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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.)

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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.

 

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. 

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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. 

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Kelty overlooking mountains

Recent generations have more and more on their shoulders—literally. If you were in school anytime during or after the eighties, you know how close you’ve been to your backpack. As we grew up, our backpacks grew up with us, from colorful Lion King and Transformer models to North Face Whatsits to the laptop-friendly versions later on. They followed us to colleges and to the cities, and even when we find ourselves carrying way less than we did as students, we often still default to a backpack for its pedestrian appearance and ease of use.

At Code&Quill, we're not just interested in the what and how, but the why. In the same manner that there’s an idea, value, or philosophy behind fountain pens or grayscale colors, there's some unique baggage that our backpacks carry for us.  

When you think about it, backpacks are unsung heroes. They’re a good example of the lighthouse effect: that sometimes the things most helpful to us are the ones that prevent problems, but therefore have no way of showing us what they prevented. Imagine you’re traveling, walking through Manhattan with thirty pounds of stuff on your back, when the bottom of your backpack gives out and the contents spill out onto the crowded sidewalk. That would be a nightmare—collecting everything back, seeing what’s broken, getting out of everyone’s way, and worst of all, trying to figure out how to carry everything around without a functioning backpack. If your backpack hasn’t done that, it has done its job—but we don’t often think to notice that.

To take another page from George Carlin’s book (NSFW), he once joked that houses are just “places to keep your stuff,” and that therefore, whenever you took a trip, your suitcase was acting as a smaller version of your house. The same is true for backpacks; especially when you live on the move or find yourself far away from home, what’s on your back is all you have. In a pedestrian sense, you are an engine with legs and arms for pistons, back and shoulders for chassis, and a driver up top—but the trunk is separate, and you’ve got options to choose from.

Two backpacks

We will tell you which options we’ve chosen and why, but as always, this isn’t about particular products. It’s about choosing the right thing, for the right reasons, for yourself. Nor is it about the what and how of backpacks, about travel tips or “backpack hacks”—instead, it’s our ode to one of the most important unsung tools we have, to the places they’ve been with us, and to the reasons that we trust them more than we give them credit for.


What We’ve Chosen

For full disclosure, North Face backpacks have been good to us in the past, but the North Face products we've had seemed more appropriate for students. Since we have a rounder set of needs now, including international travel, we branched out and opened the floor to all makes. Our search criteria were roughly as follows: (A) $100 or less, (B) the right amount of space, and (C) ease of use/functional features.

Two of our favorite buys were the Kelty Redwing 32 and Herschel Supply’s Little America. To give you a quick rundown on each:

The Kelty Redwing 32 is one of the smaller siblings in a family of backpacks. The larger packs are the serious backpacks, the ones that make you feel like an astronaut carrying a space colony’s supplies on your back. The Redwing 32 is their average-sized counterpart, but it retains some of the design advantages of the bigger bags, such as the spacious main compartment which zippers open fully—a welcome change from the tight sandwich-like space that students’ backpacks tend to have.

Redwing with C&Q notebooks

Two pairs of symmetrical side pockets, a second front pocket, and a small pouch atop the bag round out the compartments. The bag is built with a lightweight frame so it always sits flat against your back, and it has two sets of front straps for lumbar support. One surprisingly useful feature is the heavy-duty set of loops and handle on the front—great for grabbing the bag quickly, securing any additional items, and even adding a little bit of color and personalization (choose a bandanna and loop it through).

The Herschel Supply Little America is a simpler choice, and different stylistically. If you check out Herschel's website, you can see it comes in a huge variety of finishes, and all of them have their flair (such as this black bag's peppermint-candy stripes on the inside lining). Unless otherwise specified, the body is the same type of durable synthetic you'd expect in a backpack, but the different lining material and the leather on the straps are excellent touches.

Functionally, the bag has only two sections: the broad main compartment and a medium-sized pocket at the front. They've dispensed with zippers for the main compartment, replacing them with a cinch string at the top (like a laundry bag) and then the buckling flap over top. The bag's design sounds brutally simple, and it is—but it's also extremely sensible, and it places fewer constraints on its users. It uses all of its space on the two pockets it knows you want, then trusts you to figure it out. It's always comfortable and it's got tons of space.  

 

There and Back Again

As an extended example for how much use (and how many different uses) they can serve for us, let's take our backpacks around the world—to China and back.

