1) they’re crappy pens and (2) they’re everywhere.

They’re built to be uniform, disposable, mess-free, and dirt-cheap—and by this design, it’s near-impossible for them to be quality writing instruments too. Yet, because they’re ubiquitous, we’ve gotten used to them, and our handwritten work has suffered. Kids nowadays go straight from crayons and markers to No. 2 pencils and Bic ballpoints (hell, we did that).

But what’s the alternative?

Investing in an old-timey inkwell and feather quill? Spending hundreds of dollars on a fragile-looking, oddly-shaped fountain pen?

Fountain pen and Code and Quill notebook

Photo Credit:  @norwegianplanner

Nay. What if we told you that a $40 investment could   permanently change how much you love writing by hand? Even more—what if we told you that using a fountain pen could save you money over time, and that you might someday consider a $300 pen “totally worth it”?

If you’re happy with by-the-box pens and you never want for more, you can bail out now.

Otherwise, let’s talk about fountain pens.

parts of a fountain pen

First, an anatomy lesson—a fountain pen’s main parts are:

  • the barrel
  • the nib
  • the ink reservoir

There are other details, too, but we don’t need to cover them in detail here (you’ll learn best with a pen of your own, anyway).

The Barrel

The barrel is the term for the main exterior body of the pen; it’s what you see and hold. Like with cars, for instance, what’s pretty to you, comfortable to you, and suitable for your needs are all matters of taste.

The grip is, of course, the section of the barrel that is most important for comfort in your fingers.

fountain pen writing on a code&quill notebook

One of the other properties you’ll notice right away, and develop preferences for, is the weight of the pen; some people prefer heft, others want the pen feather-light. A starter pen will likely be lighter.

(NOTE: A pen is nothing without the paper it writes on! Do your pen (and yourself) a favor and check out a Code&Quill notebook—100GSM, acid-free paper, perfect for writing your brilliant ideas on.)


As for barrel size and ergonomics, you may have to just eyeball it, especially if you’re browsing online. However, as long as the pictures, description, and reviews roughly match what you’d want, don’t sweat the decision too much; after all, you need to try one pen before you can compare it with others.

We'll talk about where to buy your first fountain pen a little bit later in this post!

The Nib

The nib is the pointy section of the pen, where the ink comes out, and it’s the nib that makes a fountain pen what it is. This is because the nib controls the precise flow and dispersion of ink—and it’s the part of the pen upon which you apply pressure as its user.

Lamy Safari nib

When you apply pressure to the nib correctly, it opens a small channel from the ink reservoir, which is gently pressurized and thus continues to bleed ink for as long as you press down.

The ink begins flowing at a spot near the middle of the nib, then flows along a fine groove towards the tip (visible above).

If the groove is thinner and the tip sharper, less ink will reach the page and you’ll have a finer stroke; if the groove is wider and the tip broader, more ink will reach the page and you’ll have a broader stroke.

two fountain pen nibs

Photo Credit: @mnmlscholar

For our purposes, we can simplify nibs to four types:

  • extra fine
  • fine
  • medium
  • broad

Most starter pens are offered in a selection like this. Different strokes for different folks, but we recommend fine or extra fine to start, since those are most similar in ink flow to the pens you already use.

Nibs are also the principal source of a fountain pen’s sophistication; steel works perfectly fine for starter pens, but some of the most refined (and bougier) pens have iridium-tipped or gold nibs. Hence, the very large price tags on some fountain pens.

the nib of a fountain pen

Aside from being functionally different, in terms of the way they deliver ink to the page, fountain pens also feel different because of their nibs.

Unlike a typical pen, you can’t hold a fountain pen at any angle or use any amount of pressure. The nib only opens in one direction, and it’s much more pressure-sensitive; too little pressure and no ink comes out, but too much and it flows generously, and you feel yourself scratching the pages harshly.

You become distinctly aware of the slight give to the nib, the way it bends gently under pressure—and once you’ve gotten into rhythm, it feels good. You’re more conscious of what you’re doing, your strokes look better, and you get the sense that you’re cutting grooves in meaning just as much as you are putting ink on a page.

Put simply, it’s this tactile experience that makes fountain pens worth the fuss.

To raise an argument we’ve made before: you can justify $40 (or more, depending) for a fountain pen when it’s something that improves your experience and quality of expression while performing your essential working, thinking, and creative functions. 

fountain pen nib, buy your first one

The Ink Reservoir

We use the general term “reservoir” because there are a few different ways fountain pens can hold ink. For most starter pens, you won’t have to deal with ink manually, since they often use disposable cartridges which mostly take care of themselves. In many cases, the cartridges are proprietary to that model of pen, but you can also purchase converters which enable the cartridges you have to be refilled with other ink.

fountain pen ink resevoir

Photo Credit: @mnmlscholar

In other cases, the pen will have its own permanent reservoir which has to be refilled.

Admittedly, this is a disadvantage to fountain pens: you have to deal with ink. Fortunately, many fountain pen designers are quite clever with the mechanisms of ink flow. In the TWSBI 580AL, for instance—pictured below on the left and elsewhere in this article—there’s a twist action at the bottom of the pen that causes a vacuum-sealed chamber to draw or expel, like a syringe, allowing you to “suck up” ink come time to refill.

Two fountain pens

Sure, it’s a little messy to have to deal with ink.

But once you notice the tactile difference of a fountain pen, you’ll notice the inks are more impressive, too. You can buy all different sorts, including some crazy stuff like invisible ink and scented ink; you can choose from broader and richer colors and with any number of properties you prefer.

As you’re getting started, just stick with the cartridges—but know that this is what you can work up to if you enjoy the difference. 

Where to Start

There are a number of fountain pens available for $40 or less, but one standout is the Lamy Safari (starting around $23 on Amazon). It’s perfect for newbies—it’s simple, it comes in a variety of colors, it has replaceable cartridges, and most importantly, it works well (hence its recommendation from Reddit). We’ve been happy using them at our desks every day in the Code&Quill office.

If you wanted some other options for comparison, consider a look at...

  • Platinum Preppy ($7 on Amazon)
  • Pilot Metropolitan (around $18 here)
  • Kaweco Classic Sport (around $26 here)
  • TWSBI 580 (around $50 here)


#jinhao159 #fountainpen #noodlers #codeandquill

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If you'd like a good place to buy fountain pens and any of the extra gear you might want, check out Goulet Pen Company. They've got everything you need to get started, from the equipment to the know-how and quality customer service. 

Why Bother?

At Code&Quill, we’re big believers in investing in your gear. Just as the fashionable invest their spare money in clothes—in quality garments that fit their styles and personalities—we like spending our spare money on quality tools, toys, and equipment.

By the way, if you’re still skeptical about spending $40 on a pen, scroll to the Addendum where we lay out how fountain pens aren’t such a splurge in the long run.

We’ll skimp on other things, but we’ll spend $30 or more on a pen.

We’ll spend $20 on a sturdy, dark, handsome hardcover notebook or its lily-white companion.

A shameless plug, sure, but in fairness, we were spending that amount on notebooks long before Code&Quill started, for the simple reason that we valued our notebooks as more than sums of paper.

We wanted them to be good notebooks. The pages of a good notebook aren’t like other pages; they’re not suited for endless schoolhouse repetition or fueling the copy machine. The notebook, at its best, holds more than notes; it holds complete thoughts, ideas, and impressions.

The pen, at its best, does more than deliver ink; it helps you find what you’re trying to write.

Code&Quill notebook with fountain pen example

So if it’s true that in Heaven you get back everything you ever lost, we’ll each have a shoebox or two of cheap writing utensils from our younger years. But if Saint Peter or whoever else asks why so few, and not the thousands of Bics he usually gives back, we’ll just grin, reach into our pockets, and each produce a weathered barrel with a funny-looking point. 

Addendum: Cost Economics of Fountain Pens

There’s just one last matter to tie up: can you really justify $30 or $40, or more, on a single pen?

Let’s do a little bit of math. Before switching over to fountain pens, we favored rollerballs like the Pilot Precise V5, which run about $20 per dozen. Let’s assume that your standards are at least high enough that you don’t enjoy using the cheapest ballpoints, and that you might therefore spend a similar amount per pen—a dollar and change each.

Notebooks for creative professionals | Code&Quill

Assume further that you’re a student, a professional, a creative person, or some combination. You could easily finish a box of a dozen pens every six months, or roughly one pen every two weeks—given normal use, breakages, and loss.

