A celebrity in the graphic design world, Aaron Draplin has plied his trade for an impressive list of globally recognized brands. He even teaches seminars on the subject to aspiring designers, many of whom have been inspired by his work and charisma to pursue the same career track. Nowadays, however, Draplin is probably just as well-known for cofounding Field Notes as he is for his design acumen.
Field Notes—which Draplin cofounded with his friend Jim Coudal—designs, prints, and manufactures memo notebooks, press sheets, pens, pencils, and other related accessories. The company was inspired by the small promo books, manuals, and agricultural memo books that Draplin discovered on a journey across the American heartland more than 15 years ago. Listening to him talk about these items, it’s clear he has a genuine soft spot for the small slices of Americana that were a part of daily life for the farmers of decades past. He also seems to understand that his affinity for something like a pocket-size corn grower guide from 1930 might seem a little, well, corny to some. Then again, if the success of Field Notes is any indication, plenty of folks are just as sentimental.
“This whole thing starts all the way back in 1993 in my excursion leaving the Midwest to go west, and all the warts and moles in between—junking, hitting estate sales and flea markets along the way,” Draplin explains in a Field Notes brand video. “I would find these (little notebooks and field notes books) and use them to draw.”
He began to collect, or as he says, “rescue them,” from obscurity. Inspired by the designs of the pocket-size books he had discovered/rescued, the Portland, Oregon-based Draplin made up a batch of 200 small notebooks by hand and gave them to friends as Christmas gifts in 2007. One of them was Coudal, who was perfectly happy leading his highly successful ad agency in Chicago, Coudal Partners. Coudal told Draplin that he thought there might be something desirable in the notebooks. A few weeks later, Field Notes was launched by Draplin Design Company and Coudal Partners. They made 500 three packs of pocket-size notebooks to start—and sold them all in no time.
Today, the company is based in Chicago, and every one of their products is manufactured in the United States. The paper is hand selected for each new design and sourced from mills in the Midwest. The inks are US sourced as well. The original notebook that Draplin designed by hand is still for sale at fieldnotesbrand.com. Like most of their books, it’s a 48-page memo book available with graph, ruled, or plain paper. At three and a half inches wide and five and a half inches tall, it fits in most pockets, and it has a five-inch ruler inside the back cover. Some people use them to write down their grocery lists. Others, like Draplin, draw in them. Some folks just use them to jot down reminders of things or ideas they want to easily recall later.
Today, Field Notes products are sold in hundreds of retail locations around the world, from the unexpected (surf shops) to the expected (stationery shops and bookstores). For $120, you can skip the retail process and get a yearlong subscription that includes multiple packs of all four Quarterly Limited Editions, 10 percent off any other purchases, free shipping inside the United States, and other “surprises.” The basic Original Kraft notebook is sold in three packs for $12.95 online. Field Notes has partnered with brands such as Canada Goose, Starbucks, Carhartt, L.L. Bean, Tommy Hilfiger, and more.
Field Notes may have grown well past those first 500 notebooks in the last 15 years, but it still comes across online as a person-to-person company that looks after the details. The slogan at the bottom of the Field Notes website reads: “I’m not writing it down to remember it later, I’m writing it down to remember it now.” The quote came from Coudal’s grandfather, who used to tear off pieces of the newspaper because the simple act of doing so would help him remember a thought.
The Field Notes website overall is focused on both the end consumer and the notebook details. The “Dispatches” section—essentially a blog with posts about special offers happening in real time—uses clever tactics to drive return visitors. Road Trip Wednesday, on July 27, 2023, for example, offered a set of five Great Lakes Colortone Postcards and an “old-school” National Parks Water Transfer Decal free with your order. Just about every item on the site comes with a 10 percent discount for subscribers.
Clicking on any of the individual Field Notes products will give you insight into the design inspiration, the chosen paper, any special finishing, and the production of the booklets. Each description is worth the read to discover what makes the individual booklets and limited-edition sets unique.
One of the coolest features is the imagery collection of agricultural notebooks, product guides, and more gathered at the bottom of the “Our Story” section of the website. It features vintage product guides for fertilizer and seeding corn, various memo books, and miscellaneous farmers’ pocket ledgers, such as one from something called “American Field & Hog Fence.” These were Draplin’s inspiration.
On social media, the @fieldnotesbrand Instagram account is chock-full of beautifully shot product photos, creatively executed reels showing how products are made, and posts announcing contest winners and the products they’ve won. Leading up to Father’s Day, the account featured posts of ideal products for dads, as well as some humorous ones that conveyed the Field Notes brand personality, which seems to not take itself too seriously. The mainstream media have taken notice of the brand’s rise as well, with coverage from the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Magazine, Fast Company, New York Magazine, and WIRED.
Field Notes also creates original video content. Some films tell the stories behind collaborations with various artists and designers who have created the different notebooks. Draplin himself is frequently featured in videos that explain how he arrived at the most recent theme of a new notebook series and how he might have personally chosen the designer and the paper.
The brand uses its email newsletter to deliver special offers, which are sometimes hidden at the bottom to incentivize people to open and keep reading. In May 2023, they offered a chance to be entered into a drawing to win “one of 25 long sold-out Lunacy Edition 4-packs.” A corresponding blog post on the website says that “only 14% of customers paid attention to that hint in the email.” Meaning: you should have entered because you would have had a great chance of winning. Clever.
Field Notes also drops limited releases called Quarterly Editions four times per year, each with a new design theme or paper. Themes have included the Great Lakes and streetscapes of American urban architecture. The 59th Quarterly Edition notebook launched in summer 2023, called “Foiled Again,” was a tribute to the printing process of hot-foil stamping. Our favorite release: a collaboration with Hatch Show Print, the famed Nashville letterpress print shop started in 1879 that specializes in concert posters. The notebooks themselves aren’t just filled with blank pages for you to fill up; the limited-edition series often features trivia facts related to the theme or an essay by a writer the staff knows. The Great Lakes limited-edition notebook even comes with a foldout map.
While modern-day farmers may not rely on foldout maps, it’s entirely likely that the flea market gems of yesteryear that inspired Draplin and Coudal are coming full circle today. No doubt there are more than a few Midwest farmers in 2023 with Field Notes notebooks tucked into their chest pockets as they go about their daily tasks—a romantic image that Draplin must appreciate.
Why do we love the Field Notes brand?
- Partnerships with artists and designers to create original designs and artwork for each new release
- Appreciation for and use of specialty papers selected for production of each new Field Notes booklet or set of booklets
- Unique print techniques
- Online film archive featuring the inspiration, artist, and production notes behind each Quarterly Edition
- Who doesn’t love print? Especially these wonderful pocket notebooks!