To even leave the country, we had to meet in D.C. to fly out of Dulles. For some of us, that meant a two-day road trip, and so the backpacks started the journey as front-seat bags, holding everything for the next night's stay: clothes, toiletries, chargers, a water bottle, and some extra snack food.

Once at Dulles, the backpacks were in travel mode: no liquids of any kind, everything secured for the plane. The street clothes were swapped for a single extra T-shirt and sweatpants, plus extra entertainment and the work we intended to finish. Dulles to Beijing is a 16-hour flight—an entire waking day—and you spend that entire day with only what you can reach from that bag at your feet. 

The moment we arrived in Beijing, the backpacks started becoming stuff sacks. Papers for Immigration? Stuff it. Extra layers because it's now too hot? Stuff it. Trinket you just bought? Stuff it. The fact that both bags have spacious compartments and wide top openings made this easier to manage. 

The trip was part business and part pleasure, so on some days the backpacks were loaded with laptops and papers and notebooks and folders for our daily excursions. On the days for sightseeing, the bags were packed with camera and clothes and travel info, with room left over for the occasional knick-knack (like a knockoff Polo sweater or a small pewter dragon). Often, during daily excursions, it wasn't necessary for each person to have a backpack, so everyone's stuff would fit into one bag and we'd take turns carrying it. The traveling entourage had members with more than a foot's height difference, yet no one had any difficulty carrying the packs.

Most days were light; some were heavier. One day we went to climb the Great Wall. Except that we didn’t want to settle for the restored tourist version with stairs and ziplines, so we hired a driver for the day (literally just an off-duty cab driver and his cab) and started an ascent to the unrestored Great Wall from a village adjacent, about an hour outside of Beijing. It was a cold, clear day, so we packed the Kelty full with extra layers, water, packaged food, and personal effects—though, tellingly, no mountaineering equipment of any kind.  

Once we arrived at the village, our cab driver decided that, instead of sitting and waiting in his cab, he’d be our guide up this mountain to the Wall, even though he admitted he’d never climbed it. We probably should have heeded the warning of the "landslides might happen" signs, but we’re the adventuring sort—and anywhere in the world, you can’t help but trust the navigational instincts of a big-city cab driver.

Then he led us the whole way up this slope, even insisting in Mandarin (when we out-of-shape Americans got winded halfway up the hike) that he take the backpack and carry it for us. So he strapped the Kelty to his own back, adjusting it slightly, and pranced ahead seemingly unburdened.

At a certain point the hike became a climb, and the problem with climbing ambitiously towards a once-in-a-lifetime destination like the “real” Great Wall is that, with all of your looking up, you don’t look down as frequently as a self-preserving animal should. At a certain point, when you do look down and realize how steep and long the fall would be, you start to be very thankful that your straps are adjusted and your shoelaces tied tightly.

We came within fifty feet of the Wall and hit a vertical face we couldn’t scale, so we had no choice but to descend—and as though he didn’t notice it there, the driver carried the Kelty all the way back down the mountain. (Even with a full backpack he had footwork you wouldn’t believe; the dude was a literal fairy.)

We did settle for the stairs-and-ziplines version afterwards—because we were halfway around the world and we weren’t going to skip it out of pride. This time, the driver waited with his car.

And yes, it was still totally worth it.

Sitting on Great Wall of China

 

In exchange for the solitary and authentic experience of rediscovering something ancient—reaching the Wall by climbing the same hill its builders did—we had the modern experience of it. This isn’t always a bad thing; in fact, it offers a compromise unique to our time in history. Yes, we bought tickets; yes, the tourist section of the Wall was rebuilt in the eighties and yes, the second climb was easier because there were stairs. But walk far enough along the Wall’s slopes and you can still reach unrestored sections, where the only thing separating you from the eerie silence of crumbling history is a small wooden sign. The ticket represents commercialization, sure, but it also represents access to that. You could say the same about the stairs.

Then, along our walk atop the Wall to an unrestored section, we find an artifact which can only be newer:

 

Travelers from all around the world had stopped at this outpost's wall to write where they were from. It's a perfect analog for social media, however crude its form: people coming together in a common place to share something, to put their own small meaning among others. This spot was thousands of feet above the park's entrance; anyone reaching it was tired and, for the scenery, feeling smaller by the moment. To have something like this before you, and the winding length of the Great Wall tracing the mountains behind you, would be enough to humble anyone.

At this moment, we were simply thankful to be there together, and best of all, we didn't need anything more than what we had with us. On days like that, when our freedom and our good company were everything we wanted, possessions like our backpacks deserve a second look because they make experiences like that day possible. Without saying a word, our packs had our backs—they never slipped, they never strained, and most importantly, they made it easy for us to keep close what little we needed in the world.