That’s two dozen pens per year, or $40+ per year in our case.

Probably you see our point already. With the same money, you can get a quality fountain pen and some extra ink, and you’ll be enjoying yourself more with every letter you write.

Meanwhile, with virtually any disposable pen, even a nicer one like the Precise V5, it will write okay until it inevitably breaks and leaks, or until the nib somehow gets screwed up. (Again, it’s difficult to imagine designing a pen that’s both disposable and ideal for writing. They seem at odds.)

The following year, with your annual “pen budget,” you can buy a second pen, some more ink, and maybe an extra nib or two. At this point, you don’t really need pens anymore. You’re set indefinitely; anything you choose to buy is just ink refills or a hobby purchase.

(Meanwhile, of course, you’ve been having way more fun than the other chumps.)


Of course, this makes one crucial assumption: that you won’t lose or abuse your fountain pen.

That might seem like a bad assumption, given how we treat other writing instruments. But, actually, that’s precisely the point: we treat disposable items disposably and personal items personally.

When you buy your pen, it becomes one of your tools, one of your personal effects. You might be surprised at how strongly you identify with it, and how you suddenly treat it with greater respect. Accidents still happen, sure—but you won’t be throwing your pen around, you won’t be idly leaving it places, and if you lend it to someone, you definitely won’t let it leave your sight.

Ready to take the plunge? We'd have a hard time believing you'd be sorry if you invested in one of these quality writing tools, but we'd love to hear about your experience in the comments!

 (NOTE: A pen is nothing without the paper it writes on! Do your pen (and yourself) a favor and check out a Code&Quill notebook—100GSM, acid-free paper, perfect for writing your brilliant ideas on.)


On this blog, it always feels risky to talk about technology because there's a chance we'll doom ourselves to irrelevance. But doesn't risk make things fun?

The latest tech thingy we're showcasing is called Calligraphr. It's a website that allows you to transform your real handwriting into a fully-functional computer font. And because handwriting is (indirectly but still) a part of our business, we were damn curious to know how it'd turn out. 

Short answer: it turns out well!


The longer answer is the rest of this post. We'll walk through the whole hand-to-font process, start to finish, so that you can see how it's done for yourself. (Just be careful... you might also be witnessing how robots start forging our signatures.)


Step 1: Start at

Complete the 15-second sign-up process. Same as always. Click the link in their email to confirm your account.

You're wondering: (when) does money get involved? Good question. You can use Calligraphr for free, but a couple extra features are blocked, and any font you create is capped at 75 glyphs.

If you're doing the math, you're noticing that the basic (English) alphabet is 52 glyphs even without digits, punctuation, accented characters, and the other things you forget you write with. You have enough space to start using Calligraphr for free, but there is a noticeable ceiling before you have to pay.

Still, there are two reasons we felt good about paying for it:

(1) They know you're not going to use it forever—and they charge accordingly. You can pay $8 for 1-month access or $24 for 6-month access. We're happy to give them less money—so much that we're featuring them here without even talking to them first.

(2) It's eight bucks. Eight bucks and you get everything we're about to show you. As we mentioned elsewhere, we've all spent dumber money than that


Step 2. Start the App (or Read the Tutorial, Even Though You're Already Reading This One)

Once you confirm your account, you'll be given these options:

While frankly we'd rather you stay on this page, their tutorials are pretty good too. Only seemed fair to mention it since we've sniped a couple of their images.


3. Create a Template

In short: your "template" is the complete set of glyphs that will be included in your font. In Calligraphr, the purpose of the Template screen is to let you pick what you're including in the font you're making. (But don't worry—you can spend as little as 10 seconds if you're impatient or detail-shy.)

Obviously, too, the contents of your template determine which things you're going to need to write out by hand.

You'll notice (on the left) that Calligraphr has put together common glyph sets to save us some trouble. Assuming you're sticking to the free version (or at least making a simple font first), you'll probably want to pick one of the "Minimal" sets listed under Basics. Later, you can explore the deeper and miscellaneous glyph sets to round out your perfect font template.

One last note here: Calligraphr's sets are NOT locked or exclusive. When you're building your template, you can add and subtract whatever glyphs you want, from wherever. The sets just keep an otherwise-huge pile of glyphs organized and speedy. 


Step 4: Print Off Your Templates (the Right Way)

Now it's time to actually put pen to paper and write out all of the glyphs in your template. But, if not painfully obvious already, you will need to be able to print stuff at this juncture—and we'll tell you the right way to do it.



We say "the right way" because, while Calligraphr's printing options are actually smart and useful, the right choices aren't obvious at first. So here's a quick breakdown of what you're seeing above:

File name and format. Up to you.
Size of template cells. Here's where your style of handwriting matters. The "template cells" are the boxes in which you'll be writing each glyph. If you fiddle with the slider, you'll notice there are 7 stops—so we'll refer to Sizes 1 through 7. 
Size 1 is for truly small handwriting—like, narrow rulings seem big to you.
Size 3 is for handwriting "on the small side," but not extremely.
Size 5 is for handwriting "on the large side," but not extremely.
Size 7 is for unusually large handwriting. (We bet the kid-writing example used this.)
Draw helplines? We recommend this box be CHECKED. For one thing, people usually have lines to write on anyway. But mostly, you want to have some way of keeping everything lined up—and if you can't see the baseline, your letters may bob up and down in the scan (fixable afterwards, but it's more work). 
Characters as background? We recommend this box be UNCHECKED. If you check it, each box's glyph is "watermarked" inside the box—and aside from confusing us in our journey, we didn't trust the printed glyphs not to interfere with the scan.


Step 5: While You're Printing Templates, Print a Couple Extras

You're not going to get it right by hand on the first try. Well, actually, you could get it right on the first try—we don't want to dim your shine—but you probably shouldn't even if you could. It'll look cleaner and more confident after a practice run.


Here's the best stuff made for writing by hand.
(Or practicing your "natural font skills.")


It's surprisingly weird-feeling to write characters and punctuation one by one, alone in their boxes. For one thing, you get some kindergarten déjà vu. For another thing, we always write in chunks (words, sentences, and so on) and don't think much about letters. 

In the middle of the process, you might doubt it'll still look like your handwriting once it's assembled—but our money says you'll be pleasantly surprised.


Step 6: Hand-Fill Your Template Page(s)

This step mostly explains itself when you have the printed page(s) in front of you. The only advice we'll add here: if possible, you should use a soft-tipped pen or marker, no matter how fine or broad, so that the ink is dark and fully legible.

With a ballpoint or other extra-fine pen, there's a hazard that your lines will be too light and thin, and that the scan won't fully grab them. The compromise: use your normal pen(cil) to fill out the template, then come back and trace over your letters with more ink.


Step 7: Scan Your Handwriting into Calligraphr

The first task here is getting images of the pages you've just completed. If you have a scanner, that's your best bet—after all, that's the exact purpose of a scanner. Look at you, so prepared and professional.

But if you're like the rest of us, you don't have a scanner. You have a smartphone. Fortunately, smartphone cameras can do powerful stuff now, so long as you feed them the photographic essentials. When you're taking pics of your letters:

  • Provide good and plentiful light. Photos taken in the dark are low-contrast and blurrier (because the camera's shutter has to slow down to get enough light) and those are both problems for capturing glyphs clearly. The ideal is indirect natural sunlight—full and bright, but not glaring. Indoor lights can work too... just fiddle with it. 
  • Make sure your shot is level. If you take tilted photos, you're going to get distorted subjects. Conveniently, the iPhone now has a handy Camera leveling feature: when you're standing over a shot, you can see two small "+" marks in the middle of your screen, and you'll know a shot is level when they line up together. 

Now you've got your scans (or equivalent smartphone photos) — time to upload them to Calligraphr! 

The upload process itself is pretty quick: just tell Calligraphr whether to auto-clean your template (usually "yes") and, once you've popped in your images, it'll load up all of your letters individually. 

At this point, you can get as deep in the details as you want—and we'll say more about those details in a minute. But for now, let's finish our first font!


Step 8: Export, Install, Start Typing Your Handwriting

Assuming all your glyphs are accounted for, without major issues, go ahead and export. Your export options are .TTF and .OTF — we'd recommend OTF since it's the more robust format (and is needed for extra features like automatic ligatures), though for free users there should be no difference between the two.

