Field Notes just may go down in history as the biggest ongoing success in the area of design entrepreneurship. Four times a year the Field Notes team creates new note and memo books that add content to an otherwise conventional medium. "So long as we find rabbit holes to jump down, curiosities to investigate, and obscure, surprising themes and techniques to try, we’ll keep at it," notes Jim Coudal, co-founder, with Aaron Draplin, of the Field Notes series—which just launched a new website celebrating the 50th edition of the ubiquitous line.
This has long been an astounding entrepreneurial adventure. Below, I ask Coudal about the Field Notes process (some of his answers are excerpted from his introduction to Count to Fifty—the 50th anniversary Field Notes ledger book available almost everywhere).
Who is your primary audience for Field Notes? Is it the same audience you envisioned when you began?
We started out selling to people like us, designers, writers, web publishers, etc., and those groups really helped us get the word out to an increasingly large group of customers. Then, very early on, J Crew picked us up and sold us in stores and via their catalog, and that got us on lots of retailers’ radar. Now our customer base is very diverse and I think that to some extent, everybody gets tired of tapping notes into these little sheets of glass we carry around. There’s something satisfying in writing a note to yourself in a well-made, well-designed notebook.
How much of your time and energy is devoted to Field Notes?
100% of our work time is Field Notes, and has been for most of the last 10 years.
Have you ever thought of selling your proprietary company to another (engulf and devour) company?
Even when we were doing design, identity and advertising work for hire, we would ask ourselves three questions about every project, whether it came from someone else or internally:1. Can we make some money? We all have mortgages and kids’ tuitions to pay, etc., and this is, after all, a commercial enterprise.
2. Will we be proud of the work when we’re done? There’s nothing that will suck the soul out of a creative person quite like laboring over a big project for a long period of time and then not wanting to show it to people at the end.3. Can we learn something new along the way? Curiosity is our main motivation, and it’s the most satisfying when we create something through research, inquiry and experimentation.
Field Notes gets a “yes” to all three, and the schedule of producing a brand-new product, from scratch, four times a year, guarantees that we will constantly be engaged and challenged to learn. And as an added benefit, we get to try crazy new things and meet smart new friends in the process. We love selling the notebooks, but are not interested in selling the company. It’s too much fun.
This is such a stunningly enviable entrepreneurial phenomenon, and I have so many more questions …
Lots of your questions [are doubtless] directly answered in the Counting to Fifty essay.
[Editor's Note: As a result, the rest of this article features excerpts and lessons from the origin-story essay in the Fifty ledger.]
As Coudal writes:
"I certainly didn’t foresee that 14 years later our advertising and design practice would have zero clients, our online advertising network and various other side projects would be shuttered, and the staff and I would be spending all of our time creating, manufacturing, marketing and distributing a growing line of Field Notes Brand products. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret it a bit. I’m just a bit dumbfounded that it all happened.
"Similarly, when we decided to expand the line in late 2008 by adding a couple new colorways, and shortly thereafter instituted an option by which customers could sign up to receive new and different quarterly 'editions' via a year-long subscription, I had no idea I was setting the rhythm for the next dozen years of our creative lives. Aside from establishing a work schedule that caters to my own notoriously short attention span, the subscription model has some obvious and not-so-obvious benefits. For a small company, cash flow is always a challenge."
The subscription model is predictable and allows for an upfront cash flow.
"The seasonal nature of our subscriptions gives us four excellent occasions each year to talk to, and interact with, our customers and our network of retailers. It also provides a compelling reason for folks to sign up for The List, our infrequent email newsletter, through which new releases are announced.
"We enjoy working in secret on each release in order to spring it on the world, fully executed, on Launch Day. The 'reveal' of each season’s release concentrates attention and fosters conversation. There is always something new at Field Notes and always something mysterious just around the corner. The unpredictability of what lies ahead energizes us as a team and adds drama to what is a simple commercial
What keeps Field Notes fresh and, therefore, ongoing, is it is not just a blank book.
"The creative process, like most everything else at Field Notes, is organic and chaotic, and the theme and character of any individual release is more often the result of happenstance and the need to satisfy our collective curiosity than it is to any long-term planning or preordained organization. But, the categories do provide an outline of our main priorities and add insight into what is most central to the brand, and what is most interesting to us, and hopefully, to our subscribers and customers.
"The first category to explore is the most obvious: Nature and the Seasons. From the releases that fit here, full yearly cycles can be assembled. … I suppose you can see what caught my eye about the
title of Philip Connors’ excellent memoir, Fire Season: Field Notes From a Wilderness Lookout. A discussion of the book sparked some research about Midwestern fire spotters and we were excited to discover that two Aermotor Company Fire Lookout Towers from the 1930s were still st
anding, and one was just four hours north of us in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in Wisconsin. And we were even more excited to realize that if we acted quickly, we could film the tower, and from the tower at the height of the autumn leaves changing. And, oh yeah, we could make some Memo Books too."
Every Field Notes Memo Book is different.
"But what truly makes every Field Notes unique are the notes we write to ourselves on its 48 pages. The techniques we resurrected from history were exciting, new, technological marvels at the time they were introduced. Contemporary commercial printing continues to advance, and the next category to explore
is Innovation. Digital printing, new papers, inks and capabilities have provided us with opportunities to
create surprising editions.
"For the winter of 2020, we combined algorithm-based computer generative artwork with digital printing technology to produce a run of 99,999 beautiful, individual cover designs. “Snowy Evening” was
created with the help of artist and technologist Brendan Dawes. The “Snowy Evening” we were initially inspired by was created by Robert Frost. Super-thin American Cherry wood veneer affixed to a substrate of kraft paper became the covers of the “Shelterwood” Edition. Of course, everyone knows that paper is made from wood, but for this 2014 release, the covers were made of wood. Coated in a nearly magical “photochromic” silkscreen ink that changes color when exposed to ultraviolet rays, the “Snowblind” Memo Book cover is a subtle white until you take it outside into the bright sunshine, where it slowly turns a dusty shade of baby blue."
For Coudal's full essay, subscribe to the series.