By trip's end, every suitcase, backpack, and pocket was a chaotic mess—but by then it didn't matter. All it had to do was hold it together until we got home. We had a lot to write down once we got back—and you can guess exactly what we wrote it in. 

Next week on Ampersand, the Code&Quill blog, we’ll have a seasonal retrospective on American penmanship and the Thanksgiving tradition. (Last week, we gave our aesthetic case for grayscale colors, 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. 

 

 

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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.

Headlight

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.   

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Whether you’re running a billion-dollar company or just working your way through school, you need a workspace, and you’ll spend truckloads of time and energy there. Investing in the right workspace tools costs very little but can pay enormous dividends over time.

A good workstation can exist anywhere that these five items exist. If you have all of the tools you need, you can work well just about anywhere. Just remember that the only perfect setup is the one that’s perfect for you. This list will help you get started right with your productive space—or, if yours is already set up, you might find yours could use slight adjustments or minor additions.

The five essential tools for a modern workstation are:

  1. Table
  2. Chair(s)
  3. Computer & Peripherals
  4. Paper & Pen
  5. Water Bottle

That's basically all you need; the rest is garnish, or specific to your work. We'll walk through the items in order and then tell you about the tools we've chosen for our own workstations.

1. Table

Thank you, Captain Obvious, you say. But think for a second—most work happens over a table. Without a table, you work (or eat, or play Scrabble) on the floor.

So we trust you’re aware you need one. If you’re searching for (or setting up) a productive space, here’s the quick checklist of factors for a table that works best for your style:

Surface area. In short, do you have the right amount and type of space? Spatially, do you prefer something wide and shallow or something squarer? Do you find the items on your desk overlapping—or sprawling—in a way that hinders your focus?  

Surface type. Laminate materials clean up well, but they’re less durable; glass is pretty (and you can use dry-erase markers on it!) but temperamental; wood is sturdy and can be handsome, but it’s heavier and more expensive. Your choice.

Sturdiness. Do you care if the table isn’t solid as a rock? Obviously a heavier, better-built table has less give—but if you don’t have that option, you can brace your existing table by pinning it with furniture or securing it to the wall.

Leg height. If you need a high tabletop, no chair will drop low enough for you if the table’s legs are too short—and there aren’t many elegant ways to elevate an existing table evenly. Plan accordingly.  


2. Chair

Let's skip ahead a bit and tell you about our chairs. These chairs suck—do not recommend. You wind up either straining your neck or sitting at a 120-degree angle. But, even though we didn’t shop around enough (or—let's face it—at all), our intentions were good: we wanted simple, comfortable, ergonomically correct chairs.

Because our chairs suck, let us tell you: working at our desks is harder. It’s not very comfortable, and thus it’s sometimes harder to immerse ourselves in what we’re doing. If we didn’t have a choice and had to work there every moment of every day, we’d be uncomfortable. So choose better than we did, if you can.  

As with anything, choose what's comfortable to you. Here are some things to double-check as you go chair-shopping:

Ergonomics. Is this chair going to help you keep a healthy posture? Can you sit up straight, without bowing your back or neck, and still work comfortably at your desk for extended periods?

Adjustability. Can you adjust the height, arms, and/or lumbar support? Are you comfortable in the chair under different circumstances (typing, reading, writing, and lounging)?

Material. Leather is easier to clean, but can get swampy for some people since it doesn’t breathe as well as mesh. Probably avoid fabric chairs if possible; there’s no going back once it looks dirty.    


3. Computer & Peripherals

Nowadays, you can be incredibly productive with just a laptop. But, as always, computers do more with peripherals—extra tools like laptop stands, mice, and headphones. If you use a computer every day, you’ll touch and use these things every day, so you’ll be able to tell where the money went!

Laptop or Monitor Stand. This applies more to laptop users, but we’re assuming that’s quite a few of you by now. As you know, one problem with laptops is their smaller size and the fact that, when on a table, the screen sits very low. This causes us to hunch over the screen, which screws up our posture. Getting a laptop stand brings the screen up to eye level, making it easier to see and helping us keep our necks straight. It makes a noticeable difference in terms of comfort.

Mouse. For everyday browsing, a built-in trackpad does just fine. But the moment you start fiddling with anything beyond browsing, you’ll probably find a mouse or better controller helpful.