Once you've downloaded your font's TTF or OTF file, just double-click and it should install itself very quickly. 

And you're done! Most applications with font options should have your handwriting selectable, by whatever name you gave the font. If you don't see your font available after you've installed it, just restart your computer (or the specific application you're using) and it should show up after that. 


I want more. What else can I do?

Calligraphr's sample fonts were created, no doubt, by people who took this tool's capabilities and ran with them. You can do the 15-minute version (as we've covered here) just for kicks, and for free—but if you're willing to pony up eight whole dollars, you can do way more with Calligraphr. 



Here's the other stuff you can do, ordered from "just checking my work" to "I want to conquer the font world"—

  • Inspect and adjust your characters more carefully. You can always tweak the character scans in your font if something is wobbly. 
  • Add characters to your existing font. If you started with a Basic set, you can always go back and add non-essential characters to fill it out more like a real font.
  • Create variants of your existing font. Everyone else has a Bold option... why shouldn't you?
  • Randomize your existing font. This is where things start getting tricky. Obviously, your handwriting is consistent but never perfectly so—and your Calligraphr font can approximate this. By uploading a separate handwritten template into the same font, you can give Calligraphr another variant for each glyph, and it'll use those variants to "mix up" how your typed handwriting appears. You can repeat this several times over if you wish.   
  • Add ligatures to your font. When we print by hand, things run together sometimes—and these natural ligatures are noticeably absent when a computer smashes together our handwritten letters. But this doesn't happen everywhere in handwriting—only in certain combinations of letters. Calligraphr's ligatures feature lets you fill out a template specifically for combinations of glyphs... once scanned into Calligraphr, your font can automatically use those ligatures to look more natural.     
  • Make more fonts! The font anyone can make here is their own everyday handwriting. After that, your imagination is the only limit... start over and make something totally different!


Every Code&Quill is like its own adventure:
You enjoy as you go, but you'll want another when you're done. 
Start your own virtuous cycle here!


If you make your own font, feel free to show us how it turned out! Just tag us wherever you post it on social media, or leave a link in the comments, or send us an email ( 


If you're in the market for a notebook, head on over to our store!
If you want more than one, check out our discounted notebook bundles!
If you just wanna say hi or look at pictures, come see us on Facebook or Instagram. 


Most people think the world is moving away from handwriting, but it isn't.


Sure—handwriting is slower and messier.  
True—you can't really format by hand, and you certainly can't edit.
And yes—it's nice to imagine your life's notes perfectly manicured in the cloud. 

But on National Handwriting Day, we're making a stand for pen and paper. There's merit to handwriting that no app, word processor, or program can touch.

So today, here are five ways we all write by hand, and why they're all useful and irreplaceable . . . even if you don't have pretty handwriting.    


Careful Handwriting

In short, this is how you write for important people. This is the way you write a note asking (for instance) for money or favors.

This is what you use when you're writing a letter to the King of England like "bye George, we got it." If your words will be starting a war, please print neatly. 

And if you win the war, continue printing neatly for your Constitution; people are going to be looking at it for a long, long time.  




Thus, the first special value of handwriting: historically speaking, handwritten documents are much more interesting than their printed counterparts. That seems true whether you're examining world history or your own history.



Normal Handwriting

This is how you write under normal conditions — neither rushed nor deliberate. This is how you might take notes in class or write in a journal.

You know what's satisfying about normal handwriting? Normal handwriting fills pages. That's how you get to the end of an idea: just writing it out and NOT stopping to edit.

No matter how you write, full pages ALWAYS look better than empty ones. =] 



Especially when full, you see that a page full of your writing can only look like you. A thousand other people could write out an identical passage and you could pick out your own in no time.


What is this, school? #codeandquillcreative#nationalhandwritingday#dnd5e#dnd

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More to the point: give a thousand people a complex problem and tell them to work it out in a notebook. The solutions will vary endlessly—showing that how you write says a lot about how you think. 

How do you "think on paper"? See whether you'd like our classic dot-and-line layout—or whether the Monolith's new dual-line layout might suit you better.


Click here and here to see how other Code&Quill users think on paper.
Click here (or below) to pick out the best Code&Quill notebook for your own thinking.


Chicken Scratch

Quick! Grab a pen! Write down this phone number before it's lost!

You know that feeling? That's what comes before chicken scratch. 

Or whenever you're jotting down a three-item list.
Or working out some quick mental math.
Or giving yourself a reminder for later. 

The cruel irony of chicken scratch is that the most urgent information is likely to be written this way, yet it's the handwriting that's most difficult to read.



It's possible, for example, that many people with messy handwriting are left-handed people in a right-handed world. Either way, a person's chicken scratch is the purest stream-of-consciousness you'll see — sometimes it reads like nonsense later, but that shorthand is someone's brain hurrying to make a point as efficiently as it can.



Cursive is class — in part because it's a dying skill. Not many lament its passing anymore—for one thing, it's not easier to read. For another, it's rarely as pretty in practice as it is in theory. 



Cursive is like the Isla de Muerta of handwriting: you only know how to get there if you've already been. You have to practice (and care) a lot. But how sweet it is when someone knows their way around a calligraphy nib, right?

We just like using fountain pens, really. Can't hold a candle to that!  

Special & Doodling 

Some people doodle. Some write bubble letters. Some draw arrows or diagrams.


Whatever your talent, it's the cherry on top of your handwriting—so let it be there with your notes, or presiding over them. 

Don't forget, too, that some notes are worth sharing. Maybe the ones you write and draw and doodle in your notebook are just for you—but send one to someone else now and again.



If it's a personal touch with your pen, it's a personal touch with your words, too.

(One final note... the better the tools, the better the creative. Arm yourself with the best tools to bring your ideas into the world. Check out the Code&Quill notebooks now.)




Times New Roman, sized at 12 points and double-spaced. One-inch margins on all sides.

When teachers and college professors required a format like that, they were teaching you some of the basics of typography—but not well, and not for the sake of good type.

They had their reasons. Uniform standards are easier; everyone can refer to them. A common formatting style means students can count finished assignments in pages instead of words, which is simpler. And it's probably not fair to expect young students—who are still learning to write—to present their documents like professionals.

But the “standard formats” we use most in school are unavoidably ugly. They're functional prints of work, but they don't look good. Once we've left school, this becomes a problem overnight. As students, we get virtually no practice using smart typography to present our work well for readers.

So when you do have an original document to design, you might be running short on ideas and practice. This week, we’ve got four suggestions for making your documents sharper—including some pointers on how this works on a typical computer.


Start Looking at New Fonts

Your first task is to use something other than the fonts everyone knows. Put simply, there’s no way to use an ordinary, uninteresting font without seeming ordinary and uninteresting.


Want an extraordinary vessel for extraordinary ideas? Click below to find yours.


That (probably) means no more Times New Roman, Helvetica, or Arial for you. No more Tahoma, no more Calibri, no more Georgia. Your computer probably came with lots of fonts, but most of them aren’t good. Even if you identify the few gems among those system fonts (and you should), you’re going to need outside options.

One good place to start is Google Fonts. As they’re free to access, they’re expectably average—but starting here will give you the opportunity to see a large and completely different set of fonts from your own system fonts.


As you browse, you can narrow your selections by properties like category (serif, sans serif, etc.), slant, and weight. Then, once you’ve made a few selections, you can make direct comparisons and, in many cases, download the fonts to your computer.

Be sure to check the license and terms of use for each font you download; while most private uses should be fine, you should always double-check what you’re allowed to do with a font, especially before publishing or sharing a document. (This is true for all fonts, not just Google fonts. Check the terms.)

There are plenty of places you can find free fonts, but you get what you pay for—and when you pay nothing, be glad to find anything of value. Eventually, to get serious about your font game, you will have to spend actual money. Prices range pretty widely; some fonts or collections cost $5 while others cost hundreds. As always, it’s a personal choice of fit and affordability—and as always, shop responsibly.


Brush Up on the Rules

Like grammar and style, typography is subjective. That doesn’t mean there aren’t a few rules.

Writers lose credibility when they use words incorrectly (hence, grammar Nazis). But by the same logic, they can lose credibility (or clarity, or attention) with each typographic mistake.

Typographer and author Matthew Butterick covers the basics quite well in Typography in Ten Minutes and a follow-up Summary of Key Rules. We recommend you read them both; they’re succinct.

