We are a digital agency, but we live in the physical world. And many of us take notes. Lots and lots of notes. And lots and lots of sketching. When you write as much as we do, you start paying more attention to the quality of your tools. A good writing instrument can be the difference between drudgery and delight. If you have the right setup, writing notes can feel like strolling in a park on the perfect Autumn evening. Using a subpar setup can feel like riding a sled over gravel on a snowless Winter morning.
Sure, the stakes are pretty low. BIC ballpoint pens and cheap college-ruled notebooks will always do in a pinch. But we have preferences that we feel make us more productive. Some of us have field-tested a lot of pens and pads of paper over the course of our professional years. We wanted to share what has worked best for us, and maybe it will help you find what works best for you.
Favorite pens and pencils
Greg Dunlap: Zebra Sarasa clip gel pens. They look cool, have a nice rubber grip, and their clip is solidly made. Historically I have used the .5 tip, but I recently switched to the .3 tip. It is slightly harder to write with, which has the effect of making me write more intentionally. The thin line is kind of delicate which I’ve also been enjoying, and it is less likely to smear. I settled on these after ordering a sampler of 18 gel pens and experimenting with them for about a month.
Zebra Sarasa recently introduced the Clip Nano, which has a spring in the end that supposedly makes it rebound a little more softly when writing. But I find the body of the pen harder to hold than the standard clip pen.
Darren Petersen: Mirado Black Warrior #2 pencils and a Pentel Hi-Polymer Eraser. These come from my days of writing tons of music by hand. They have a clear black stroke and erase clean without damaging the paper.
Aubrey Sambor: I love my fountain pens! My favorites are TWSBI Ecos. I also have a Kaweco Sport, a Pilot Metropolitan, and a fancy Sailor Pro Gear. All my pens have fine nibs. I use bottles of ink to fill them, and my favorite inks are also by Sailor.
For plain black ink, I use Muji pens in the 0.5mm size.
Marissa Epstein: Since I am a lefty that nitpicks mistakes, a pencil with a good eraser is my go-to. Pens are fine as long as the ink dries fast enough not to smear under my (again, left) hand. If I am sketching a wireframe, I like to start in pencil and finish in pen or even marker.
For years, I’ve used a mix of Pentel mechanical drafting pencils (0.5-0.9mm thickness, hardness ranging from HB to 2H). I prefer the .7mm Pentel Sharp mechanical pencil with F lead, which is a little harder than a #2 pencil. I like that these pencils are slim, metal, and won't roll away. The erasers are laughably small, so I use different erasers that last longer and can be gripped better.
One more fun fact: my parents have been work-from-home architects for all of my life, which has a lot to do with how I found my favorites.
Andy Blum: I don’t do a ton of writing, but when I do, I prefer a ballpoint pen. I don’t have a special brand or anything, but I cannot stand the scratchiness of felt-tip pens. Currently at my desk are Papermate InkJoy pens.
Matt Robison: I’m partial to the Pentel R.S.V.P fine tip. They’re cheap, and they write smoothly. You never feel like you’re scratching the paper.
Nikki Flores: I have loved the Mars Technico Lead Holder since a college introduction to landscape architecture class. The pencil is easy to use and refill, and the lead works well with the Mars 502 sharpener.
Matt Kleve: I always have a pencil nearby and am a fan of a Blackwing Natural. It writes buttery smooth and has a great eraser. The Musgrave Pencil Company makes some great pencils, too. I’m very partial to their Harvest 320. I’d say it’s the ideal pencil, with great color, easy to use, smooth writing, and the wood feels great in my hand. Of course, I’m also never upset if someone hands me a classic Black #2 Ticonderoga.
Paper and notebooks
Greg Dunlap: For the last five years, I’ve been using the Stalogy Editor's Series 365Days Notebook. I got my first one at the beginning of the Georgia project and loved it immediately. It has a very subtle gray grid, and the paper is thin, so you can get a ton into one notebook, but it still doesn’t bleed and is a pleasure to write on. I’ve gone through three since then.
But there are two problems with it. First, it doesn’t lay flat for the first and last 50 pages or so. Second, the grid is very fine, so if you want to write text along the grid, you have to write small, and things can feel cramped. Generally, I just ignore the grid when writing, but it always bothers me.
As an experiment, I recently bought the Moo hardcover notebook in alpine green and dot grid. I am enamored with its cloth hardcover look. It has a unique lay-flat design which works well, but it’s still tough to write on the early pages. However, the grid is perfect, and I do love the notebook’s style. We’ll see if it sticks or not.
One other thing I have played with is working productivity systems into my notebooks. I recently found the Ink and Volt Dashboard Deskpad, which is almost exactly what I need for my weekly planning. I no longer have to waste precious notebook pages with weekly to-do lists anymore.
