CR-Brand: Building a Better Notebook

A good notebook is a necessity for me. I’ve tried various organization apps on my iPhone and will occasional jot down a note and email it to myself in a pinch, but when it comes down to it, I’m a pen and paper guy. It’s a system that’s worked for me for years and frankly I have no interest in changing it up. Until recently, my go-to notebook was a Moleskin model, just the typical blank ones you buy in three packs. But I just got turned onto CR-Brand, and their subtle design tweaks are something I’m really enjoying. 

The CR-Brand Notebook Wallet has pockets inside the front and back covers that will actually hold things without them falling out. The feel of the cover is soft but durable, and I’m enjoying it tremendously. 

It’s always a welcome surprise when a designer is able to make such a simple but important improvement to a product, that suddenly you wonder why that improvement hadn’t been made long before. That’s what I like about these notebooks, and, that I don’t have to get on my phone to take notes. 

I caught up with Alexander Pagliere, one of the guys behind CR-Brand to find out more about their company and design process over email in this Q&A. 

First off, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Sure. I started in computer science engineering. I always liked the if-then approach to those problems, but I eventually figured out I needed to be creating things that people would use, so I switched out and wound up taking an architecture degree. 

When I moved to Seattle, it was 2008. So I fell back on computer work for a while before taking work at a metal fabrication studio that did some work for the city's best architects. I realized that that was the angle I wanted to approach architecture from. In making things out of metal, you very quickly learn lessons about feasibility, tolerances, and identifying problems before they become problems. The process of turning material into work is hard. It takes a lot of judgment and effort, and almost none of that work shows on the final piece. There's something eternal in that.

Anyway. Lately I've launched a couple businesses stitching my interests together. Concept creation, design, manufacturing, and distribution are all very exciting and intractable problems that have right answers, and I take huge satisfaction from coming up with an elegant solution.

What is your company’s and your personal ethos when it comes to product design?

I think that preciousness is a liability, and you need a damn good reason to pay that cost. All of my favorite things are used the way they're meant to be used, and they perform well at their tasks.

I've struggled with the apparent contradiction between the idea of legacy goods and, say, a champagne flute or a wad of tinder or a good suit. Even though tinder does its work over just a few seconds, can you say anything bad about the stuff if your fire is burning? Though a champagne flute will break if you clink too hard, its delicacy is part of the important tradition it serves. You can't weld in a fitted 3 piece suit without ruining it, but you're not supposed to - that's not its job.

So I'm comfortable that there is no contradiction. Preciousness is never using the champagne flute because you don't want it to lose its clarity, or saving the tinder for another time, or wearing the lesser suit to the party because you don't want to get any stains on your nice one.

Life is short, and scars are good.

I carry notebooks everywhere and I really like these. Tell us about them. How did the idea for the notebooks come about?

My business partner Sandy and I agree on basic principles because we were close enough to be brothers as we departed from childhood at age 22. We moved out to Seattle together from our hometown in Michigan and as we each figured out what our disparate interests were, we also spent a lot of time talking about values.

He came back to Seattle to visit and he complained about his Moleskine notebook and how stupid its pocket is. "It would be amazing if a notebook had a pocket in it that faced inward so that stuff wouldn't fall out. You could use it as a wallet."

Once he said that, I grabbed a cereal box out of the recycling, cut slots into it, folded the flaps over, and tore the guts out of my Moleskine and stapled them into it. We knew we had to start a business when people who saw that Frankenstein prototype the next day asked us to make them one.

The design is still basically the same as it was that night, but we've made some very deliberate design changes since then. Like not using an X-Acto knife to manufacture them, and using a dot grid, because it's the best grid.

Working with Sandy has made it really easy, because we hold the product to the same values of being well made, yet unprecious.

How did you go about getting them made? How did you find suppliers, factories etc?

The day after the cereal box prototype, I made a CAD drawing which I then laser cut into a few different cover materials. We struggled with what material to use before settling on the amazing paper we use now, which our mutual friend showed us. It's very hard to rip, it's water resistant, it's fibrous, feels amazing to the touch, and weathers as well as leather. It was love at first sight.

From those prototypes, we contacted a few paper and bookbinding companies. The design is weird and requires a slight change to the standard bookbinding processes, so most places said they wouldn't do it. Sandy knew the guys at VG Kids in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and when we sent them the project, Aaron responded cleverly and thoughtfully. He understood what we were trying to do, and he wanted to do it. After that, we stopped talking to other people. After iterating through a few prototypes, we made our first order. It's so nice to work with someone who cares about what they're doing, and will only make things they're proud of. In fact, without someone like that, your only other option is to do everything yourself, which loses its appeal at age 25.

Are there things you want to design and make that you haven’t yet? 

So many things. Besides treating others well, all I want to do for the rest of my life is learn new skills and elegantly solve real problems.

Finally, any advice for would-be designers out there who are thinking about bringing a product to market?

I'm too young to be taken seriously when giving advice, but I have learned a few things. I try to design prototypes with scaling in mind. If I can imagine a realistic assembly-line process for making my product, then I avoid the pain of starting from scratch when it's time to order the second batch.

After that, the relationship you make with your manufacturers is incredibly important. You'll talk with several people who could possibly make your design, but you'll know pretty quickly which is the one you want to work with. Honor that relationship because a designer is nothing without a maker. Communicate like a technical writer.

Then there's the problem of sales and distribution. It would be absurd for me to give advice on this topic. In fact, if you have any advice for me on the subject, I'll take it.