Wherever you review, you may notice that the rules break into roughly three categories:

Some are to-the-point mandates; for example, you use only one space between sentences, and that’s that. Don't expect to bend these without looking stubborn (to the people who notice).

Other rules are guidelines of taste and style; for example, don’t go crazy with font selection, exclamation points, or formatting options like bold and italic. 

The remaining rules are technical reminders, like remembering to use hyphens and dashes correctly; while unexciting, these rules can refresh your technical vocabulary and make your writing more precise. (It really is true, for example, that em dashes—these longer, interrupting ones—are underused in most people’s writing, and simply because people don’t know how to type them on their keyboards.)


Practice the Basics

At some point, you have to get to work with your new type toys.

Let’s suppose you open a blank document in Microsoft Word, then type out your text—but without changing any of the standard formatting. It will probably look pretty bland.

Some people would slap a title on it, hit Print, and call it a day. But not you. You can spare three minutes to finish it like a professional. It just needs to look good, and it needs to be easy to read. What can we do?

We've made a few quick suggested changes:

  1. We changed the typeface from Helvetica to Equity, leaving the size at 12pt.
  2. We widened the page margins to 1.75 inches on the left and right, narrowing each line of text. 
  3. We gave each line a bit more height—to be specific, each line is 17pt high. 
  4. We've also justified the text, being sure to eliminate lines with single words (widows and orphans). 

Looks better, right? Here's a little more info on how to do it:

— You can change font and justification in the usual places.
— For page margins, check the Layout banner or Page Setup.
— To adjust line spacing, you'll need to find Paragraph settings, which can be accessed from the drop-down menu via Format >> Paragraph. Then, choose "Exact" line spacing and set a specific number; just remember that it won't automatically adjust if you change the font size for text in those lines.  


Keep Your Eyes Open

When you realize how much of the world has type on it, you realize how important typography is to our understanding of information.

You also understand more clearly the silent appeal of good typography and how it influences perception—of the writing and words themselves, but also of the person or entity responsible for them.

Since the world is full of type, the world is full of examples you can assess. You’ll find your own themes, but probably you’ll notice what common sense already taught you...

Don’t overuse anything, and definitely don’t use anything trite or cliché.

Design things to say what you want them to say.

Stand out but don’t be too strange.

Perhaps most importantly: it’s worth it to spend some time on polish. Not only does it enhance the work you’ve already done, but it can mean the difference between being noticed or not. That, in turn, can mean the difference between success and failure.


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If we’re being honest, most of us are not tidy people. At best, our desks and houses are clean but slightly disheveled, the contents always varying slightly. We only get the neat-freak tingle when people are coming over (or when we’re putting off doing something more important). This is because, most of the time, when you spend your hours occupied by your own affairs, it seems tedious and boring to worry about keeping things perfectly in order. It takes time to be organized, you think, and beyond the basics, who has time for that?

Turns out, it doesn’t really require any time to keep yourself organized—at least, not when you simplify the standards. This week, we’re giving you the world’s simplest guide to organization—just two steps. We thought about all of our little tips, tricks, and principles and distilled them down as far as we could. You could also call these two rules, if you wanted—but there’s just two, and as you'll see, there’s plenty of room for you to decide details for yourself.


Step 1: Make Sure Everything Has a Home

First of all, what is an item's “home”? Well, just like yours, it’s a permanent place of residence; it’s where the item belongs when it doesn’t need to be out. On an ideal desk, as in an ideal city, there’s a home for everything; the more things on your desk that don’t have places, or that don’t belong entirely, the more disorderly the space becomes. Then it’s hard to get work done.

As you clear space and give things homes, you'll remember another thing about homes: they’re where families live. Like things live together, right? By putting together sensible places for your things to live, you wind up following one of the widely-recognized principles of organization, which is to put similar items together.

Most likely, your house or apartment is as close as possible to where you work and socialize. Similarly, the homes you choose for items should reflect where they’re used, or how frequently they’re used. As a working example: if you ever have the chance, take a look at a good restaurant’s kitchen. There aren’t many drawers or cabinets in the workspace. Everything the kitchen staff needs is in front of them, or next to them, or above them. This way, when the kitchen gets busy, they can move as little as possible while working. (You’ll also notice that a chef rarely has anything they don’t need in front of them, or even near them.)

While we’re on the subject of locations, here’s another reason to give everything a home: because if something has a home, you can always find it. Once again, think about your own home; in terms of its address and location, your home is included in systems designed to make it easy to find you. And, for the purposes of organization, that’s absolutely a good thing; that’s how mail and Amazon Prime packages get to us reliably. Being “on the grid” is, by virtue of its name, a state of being organized. It’s the same when you give objects homes; if you give things homes purposefully, and according to your own system, it will be easy for you to find them later.

Something to bear in mind: it’s always harder to put away something if you’ve haven’t put it away before. Because… where should it go, right? This is where the problem-solving territory is yours, and yours alone. Remember, as with all things creative and brainy, that organizing is entirely a matter of what works for you. Whether your “system" is literal, like a labeling system, or mnemonic—that you have a clever way to remember everything—your "system" will allow you to stay focused and reach for things, where before you had to consciously go find them. But remember: all you had to do to create this “systematic” way of thinking was to give everything a home. You will have your own ways of micromanaging the decisions, buying organizers, whatever—but whether you’re talking about your desk or house, you’re the city planner, and you make every decision about zoning every little street corner of your city, however you want it to function.

It may be the case on your desk, like in a major city, that there is never perfect order, that you can never put everything away. But hopefully, you’ll find that your main spaces are less congested, that you can think with less clutter, that there’s a better rhythm in your work—and if there are a few piles that are allowed to stay, that at least all of your disorder can be relegated to them.


Step 2: Get Rid of Everything Else

Relax—we’re oversimplifying. But not by too much, because the not-too-complicated reality is that, if something can’t be given a home—or never gets enough attention to get a home—it’s probably not useful to you. If it’s not useful to you, and if it’s still on your desk or in your house, it’s just taking up space. Worse, it could be getting in your way, distracting you, or bothering you. Be more Spartan than most people, for just one moment, and ask yourself if you couldn’t just get rid of it. Could you?

You just have to entertain the thought. What comes next is what’s useful to you.

If you trash the item, that means that you officially don’t need it, and you’ll never see it again—and congratulations, you’ve just gotten a little stronger. If you give it away, you decided the item had value, just not to you—a fair concession. If you put it away, it means that you’re keeping it for a reason—and now you don’t have to see it, think about it, or do anything with it until you want it. But then there are the piles we make—sometimes, instead of putting something away, we add it to a pile.

In a bit we’ve referenced before, George Carlin jokes (NSFW) that everything lost goes to a big, constantly-changing Pile in Heaven. When you lose something, the Pile gets bigger; when you find it, the Pile shrinks again. Well, that’s what happens on our desks, too: piles form with random documents and half-discarded notes. Sometimes the piles shrink, sometimes they grow, but invariably they’re full of lost things, things that don’t quite belong right now yet aren’t quite condemned to the trash. To an extent, piles are necessary—not everything belongs somewhere all the time—but, dangerously, piles are easy to ignore. They become part of the dull landscape; they don’t grab our attention after a while.

There are two reasons that this second step—the enforcement of the “everything has a home” policy—is so important. It helps you remain vigilant about putting things away, but also, it spurs you to get things done—because sometimes, the only way to get something off your desk and out of your life is to do something about it. By requiring yourself to assign significance to the items in your view, and then move them to where they belong, you’re forced to take the action they deserve. Piles and errant papers often represent the decisions we’ve been putting off or the tasks we haven’t completed—and, especially if it needed to be done eventually, seizing a good moment and getting it off your desk proves its own reward, whenever you can do it.

Even though there are only two “rules,” you can see the rudiments of a functioning system between them. Everything plays a part; everything belongs somewhere. It’s worth thinking about what the word organization means: the sensible arrangement of parts into a whole. There’s a second part implied: that something is organized for a purpose, that it is made to do something. To organize something is to give it organs, to make it into a functional instrument for that purpose.

You were made to do something, you functional instrument you. So get organized and get back to doing your thing in bold fashion—and, hopefully, with a clearer head.

Next week on Ampersand, the Code&Quill blogwe'll be talking about continuous improvement and its application to startups and small companies. (Last week, we talked about our productivity strategy called "pressurizing the system", so click here to take a glance if you missed it.) If you’d like highlights from the blog, plus brand-new info about upcoming products and promotions, feel free to join our email newsletter at the foot of the page.