Aubrey Sambor: I love paper! I use a Hobonichi A6 for a planner right now, which is made with Tomoe River Paper. I love it because my fountain pen ink doesn’t feather on this paper. I have a Lochby notebook for taking notes, but I’ve wanted to try Stalogy because I’ve heard their paper is also good for fountain pens. For my journal, I use a Leuchtturm 1917. I’ve been using them for years, and I love the shape and how my pens write in them. All my notebooks are dot grid or blank. Since getting into fountain pens, I’ve become a paper snob — my inks look really bad on most non-fancy paper!
Matt Robison: I haven’t yet found a notebook I always turn to. Any paper will do. But I do love taking notes and compiling thoughts on index cards. Real index cards. Most things sold as index cards today bear no relation to the index cards of old except their size and are really just cut-up pieces of paper. Staples still carries real index cards, though they still pale in comparison to their ancestors.
Marissa Epstein: One of my favorite notebooks is the Leuchtturm 1917. It provides a lot of options, but I prefer a larger, soft-cover notebook with a dot grid. I like the flexibility that each has a ribbon and a pocket. I also like the weight of the paper. Plus, they come in a million colors. My other favorite “notebook” is the ReMarkable tablet. It’s light, just the right size, lets you share text, PDFs, or SVGs, and comes with a ton of templates. I use it when I want a note-taking experience closer to my laptop, without any distractions. Because of this, it takes me a lot longer to go through paper notebooks lately.
That said, the best notebook is the one you have. I have gotten wireframes approved using a hotel’s printer paper and the low-quality pen from the hotel room. Sometimes, I write on the back of mail.
Matt Kleve: I’m low maintenance and only require a basic legal pad. Yellow is nice. White is okay too.
Digital tools that supplement or replace pen and paper
Andy Blum: If I’m on a computer-based meeting, I’ll tend to keep everything digital. I’ll only go to paper when I have a phone call or need to do writing that’s hard to do digitally, like math or diagrams. My general preference of digitally-written notes probably also stems from a lifetime of lead or ink-smeared hands as a left-handed writer.
Andrew Berry: I’m 100% digital. I live by OmniFocus for both my work and personal lives. I even bought an Apple Watch primarily for its OmniFocus app and not the usual features. My handwriting has always been slow and atrocious, so I’m much faster with keyboards and voice transcription. For longer form notes, I’ve been using the Apple Notes app more, though I use Dropbox Paper for anything I need to collaborate on.
The one area I use paper: diagrams for myself. I was doing some wiring with a 4-way switch and drew things out on paper (though I also had an Excel sheet for recording the behavior of each switch configuration).
Since I use a keyboard so much, I bought a WASD Code keyboard with Cherry MX Clear switches in 2016, and it’s still going strong. A few of the keycaps could be replaced, but otherwise, it’s such a joy to type on (and really highlighted just how bad the old MacBook butterfly keyboards were).
Aubrey Sambor: Sometimes I try to use Todoist or Onenote, but I always go back to good ol’ pen and paper.
Marissa Epstein: I use a mix of paper and digital, and I don’t think I could ever abandon one for the other. I like paper, especially when collaborating with clients in person since it’s easy to use and share. Funny enough, my digital solution is also called Paper. It works for messy drafts and those frequent times I need to take notes fast. I can type faster than I write, even in sloppy cursive.
Matthew Tift: The only time I use pen and paper is on yoga or meditation retreats where electronic devices are not used, in which case I use various pens and notepads that I’ve been given at conferences. Otherwise, I do all of my note-taking (and programming, lists, slides, activity logs, blog posts, emails, UML, academic papers, poster presentations, etc.) in text files in Vim, synchronized with my server and other devices using Syncthing. I find it easier to use Vim for everything because it’s open source and free software, nobody can take it away from me, it works everywhere, and text files are easily searchable or analyzed.
Kat Shaw: SublimeText is my go-to for note writing on projects, code snippets, etc. I also use Trello for project tasks, checklists, and notes at times. I use Mac Notes for tracking and organizing a lot of stuff like projects, meetings, contributions, learning, working groups, templates, and more. I made a point of going paperless, and it’s worked for me.
Go forth and scribble
We love finding ways to work that not only make us more productive but also feel right. Some of these tools might make your work more pleasant as well. If you want to dive further into the wonderful world of pens, JetPens has several sampler packs you can buy.
For more ways to get the most out of pen and paper, check out how we use sketching during our strategy and UX work and how we share ideas faster with paper prototyping. These are techniques that have helped us launch some of the largest websites in the world. The preferences shared above have been discovered through years of scribbling and buckets of ink.