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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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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, Amazon.com. 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 Amazon.com 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.



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On Thursday, many of us will be home with our families for Thanksgiving. Some of us will have Friendsgiving instead. Yet others might celebrate it in comfortable solitude, save the company of a dog or cat.

No matter our company, Thanksgiving is the occasion on which we’re supposed to count our blessings and think more deeply on the good things we have in life. When many of us spend this holiday surrounded by people we love, or at least thinking of them, Thanksgiving reflections are naturally very personal. And since most people treat Thanksgiving as a short vacation from work, our reflections on this occasion often omit the professional treasures we’ve gathered.

It might seem unpious to be thankful for one’s work at Thanksgiving, but it feels warmer and warmer the more we think about it. After all, to people like us, who are strongly motivated by what we do, our jobs and companies represent the best kind of freedom: the ability to be successful doing something you believe in. We are grateful for our work because our work sustains our freedom. In turn, we can also be grateful for the people who share that work, who support and trust us and who, by investing of themselves, can make something possible which is larger than all of us.  

So maybe a (silent) word of thanks is due your job and your company, if they enrich your life in good ways. But an acknowledgement is due in return; because there is real human investment in successful companies, companies themselves owe some gratitude to the human phenomena and human qualities that make their existence possible. 

So, on this occasion, we have a short list of gratitudes—a curtsy to some of the key circumstances that make Code&Quill possible.


First—We’re Thankful for the Rapid Growth of Technology

Not only were we all born in an era of relative plenty, but new developments have never been able to happen at such an athletic pace. In computing, for example, Moore’s Law postulates that the number of transistors on a circuit will double roughly every two years—and thus, will grow exponentially. This is why the smartphones in our pockets in 2015 are, computationally, many times stronger than the engine-sized desktop PCs we had earlier in our lifetimes. (Not to mention that the smartphones also have high-res touch screens, microphone and speakers, battery, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, fingerprint scanners, and multiple cameras built in—and still cost less than that old PC did.)

Remember the grade-school problem about the boss who only pays you a penny the first day, but doubles your pay every day thereafter? This little example is perfect for illustrating exponential growth; you only make $1.27 your whole first week, but you make over a million dollars a day by the end of the month. Even though it compounds every two years, and not daily, computing technology follows this same pattern, and we live in the age where it’s already been working for a very, very long time. Hence, we live now in the Internet Age, where a single idea in computing—the network—can evolve and mutate and fundamentally change the world in only a few short years.

The development of technology has the potential to boost almost every sector of science and research and economy—everything from healthcare to education to transportation to the delivery of goods and services has flourished around us in the modern age, and can now flourish all over again with the Internet. To us, technology is creation. We live in a world where (an especially timely example) programmers can take an idea, a problem they want to solve, and then make a product—software—out of nothing except their effort (albeit great, frustrating amounts of it), and that software can help people tremendously.

Nothing is easier to distribute on the Internet than files and software, of course, but most types of creators can find literal and figurative wealth online in ways that were never possible before. We live in the time of ultimate validation for creative people: never has it been easier to create, no matter what you do, and never has it been easier for your creations to reach—and touch—people all over the world.

Code&Quill is, in some ways, born of this surge in technological growth, but it’s also very much devoted to what’s special about it: that it represents new access to human potential, where everyone can contribute in their own meaningful ways.


Second—We’re Thankful for a Legacy of Literacy

Each generation has its own advice about education, but every generation takes it seriously in one way or another. One cornerstone of education, and this emphasis on education, is literacy—most basically reading and writing, but more, the ability to comprehend and communicate ideas of real substance.

Take, for example, the genesis of Thanksgiving in America. In its modern form, anyway—as a national holiday on the last Thursday of November—it was started in 1863 by presidential proclamation from Abraham Lincoln. Always a man of choice words, Lincoln observed in his proclamation that despite the ravages of the Civil War, the American people had causes for optimism: expanding borders, a rising birth rate, a good harvest, and a lack of foreign invaders. His short written proclamation gave both context and meaning to the American version of Thanksgiving—and, given his legacy, it seems likely that he couldn’t have made such a proclamation meaningfully without first finding it in writing.

In the distant past, our literate legacy started with a habit of letters, dairies, and daybooks among the educated. Everything from the mundane to the monumental was written down, and among the Founding Fathers a love of print and poetry was commonly shared. They understood both the psychological and practical importance of literacy, not just for daily life but for the good of society and the future. 

One might assume that our literary diligence would disappear by present day, when books are no longer so sexy. To that point, there are some fair cautions about media in the modern age, such as Neil Postman’s excellent Amusing Ourselves to Death (which has been referenced in a few widely-circulated webcomics, such as this one by Stuart McMillen). But the counterpoint is that we now live in an age where people can gain literacy passively—maybe not with the same degree of sophistication as older bibliophiles, but with education from an information machine where most human knowledge is accessible and every memorable curiosity can be answered. And no matter what year you live in, there’s always someone reputable to tell you to read everything you get your hands on.

This is an ongoing tradition: the recording, and then review, of our collective written record. It gets richer over time and its form is always evolving, and we’re happy to be a part of that in a very literal way.


Third—We're Thankful for Freedom of Thought

Partly, each of us has the lottery of birth to thank for this, for the time and place (and therefore nations and cultures) in which basic freedoms like speech, faith, and assembly are the standard. This is the broader context without which Code&Quill would not be possible.

But, over time, basic freedoms like these can become virtuous. Freedom of speech, for instance, doesn’t simply allow citizens to talk; it allows them, over time, to believe they can speak meaningfully, that they can contribute with their words. In cultures which sustain these freedoms, there persists this undying flame of an idea that every person is capable of important thinking—and even better, that people who carry their own ideas to completion can truly change the world.

Freedom of thought changes us psychically, too. With certain “fences” removed, we see that the space in our minds is boundless, and not merely the little suburbia that our habits would make us believe. We can explore ideas and new information fearlessly; we can make deeper and more abstract connections; we can gain the clarity and understanding to create wonderful things. No less important, we can become more aware of ourselves and more skilled at finding meaning in the world; as David Foster Wallace put it expertly, “‘Learning how to think’ really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”

When human beings can operate at this level, they are operating at their highest potential—not just in terms of productivity, but in terms of spirit. Writing a farewell six months before he died of cancer, Oliver Sacks concluded: “Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.” There is, perhaps, nothing more rousing to imagine than a world in which people are dignified to live as Sacks did, a world in which the life of mind is celebrated and its fruits openly shared and enjoyed.

This is the world we want to help create—and from the bottom of its pulpy heart, Code&Quill thanks you for the privilege of holding your thoughts. For the same reasons that we’re here, we’re able to believe that the future will be a better place. Seeing this Thanksgiving in light of our work, we don’t have to limit ourselves to being thankful for blessings past; we can also be thankful for a brighter future.

Last week on Ampersand, the Code&Quill blog, we explained why a thank-you was overdue to our backpacks, 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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