Time is our most precious resource. The ways that we spend our time determine how happy and successful we are as people. But for lots of us, our time isn’t easy to manage, and we find a lot of it slipping through the cracks. Where does it go, and how do we get it back?

It’s strange when you think about time as a resource, because you notice a few things. First of all, it’s the one resource we’re all forced to “spend” at the same rate. It’s the one resource that no amount of money, power, or good deeds can buy back, and it’s the one resource that everyone will run out of someday.

In some ways, it’s easier to understand the economics of time than it is the economics of actual money—and that works in our favor. This week, we’re taking a look at where all the time goes, and in so doing, figuring out how we can manage our own time better.

Economic Thinking, Backwards from 24

Time is a finite and scarce resource, but it’s a nicely controlled one thanks to our calendar. We know that every day on that calendar has 24 perfectly-sliced hours. So to examine the economics of your time in a day, work backwards from 24.

Hopefully you sleep 6-8 hours per night. You probably have a routine for self-care. Most likely, you have a job which requires a certain number of hours during specific times. You need to eat at least two or three times a day. Add it up and we’ve already accounted for the vast majority of the day—so taking account of your own time will be similarly easy to start.

Here’s where it gets tricky: what happens in your intervals of freedom, when your time isn’t spoken for? Never mind the random errands and obligations—in the time that you control as you own, what do you do? This is where time is likeliest to disappear: when we have “free time” or “time to waste,” when we find ourselves happy not watching the clock.

This isn’t all bad; sometimes our brains need a break. Sometimes, too, the best things in life are already in front of us, and just stopping to enjoy them is the right thing to do. The problem is when people don’t respect their own time, when they lose opportunities just because they didn’t manage that freedom properly.


Habits Make or Break You

One trait common to many accomplished people—entrepreneurs, writers, scientists—is that they are creatures of routine. They are consistent in their behavior, and these consistent behaviors—habits—are part of the reason that they are successful.

According to legend, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant was known in his town of Königsburg for his walks—always along the same route, at the same pace, at the same time. People set their clocks by his walks, and they knew he had fallen ill when he didn’t show up as usual. Doubtless his walks were part of his thinking, the mantra of solvitur ambulando trained on metaphysics.

A century later, William James, widely considered the father of modern psychology, spoke at length on the power of habit:

Our virtues are habits as much as our vices. All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits—practical, emotional, and intellectual—systematically organized for our weal or woe.

Even better, James got straight to the point on why habits matter for everyone:

The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work are subjects of express volitional deliberation.

If you have good habits, keep them. If you have bad habits, try to think of plans to break them. Bigger picture, ask yourself: if I could decide the routine of my own life, where it followed a cycle of my choosing, what habits would I need to make for that?

You Won’t Have Time Unless You Make Time

Who here, if asked, would say that their lives are busy? Everyone. Literally everyone. But there are degrees of busy. Some people are legitimately hair-on-fire busy (picture an entrepreneur with young children), while others of us still make time for junk TV and occasional binge drinking. We all say we’re busy when we really mean, “I have a good idea of how I’m spending all my time.”

We use “busy” as an excuse. It’s a reason we can’t come to things. Because we know our time is precious, we sometimes get greedy about it and decide to stay home. But half of life is showing up, as others have recounted before. It takes time to show up, time you have to decide to spend. And you won’t have time unless you make time.

Next time you get invited to something, ask yourself what it really costs you to go. Then ask yourself what might happen, taking into account the full range of opportunities—and surprises—that the outside world has to offer. Try to make saying “yes” a habit and see where it takes you.

Be Quick But Don’t Hurry

This was UCLA basketball coach John Wooden’s big piece of advice to his players. Be quick but don’t hurry. It’s a good mantra for anywhere else.

Unpacked slightly, it means, “Spend exactly the amount of time that the task deserves, no more and no less.” It’s efficient, but it respects time; you’ll notice he didn’t say “do everything faster."

This seems like a healthier way to evaluate your own time as you spend it, and it makes it easier to distinguish good waste from bad. Take, for example, your morning shower. You could be clean in five minutes or less, but you might need five more minutes for the steam to fully wake you. Those last five minutes are waste, but they serve a purpose for you. Be quick but don’t hurry—spend your ten minutes in the shower. Just don’t zone out and stand there for half an hour. If you didn’t need those 20 extra minutes, it was actual waste. There’s a difference.

The point of time management, after all, is not to make yourself into a machine. It’s exactly as the name suggests: to help you manage your own time better, and thereby, to feel more control over your life and more direction towards what you actually want.

Sure, there’s no way to buy more time. But you can earn some of it back by looking in the pockets you hadn’t checked in a while. You find it five, ten, twenty minutes at a time if you think to look, and like anything, it adds up faster than you imagine.


Last week, we talked about tech-free gifts for the techies in your life, but now let’s spin it around. If you’re a tech person—really, as long as you know the difference between a gigabyte and a hard drive—you might look at the technophobes in your family and scratch your head thinking about what to get them.

Obviously some basic rules apply no matter the gift recipient, and we covered a handful of those last week. For instance, one helpful principle is that gifts can appeal to the head, heart, or habit, meaning that your goal as the giver is to create fun, feels, function, or some combination. Another principle is that most good gifts, like most good jokes, require the recipient to be ignorant; the less someone expects something, the more surprised they will be when they receive it.

Technology has done a lot for fun, for feels, and for function, so there are plenty of awesome techie gifts. But if you’re giving to some of the more technologically mute people you know, it might seem difficult to find that perfect gift for them, the one that will make their lives better in ways they never expected. So in this week’s post, we’re breaking down what you need to give a good tech-friendly gift if that's the route that interests you. 



Let’s start with some rules of thumb. These are just to help you picture the right item—or, at least, to avoid picturing the wrong one.

First, let’s look at something we call the “button number,” which is the imaginary product of two quick measures: (A) how many “buttons” a device might have before the person becomes uncomfortable with it and (B) how frequently they must press the buttons to get what they want. If you can tolerate fewer buttons and don’t want to press them much, we’d say you have a “low button number,” while techies have predictably higher button numbers. By way of example, you could say that digital TV has a higher “button number” than its basic-cable predecessor, which also explains why, during the gradual transition to digital TV, technophobes complained more than technophiles. The former was used to the previous number of buttons; the latter is already used to a much higher number of buttons.  

One great thing about simple gifts (like the ones we discussed last week) is that they’re low to the ground; literally anyone with feet might enjoy a pair of cozy woolen socks, for example. But we're no longer on such common denominators, so in this case you might need to know even more about the person. Be sure, therefore, that you truly think with the other person in mind, not just with what you'd hoped they might like. 

Lastly, even though gifts aren't typically associated with problem-solving, start there. Ask yourself: what "problem" could I solve for this other person? What gift would make some part of their life better?


Idea No. 1—Domestic Niceties

We still think of gifts the way kids do—as big boxes with items that exist purely for fun and enjoyment. That's well and good, but as adults we enjoy a broader range of things, and unlike our younger selves, we don't need gifts to be "fun." We wouldn't have time for much of that anyway, right?

Look around your house for ideas. What do people enjoy on a daily basis? We'll bet, for example, that you spend several hours a day in your bed. We'll bet you bathe or shower every day. We'll bet you drink coffee or tea. We'll bet that you have some kind of commute to work in the mornings, and we'll bet that when you come home, the first thing you want to do is sit down. 

Tech gifts can enter the equation here. Respectively: you might consider an electric mattress pad or an improved alarm clock, like an iHome or a Clocky. You could do a shower radio or LED showerhead. You could give a programmable coffee maker; you could give a new hands-free device for the car, or some new headphones for the subway ride; lastly, you could always give a massaging chair pad, or alternately, just an electric massager. So you can see that, even if the ideas are specific, they start with a very simple question: what does the person use every day where an upgrade is due?


Idea No. 2—Entertainment Upgrades

So most gifts for adults don't need to be "fun." But they certainly can be. If the person you've got in mind is still on proverbial "basic cable," you don't have to assume they're stuck there forever.

The key to a good tech/entertainment upgrade, for someone who isn't tech-savvy, is to take advantage of what they already know and what's already been around. Consider, for example, an Amazon Fire TV Stick (or Roku or Chromecast) for any TV and movie lovers; it's just as easy to use as digital cable and it puts a lot more entertainment at easy reach. It seems less "out of their range" when you're able to explain—and show—that, if anything, the stick is simpler than digital cable. (The remote has fewer than 10 buttons.)

