Field Notes was a simple idea. Designer Aaron Draplin had developed a bit of a fascination with old farmer's notebooks. Companies that made seed, sold parts for tractors, or fertiliser, would make little books. Sometimes they were printed, with information about their products and how to use them. Often, they were just blank pages for notes, but with a cover design to remind the farmer how much better they'd do if they were planting Funk's Hybrid Corn (TM).
He'd settled in Portland, Oregon, and founded DDC - Draplin Design Co., his own design studio. He started picking these old books up wherever such ephemera was being sold, often still with the notes the farmer, or whoever had owned it, had made. He built up a collection of, he estimates, 800-1,000 of them. You can see 100 of them on the Field Notes site. Aaron wasn't much of a fan of the pretentiousness of design schools and studios, but he had a strong love for the simple and clear design of these little notebooks, and each one reminded him of the hard-working people who had used them. Tracked their yields and profits in them. Noted down their lives in simple free promotional notebooks. The design of these notebooks had an honesty, and while good design is honest, a lot of design isn't.
(When we tried to take some photos for this article, Herbie thought we should be taking photos of him, instead. He was right.)
After trying a few notebook designs of his own, he put together a basic clean version of these farmer's notebooks, using the nickname 'FIELD NOTES', and made a few small batches of them himself, using a Japanese 'Gocco' toy printing press. They weren't products. They were just little gifts to give out to his friends.
One of those friends was Jim Coudal of Coudal Partners, in Chicago. Jim liked the notebook so much, he called Aaron the day it arrived. He suggested setting up a company to turn them into products. As you may have guessed, they did, and Field Notes was born as a company, less than a week later.
A Strange Mix
Chicago and Portland are very different places. Chicago is an old well-connected industrial city, close to Detroit, between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi. It's one of the world's most important financial centres, and both Boeing and the Blues Brothers know it as Sweet Home Chicago. Portland is smaller, not far from the West coast of the US, in Oregon (known for agriculture, fishing and timber; not financial services and aerospace). It's known mostly for the arts, coffee and microbreweries - and it's the home of the hipster. The unofficial motto of the city is 'Keep Portland Weird'. A quick look at the map shows it's not that far North of San Francisco, but the scale of the USA means it would take you almost ten hours to drive from one to the other.
Aaron Draplin himself is a designer, but one with a love for hard work, and for designs found in places that most designers would ignore or look down on. Utilitarian designs, where the designers didn't want them to be admired, they just wanted them to get the information across. Even Field Notes' own product range is a bit of an odd mix. The standard notebooks are functional, not decorative. That doesn't mean they don't look good - they do - but those design elements that make them look good have to be there for a reason. The Editions, in contrast, vary wildly, but are often distinctly decorative. Vivid neon shades, hot foil stamping, die-cut shapes, full-wrap photography. They still have to be functional, but the form doesn't purely follow that function.
The Beginnings of the Editions
The plan didn't call for any sort of special editions. The notebooks were just simple brown kraft card covers, over practical and usable paper. But before too long, they found themselves thinking that an orange version would look good. They made a batch of 500 in a colour called Butcher Orange. They sold out fast. A while later, another 500 in Butcher Extra Blue sold out fast too. A one-off, made on a whim, became a thing.
From there, they just settled into a routine of making some sort of interesting new edition each quarter. Doing something new and different became a fun challenge in itself. Grass Stain Green used green on green ink to highlight the subtle debossed effect made by a letterpress machine. Mackinaw Autumn was the first to use three different coloured covers, in variations of orange. Balsam Fir not only introducted hot foil stamping for the cover, but included a sprig of fir in the package.
Some other interesting editions over the years have included:
Packet of Sunshine. Vivid yellow covers, with each notebook having a different print colour for the logo. All packaged in an envelope that resembles a seed packet, and includes a pack of American Marigold seeds.
County Fair. A little difficult to explain to much of the UK, but down here in Devon we have county shows, and they are a huge event in most American states. Usually a mix of agricultural show and fairground, they can be the biggest event of the year. In an ambitious move, there was a different set for each state, with each set being three different colours of notebooks. Presumably so much work went into it that they decided it shouldn't be quite as limited as other editions, and it became a standard product.
America The Beautiful. Full colour wrap-around photographic covers - a long way from the minimalism of the basic notebooks, but quite in-keeping with many of Aaron's favourite little old books, if, perhaps, a bit more beautifully made.
Shelterwood. Covers so far had varied a lot, but were always card. But card is sort of wood, really, isn't it? Shelterwood was made from actual cherry wood, sliced incredibly thinly, and bonded to a kraft paper backing for strength. It led to the standard 'Cherry Graph' notebooks, with wooden covers and graph paper.
Unexposed. A black card box containing three notebooks. And that's all Field Notes would tell you themselves. A bit of seaching around online soon tells you that there were six different neon colours of notebook, distributed randomly in the boxes, so you had no way of knowing which ones you'd got until you broke the seal and opened the set.
Lunacy. The moon. A black cover, with the moon printed on the first page inside. Each of the three notebooks then has a different cut-out shape, so one shows a crescent of that moon image, one sees half of it, and the third sees the whole of the moon. And those who subscribed directly through Field Notes got a bonus 4th book with no cut-out.
The current edition is Resolution - the perfect set for the new year, with two books for checklists, and one 56-page weekly planner book.
10th Anniversary Edition
Field Notes recently celebrated their 10th anniversary, and they celebrated the way they know best - with an extra bonus edition. This time, rather than trying something new, they tried something old. Recreations of three classic designs from the founding process of Field Notes.
The red notebook is a copy of a design Aaron Draplin hand-made back in 2002, well before Field Notes started, but it was the first use of the name. It also used the now-standard Futura typeface, but the red and white cover means it's not especially recognisable as a Field Notes. This reproduction has the logo foil-stamped rather than screen-printed.
The second book is a recreation of the initial run of 200 Field Notes books Aaron made to give out to friends, in 2005. By this point, it's quite recognisable as a Field Notes notebook. the original wasn't quite the same size as a modern Field Notes, but this re-issue has been re-sized to fit with the rest of your collection. The covers varied through the run, as Aaron was using available scrap material.
The final book of the trilogy is based on an early test production run from Field Notes as a company, back in 2007, the first try at turning these little notebooks into a real product. With just 32 pages and two staples, it was a bit lower spec compared to what they settled on for the real product - they tried cutting standards, but the result wasn't quite what they wanted so they added more paper and staples. If you're wondering what the 'No. ___ of ___' part of the cover is intended to be used for, you're not alone. Field Notes can't remember what they were thinking. They don't think they planned it as a numbered edition, but if it was for you to number your own notebooks you'd have to know in advance how many you would fill in the future. Notebooks for time travellers? Maybe they were hoping they'd be River Song's next diary. Along with being a nice little set of notebooks to use, they make a fun way to explore Field Notes' history. And that seems very appropriate for Field Notes - basic utility and funtionality, but given a bit of extra style. Just because you need a notebook to do its job as simply as possible, doesn't mean it can't bring a little extra enjoyment to your day.