Of course, you may also find, if you like using a laptop stand, that you might kind of need a mouse since the computer will be a bit further out of reach.

For mice, select for reliability and features you like. Quality has little correlation with price. You could also try something like an external trackpad if that suits you better.

Headphones or Speakers. We’re a wired-in culture by now; we do better when we can tune in to sounds we like (or tune out sounds we don’t). We assume many of you already take headphones with you everywhere you go.

Headphones are headphones—but, for the same reasons as for your other gear, make sure they work for you. If you could use noise-cancelling tech, spring for it (we don’t need it, but it’s magical). If you travel a lot or just love music, why not spring for headphones whose quality you’ll notice? You use them every day!

More realistically, if you can’t afford $50+ headphones, find a cheap pair in a style that suits you and try them out. If you like them, buy another pair or two—and if you bought them online, bookmark the link.

 

4. Paper & Pen

More and more in our lives is becoming digital—but there are some parts of our work and creative processes that just don’t sync online. Doodling, jotting down, sketching, and brainstorming happen most organically on paper, where the hands and mind can do whatever they want. Plus, of course, there’s just no replacement for the tactile experience of writing with pen and paper. 

This is, of course, part of the reason we started Code & Quill. Digital tools are evolving faster than ever before, but analog tools are not. We know the best work today is done with digital and analog at the ready.

We keep two forms of paper on our desks: our Code & Quill notebooks and blank 3x5 index cards (useful for, say, a quick grocery list or reminder). We’ll talk more about pens later—that's a discussion of its own.


5. Water Bottle

We’re not doctors and we don’t know you, so we won’t give a specific prescription for your water intake. But it’s true that dehydration is more common than people realize, and it can slow you down in subtle ways while you (try to) work.

Whatever amount of water you should consume daily, the best way to make sure you get it is to keep it near you all the time, especially when you’re working—and the easiest way to do that is to have something for that express purpose. So consider getting a water bottle—again, whatever style you like—and just keep in the back of your mind that you should finish that bottle [x] number of times in a day. 

If you’re not enthused by drinking plain water all day, try out Mio or other additives. If you go light, one little bottle can stretch a long way, and it can make staying hydrated a little more pleasing to the senses.  

If you want a “what and why” tour of our essentials, keep on reading. Otherwise, go out and find the tools that work best for you! 

Our Workstation Tools

Tables. We have two tables from IKEA, built from $40 tabletops and $4 legs—not specifically linked here because there's a thousand ways to build a table at IKEA. They’re lightweight laminate, so they’ve got some natural give, but we reduced wobble by lashing our two tables' legs together with zip-ties. IKEA is (obviously) a great choice for cheap but functional furnishings, and usually you can outfit their tabletops with a variety of different legs, including adjustables for more money. 

Chairs. As we mentioned, our chairs suck. There are much better $100 chairs out there. This is where, unfortunately, you’ll have to do all of your own research. If you can spend $600 on a top-of-the-line chair, do it—it doesn't seem as expensive when you think of it as "preventing your future back problems."

Computers & Peripherals—

Laptop Stands. We have Rain Design mStands for our MacBooks ($42 on Amazon currently). The older model had slightly better grips, but it’s still a solid product, and of course it matches the MacBooks.

Mice and Trackpad. As we mentioned about mice, quality doesn’t correlate strongly with price. For example, one of us used to own a R.A.T., an expensive gaming mouse; it was cool, but didn’t work as well as a $140 mouse should. For the last year its $12 replacement has worked better than the R.A.T.

On the topic, it can be nice to have a big mousepad. Consider, for example, a jumbo SteelSeries pad for under $20 on Amazon.

Keyboards. Our keyboards—not mentioned above—are our “splurge items.” We use mechanical keyboards, which are the “clicky” keyboards made with old-school mechanical switches below the keys (as opposed to the rubber-membrane switches under most cheap keyboards; pop off a key and see for yourself). But a keyboard is a keyboard, and laptops include them—why spend, for instance, $139 on a DAS keyboard?

Because we each type several thousand words a day, and these things feel amaaaaaaazing. It’s like typing on bubbles blown by angels. We’ll spend $139 on something that makes work more fun literally every moment you're using it.


 

Headphones and Speakers. Like with mice, you can spend a ton on headphones or speakers, but you definitely don't have to. In some cases (in ours, at least), it's preferable to find cheap, decent-quality pairs that can be thrown around and stuffed in different places. (Besides, we neither need nor trust ourselves with anything fancier.)

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