Suppose they're a bookworm instead. Unless they've made a passionate case for print-only, a Kindle or Nook might be a good idea—they're certainly low on button number. Because tech like this has been available for a while, it's been streamlined, and it's had time to gain popular recognition and acceptance. This way, even if they're hesitant at first, it won't be because it's an early model, much less because they've never heard of it. 


Idea No 3—Subscriptions and Services

Now, more than ever, you can give gifts that keep giving. Let's extend the above example: one gift that would pair well with the Fire Stick is a subscription to Netflix or HBO GO, since that will put boatloads of premium content at easy reach for them—with no commercials. Same goes for other entertainment services like XM radio, Pandora, and Spotify, which (if the person is interested) won't be any harder to use and yet will open up so much more for them. 

If you want to split the difference between this week's post and last week's, you could always enroll them in a subscription service. Whether it's wine, food, or even dog toys, there's a regular gift box for everyone, and it truly will be the gift that keeps on giving all year, thanks to the wonders of e-commerce. 

Lastly, you may have to consider that the best gifts don't always come in boxes. If what the other person really would love is your know-how setting up a new device, or performing some "digital service," it's worth considering. This could be especially useful if there's a technological hump that the person needs to clear, such as the transition from physical to digital music. For example, we've used "I completely updated your iTunes library" as a gift before, and in our case it went over quite well.


We do love the holidays, despite the seasonal stresses, and we love that it's the season when people give gifts. It's a time when, however tricky it can be, we think about specific ways to make others happy. That's the kind of habit we want to keep, because we don't just want to give good gifts; we also want ourselves to become gifts that keep on giving. 

Next week on Ampersand, the Code&Quill blog, we'll be wrapping up the year (not literally this time) and looking ahead. (Last week, we did Part I of this week's post, about non-tech gifts for techies, so take a look here if you missed it.) If you’d like highlights from the blog, plus brand-new info about upcoming products and promotions, feel free to join our email newsletter at the foot of the page. 


In this season of giving, there’s an important question we ask ourselves but rarely give its own attention: what do people really want? We strive to give gifts that people will like, but that requires knowing something about the person—at a minimum, whether they have the item already and whether they’d be likely to use it.

Sometimes, gift-giving is easy; you may know the person's need, or maybe there’s a gift they always enjoy. Other times, matching gifts to a person’s interests can be tricky; after all, people who love cooking are more likely to have stocked kitchens already. People who whittle already have knives. People who yodle already have gullies. You get the point.

What this means is that gift-givers have to get evasive in their thinking. They have to wonder, among other things: what could this person love that doesn’t even occur to them that they might want? Sometimes, that means thinking in the opposite direction as what they know and love.

So, by way of a favorite example, we’re going to start with techie people—those who love gadgets and circuitry of any stripe. This week, we’ll walk through our favorite non-tech gifts for techies—and next week, we’ll flip it around with some techie suggestions for the technologically obtuse.

Idea No. 1—Creature Comforts

No matter what kind of person you are, you want to be comfortable. Anything that feels good on you is potentially a good gift.

While techies are less likely to brave the elements, it’s cold in a lot of offices—and hey, winter is starting besides. One of our favorite gift-for-anyone suggestions is SmartWool socks. If you’re skeptical about $20 socks, buy a pair for yourself, too—the moment you slip them over cold toes, you'll get it. They breathe well, they’re machine-washable, and most importantly, they’re super cozy. Socks might seem like the classic “boring gift,” but these are 100% worth it, especially if the person getting them has cold feet.

As long as we’re discussing cozy things, the person in mind might enjoy a nice, fluffy bathrobe, a Snuggie, or an electric blanket. There’s no judgment here—Snuggies are great if you’re the kind of person who could actually use one. The electric blanket, which might be cheating, is still worth a mention—$40 and they’ll never be cold again.

Idea No. 2—Drinks & Vessels

In our inaugural blog post, we listed a water bottle as one of our essential workplace items. As we said then, it’s because we tend not to drink enough water unless we try, and having “your own” can help you identify with this healthy habit. When you consider how much we drink on a daily basis, and how a water bottle is actually a useful personal effect, this starts to become an idea for some people. If you want a couple of starting points, you can check out Sigg or Nalgene; even between those two companies, there's more ways to make a water bottle than we'd ever realized.


Never mind mere water—it's getting frosty outside. How about coffee and tea? For morning coffee drinkers, a good Thermos might be a great way to enhance the commute and get more out of the morning. (It’s also a great tool for breaking the habit of buying coffee every morning.)

Idea No. 3—Vices

We don’t advocate anything illegal by suggesting this, but we’re not kidding either. For many people—including techies and people in start-ups—caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol are just enjoyable (and sometimes seemingly necessary, in the order written). Whether everyone will admit it or not, giving a vice-laden gift is a surer way to give an enjoyable gift, especially if you know what the other person likes.

In the case of caffeine, for instance, it just depends upon their preferred method of intake. If they love coffee, consider a pound or two of a good roast, something too expensive for them to buy normally. If they drink carbonated, a case of their favorite energy drink or some Bawls Guarana might be in order. Same goes for the others—whatever nice cigar or fine spirits your people enjoy, let them be drunk and smoked and enjoyed.

If that’s frowned upon where you give gifts—or if you'll settle for "enabler" instead of outright "supplier"—you can always give a gift sideways from one of those vices. A budding cigar aficionado? Consider a tool they may not have, like a cutter or a punch. Whiskey person? Think about some nice glassware or some whiskey stones. Even for the caffeine drinkers, a new coffee maker or Soda Stream could be an idea (again, might be cheating, but we throw out the idea).

Sweets and junk food also count—so bring on the chocolate truffles, peppermint bark, spiced chex mix, spiked egg nog, homemade cookies, and anything else you want to throw their way. If it’s tasty, it’s automatically a good gift.

Idea No. 4—Scents & Decor Items

This is sort of a twist on creature comforts—except this time, it’s stuff that doesn’t need to be touched to be enjoyed. Some techies have a flair for decor and presentation, but in many cases their offices, cubicles, and fun spaces are left bare, especially if the person is younger or just starting out somewhere.

It might seem odd, but think about their walls. What would look good on them, or what would they enjoy seeing there? Maybe it’s a poster or some wall art (bonus points if you frame it); maybe it’s a collage of personal photos; maybe it’s even a fresh gallon of IdeaPaint. Not only can a well-decorated space make the person happier than they realize, but gifts like framed art are more likely to be unique.

Lastly here, consider an aspect of our environment we don’t often think about: smell. Whether it’s a faint odor or just the smell of stale air, having a source of scent like a candle can make a space so much more pleasant. (Alternately, if you don’t trust the person with fire, we recommend Wallflowers by Bath&Body Works.) Take a sniff at your favorite retailers—or, if you want, learn how to make your own (it’s pretty easy and saves a ton of money).  


Idea No. 5—Pen and Paper

You may have known this was coming, but this is our most reliable suggestion, of course. If you were reading back when we introduced fountain pens, you'll recall the basic value they offer: they're the upgraded tactile experience of an everyday activity, wrapped in a nicer, more permanent casing, and the owner gets to keep the item as a personal effect. That sounds like a nice gift, doesn't it?

Then, all the person needs is something to write on. We'll suggest our own notebooks first, but if you'd like other ideas as well, check out Goulet Pen Company and see if anything catches your interest.

Even if you don't give pen and paper as gifts, remember that you can use your own for some of the most important gifts of the season: your notes and cards. If there's no other gift you can imagine, you can always write someone a letter, something heartfelt and sincere. If there's a techie you love, don't send your holiday love by email; they already get a hundred of those a day. Put it in writing and then put it in their hands; they will know the difference, and for once they'll truly care about one of the messages on their desk.


For any other gift ideas, just remember: gifts can appeal to the head, heart, or habit. In other words, ask yourself what they might enjoy, what they might love, and what they might use. With our ideas as starting points and those questions in your head, we bet you'll find something that they want, whether they know they want it or not. 

Next week on Ampersand, the Code&Quill blog, we’ll be switching directions on the same idea and discussing tech-oriented gifts for non-tech people. (Last week, we gave our spin on wrapping and presenting gifts, so take a look here if you missed it.) If you’d like highlights from the blog, plus brand-new info about upcoming products and promotions, feel free to join our email newsletter at the foot of the page. 


Wrapping close-up

The holiday season is upon us, which means gift-giving season is upon us. Everyone loves gifts, right? Of course we do. There is something special about this time of year simply because so many people are exchanging gifts. Of course everyone loves opening gifts, but there’s also something gratifying about picking something out carefully and then having another person love and appreciate it when they see it. But there’s one part of giving gifts that always feels like a chore, and that’s figuring out how to present them.

In time, we've found ways to make the holiday gifting process easier. The former spectre of doom for holiday gift-givers—the time-consuming shopping and traffic—got way easier to manage because, well, It’s great: you get an idea for what to get someone, you buy it online, you avoid all of the nightmarish holiday traffic, and the gift shows up at your door hidden in an anonymous box. You could do all of your holiday shopping in a brisk hour.  

But no matter how you get the gifts, you still have to wrap them before you give them. It’s almost never suave to hand over your gift bare. So this week, we're going to run down the simple and fun ways you can wrap (or not wrap) your gifts this holiday season. 

First, Why We Wrap Gifts

In two words: presentation matters. Presentation is the difference between "tasty grub" and a Michelin star. Presentation is the difference between a successful, funded startup pitch—or walking home. Presentation is the difference between no-name’s novel and New York Times bestseller—because, let's face it, we do judge books by their covers.


Book stack

In the case of a gift, the presentation is the wrapping. It’s the effort we expend, as the gift-giver, to officially mark the item as a gift, to allow the recipient the suspense of opening it, and then to have the item revealed to them freshly, at their own pace. So, when it comes to giving gifts, the presentation is the difference between a fun, genuine gesture of affection and “I bought this thing you might like.”

So wrapping is a step we can’t really skip. It requires a personal touch. But if you wanted to consider some twists on wrapping gifts—or some clever evasions of wrapping—read along. 

Old-School Wrapping

Wrapping gifts is like braiding hair or tying a Windsor knot; it’s just a good skill to have, whether for yourself or someone else. That’s why classic gift-wrapping gets first mention here. There are plenty of gift-wrapping guides online, such as here. People have already made diagrams and YouTube videos and stuff; we'll let them explain for us. 

What we'll add to the discussion is this: don't be shy about using alternate materials, and don't be shy about adding garnish to your own taste. The latter point mostly explains itself: once you've got the "base" wrapped gift, what you do afterwards is entirely up to you. If you can tie bows, get a reel of ribbon and go crazy. If you find some stick-on bows or ornaments you like, use (and re-use) those consistently. Whatever your style, wrap your gifts that way; if you're going to the effort to do it well, there's no etiquette on how to do it correctly.

On the former point, about alternate materials—you can try everything from parcel paper to leftover fabrics to drawstring bags (though the latter starts to spill over into our next method of wrapping). "Alternate materials" is usually the product of household scrapping with a sharp pair of scissors, so take inventory (start with pillowcases and junk T-shirts) and get inventive.  

One of our favorite wrapping-paper alternatives is newspaper. (Some people might think this cheap, in an Uncle-George sort of way, but that's just because Uncle George wrapped up crappy gifts with the Obituaries.) Newspaper has an excellent texture for unwrapping gifts, and creative use of a newspaper's layout and photos can result in some beautiful, funny, or timely gift wraps. And each wrap is sure to look different from the last. (To wit, we're releasing one original newspaper gift-wrap photo each day in December on Instagram, at least until Christmas.)

Pros: This is the classic way to do it, and you get classy points for wrapping a gift well. Well-wrapped gifts are concealed completely, and the recipient can have the satisfying experience of tearing it open like the bear we all wish we could be.

Cons: Can be extremely difficult to wrap larger or oddly-shaped objects, and bad wrapping jobs can give away the gift in some cases. The most physically tedious way to prepare most gifts. Consistently time-consuming; becomes soul-crushing if you have to wrap more than three items in a row.

Gift Bags and Tissue Paper

Another classic choice. Some might call this the choice of the lazy, but give the gift bags their due: they serve the purposes of presentation quite well in many cases.

Gift tags and twine

We probably don’t need to explain how this option is managed. You get a bag; you put your junk in the bag (along with some tissue paper to conceal it); you have someone open the bag. 

Pros: A respectable lazy person’s choice—dignified-looking but low-effort. Bags also accommodate oddly-shaped or hard-to-wrap gifts better, and they’re better for giving multiple small gifts at the same time (since well-fluffed tissue paper can hide many things). Bags can be reused.

Cons: Doesn’t do well for heavier gifts or anything with an uneven weight distribution. There’s no guarantee that you’ll be getting the bag back to reuse it (and you shouldn’t expect it).

The Treasure Hunt

Probably everyone has given a gift this way at some point: instead of wrapping it, you place it somewhere out of sight, then have the recipient “find” the gift by following a series of clues. Sometimes this is the last resort of the supremely lazy; sometimes it’s necessary if the gift is otherwise impossible to wrap; sometimes it’s just the gift-giver's creative liberty.

Treasure hunt map

If you’re going to do this well, there are a few rules. First, try to save it for gifts worth the suspense, and not for the $5 DVD. Second, invest some effort in the clues, but not on making them harder; take the recipient to more oddly-specific places with the clues, or find ways to put the recipient in funny (but not uncomfortable) places. Third and finally, make the reveal as climactic as possible; the goal is to create the same moment of pure surprise as tearing open paper, as opposed to the “oh, there’s the thing, is that my thing?” if you just have the item sitting there at the end.

Pros: Saves you having to wrap the gift. Can be more fun in certain company. Allows you to present the gift "prepped" and in its element, rather than cold in the box. Allows you to present any smaller, related gifts along the path of clues to the ultimate gift.

Cons: You still have to invest effort to make it fun and interesting. Potentially a lot of effort, if you're the type to get carried away. Can only justify it for select gifts.

Chekhov’s Gift

In writing, Chekhov’s gun is a literary device where an important item is visible all throughout the first act, but not used until the second act. So Chekhov’s gift would be a sort of Usual Suspects way to give a gift: you show up with the item completely unwrapped, plainly visible, and you eventually surprise the recipient by telling them it’s theirs.

Chekhov's gift, AKA "JK it's yours"

This doesn’t work for many gifts, as many typical gifts wouldn’t naturally "blend in" with you at the occasion the gifts are being exchanged. This also doesn’t work without a decoy gift to present as “actually theirs” (though, all you really need for the decoy is an envelope). But, in some cases, this tactic can work surprisingly well—such as, for instance, when the gift is a duplicate of something you already have that the other person also wants. If you can find a sensible way for “yours” to be there, all you have to do is bring a decoy gift with a message in it, then hand over the real gift when the moment comes. 

Pros: Saves you having to wrap the gift. Allows you to have some harmless psychological fun in the process of giving the gift. Can be an even greater surprise and joy if played correctly.

Cons: Relatively few use cases. Easy to screw up.


Pay Other People to Wrap Gifts for You

We’re not judging you at all. For some people, this is totally worth the money, and for many of those same people, the gifts wind up being wrapped better this way anyway (again, not judging). Regardless, because gift-wrap service is a legitimate option sometimes, we'll take a moment to acknowledge it properly.

We imagine lots of people will flock to for their holiday shopping. On Amazon, you can pay between $4 and $6 to have them gift-wrap an item with paper, ribbon, and a custom message. One Redditor’s report about his low-quality wrap job from Amazon was reported by a handful of outlets, but the other posters on Reddit made Amazon's gift wrapping sound like a quality service overall.

Numerous other online retailers offer gift-wrapping options as well. While these might be attractive options, you have to consider—based on your own circumstances—whether it’s worth the money and, specifically, whether it’s worth the risk that your packages might arrive later or with a subpar wrapping job.

If all else fails, maybe talk to your friend Mary. She's enterprising; you'll pay her a per-gift rate; maybe she can make some good pocket money this holiday season. Everyone wins. 

Failing that, no one said bath towels and duct tape made for an elegant wrapping job—but they do conceal that toaster oven fully, don't they? 

Last week on Ampersand, the Code&Quill blog, we enumerated our company's blessings and thanks in commemoration of Thanksgiving, so take a look here if you missed it. If you’d like highlights from the blog, plus brand-new info about upcoming products and promotions, feel free to join our email newsletter at the foot of the page.


One shameless postscript—we describe wrapping more than three items in a row as "soul-crushing." Yet we're willing to wrap 30+ Origin notebooks for this month's Instagram feature. That's because the Origin's box is, like, super-easy to wrap. It's a workable size, it's rigid, and it holds shape well. It's convenient that those Origins also happen to make great gifts, especially our remaining Limited Editions. OK, we're done now.


Henry Ford supposedly once said, of his Model T’s color options: “A customer can have a car painted any color he wants—so long as it’s black.” From Ford’s biographies and other accounts, he had his reasons for making it so: it’s quite possible, for instance, that at certain times the quick-drying paint needed for Ford’s assembly line was only available in black, and of course nothing slows the efficiency of Ford’s machine.

But, according to his autobiography, there’s a deeper reason. The quip he’s known for comes at the end of a speech he gave, the context of which Ford himself explained as follows:

“It is strange how, just as soon as an article becomes successful, somebody starts to think that it would be more successful if only it were different. There is a tendency to keep monkeying with styles and to spoil a good thing by changing it. [...] No business can improve unless it pays the closest possible attention to complaints and suggestions. If there is any defect in service then that must be instantly and rigorously investigated, but when the suggestion is only as to style, one has to make sure whether it is not merely a personal whim that is being voiced.

In other words, Ford was concerned about making the Model T as good as it could be before worrying about its surface details. The speech he gave was actually about engineering, about sticking with a single chassis type and a single model of car, and the bit about “any color so long as it’s black” was just a joke, an extension of his point about remaining true to the car’s fundamental good for customers: being a good car.


Of course, eventually, cars became more colorful. But the pattern repeats itself: new consumer technology is introduced, usually in colorless form (picture the first phones or personal computers), and over time it gets colorized. Once the item’s function is reliable and accessible, its form starts to evolve, and options like shapes and sizes and colors become available.

Nowadays, we have lots of personal items, lots of personal tech, and tons of it is customizable. Not only are there tons of functional options, but there are plenty of options on the form they will take as well. Another way of approaching this is to say that everything nowadays has “skins” available for it, whether you’re talking about the vinyls on a souped-up street racer, the cases and stickers on MacBooks in a coffee shop, or even the way you choose to dress and decorate virtual avatars in games and online communities.

Why We Play "the Skin Game"

The word “skin” for “customization” is telling. Not only is skin nowadays more synonymous with one’s sense of self, but it suggests a particular purpose: to provide the outermost layer, to provide appearances—and to hide the gristle and bone beneath. To the fortune of salesmen, the term skin for customization implies its own need, that the item is incomplete without. And, given the smorgasbord of options before you, there’s a compelling sense that you must identify with one in the way you identify with your own literal skin, that it must somehow express and colorize you correctly.

This doesn’t mean we’re being duped by salespeople. First of all, some of the shells, cases, and decals that you can buy are actually really cool. If you find something unique that you truly love having, more power to you—it’s suited its purpose by making you happy. And, of course, a case or some outer layer is often just a good idea for protecting the object in question.

That’s the main reason, really—and despite some claims that (for instance) we shouldn’t have cases on our smartphones, asphalt and smartphones are never going to be friends. Nor are we going to live up to the pure intention of never dropping our phones; it happens sometimes. It doesn’t help that many of our personal items nowadays are glass and/or tiny computers, both classes of object particularly prejudiced against being dropped. So, often, we have practical reason to opt in for skins.  

But in this age of endless variety, we think back to Henry Ford. If he (or his paint supplier) only wanted to bother with one color at certain times, why black? Why start there? What might the aesthetic advantages of black be, and what might it mean to consistently choose a color like black over its infinite competing options?

Practical Advantages

Without making any qualitative judgments, you can say this much about black and colors like it:

  • It matches virtually everything. Black is a neutral color, and as such it rarely offends or clashes. Objects in neutral color tend to “get along” well.
  • It’s widely available. If something is available in multiple colors, chances are high it’s available in black. (For that matter, even if an object only comes in one color, the chances are still high that it’s available in black.)
  • Black hides stains and discolorations well. Life isn’t a very clean place, and darker colors naturally hide the bit of wear and dust that everything carries around. 


As always, we’re people who are most concerned, like Henry Ford, with the function of the items we use. Black makes sense to us the same way it might have made sense to Ford: it hides dust, matches everything, and in his case, probably also softens up some of the rough edges on that primordial design. In a situation like that, black is a sensible non-choice, a perfect way to settle the matter when there are higher priorities at stake, like optimizing the design of the first widely-available car.

But there’s one more argument for plain black gadgetry in the age of color, and it’s centered more on the personal meaning of those choices.

The Aesthetic Case

Real quick, let’s clear up what an “aesthetic case” for something is. When we talk about aesthetics, we’re talking about how things make us think and feel when we experience them through the senses. So making an aesthetic case for something is, really, just explaining why certain sensory preferences (like the color black) can influence how we think and feel in a unique way. (This is different from a moral or ethical case, where we’d argue that “black is better” somehow.)  

Stormy Desktop

Choosing simple, elemental colors has simply been a pattern for us, a reflection of our ways of thinking, which might be summarized as follows: that we identify ourselves through our tools and technology, not with them, and that we see their chosen form as an extension of their function.

In other words, it’s “our stuff” because we use it, because we know it in our hands, and because, by using it, we can communicate and create as ourselves with greater ease. We love things that extend us, that put more power in our pockets and greater prestige at our fingertips. We prefer objects that seem like us over objects that “look like us.”

Black is nondescript and unassuming. It blends in. It works professionally or casually. It’s versatile and easy to find. There aren’t so many problems finding similar shades to match together. Those are qualities we’d value in, well, almost anything.

The more flowery among you might conclude, at this point, that we’re just colorless people, or unimaginative. Au contraire. It’s just a question of where we keep it.

What’s colorful about our stuff is what’s on the inside—hidden from view and, in some cases, known only to us. The personal touches are our desktops and background images, our accent pages and screensavers and handwriting, our arrangement of icons and wording of messages, and all of the ways that we use our possessions to navigate the tedium of daily life and record its meanings. Our aesthetic preference is to not make a statement on the surface, to reserve what’s special for the substance inside—and the aesthetic case for black is that it seems to best match that sentiment.

At Code&Quill, we were never too worried about offering notebooks in a bajillion colors, for one simple reason: if people had loved our notebooks for the colors, we’d have missed the point. But, since we had to pick something to start, we chose neutral colors—white and darker grays. We saved the color for the accent pages, once the book is opened, and then of course the little patch on the front as a small promise of what’s to come. The real color—the real meaning—you fill in yourselves.

Next week on Ampersand, the Code&Quill blog, we’ll be taking our gear on the road and talking about backpacks, travel, and life on the move. (Last week, we gave our introduction to fountain pens, so take a look here if you missed it.) If you’d like highlights from the blog, plus brand-new info about upcoming products and promotions, feel free to join our email newsletter at the foot of the page. 


Addendum: A Marketing Example

An example to suggest that “skins sell”—Taco Bell has regularly teamed up with Sony on a “buy this taco box and you might win!” promo. (You might have seen it running recently.) The prize? A special, gold-colored PS4 that only Taco Bell winners can get. But this PS4, other than its gold skin, is no different than a PS4 you could buy tomorrow on Craigslist. Winners don’t get to tour a game studio; they don’t get a trip to E3; they don’t get exclusive beta access to anything. They just get an ordinary thing—which, by the way, many of them already have—but with an exclusive skin.

We can guess, since they’ve been doing promos of this type since at least 2013, that they’ve been successful. One observation on the cost side makes it easier to see why: that the cost of the giveaways, apart from any additional advertising, is relatively low. Sony estimates the Approximate Retail Value of their latest giveaway round—6,048 prizes, one every ten minutes for several weeks—at just over $3 million, probably one drop from Sony’s bucket. Offering an exclusive feature with one hand, and then being able to credibly say “a winner every ten minutes” with the other is a stiff one-two, isn’t it? But it’s not nearly as expensive to supply as you’d imagine.

And then you have (A) all the taco boxes sold, (B) all of the free exposure the PS4 gets, (C) the way that it cross-pollinates both markets with a shared key demographic, in their case younger men, and (D) whatever else Sony got out of the deal from Taco Bell. It seems likely they both walk away winners.