Making the List

Making the List

Our studio director Jennifer Roberts on the story behind our bestselling List-It notebooks

Our monkey king list it notebook.

1. The Inspiration

My mother's singular list-making habit was the initial inspiration for my List-it notebook design. Her lists are a marvel. I would stumble on them all over our house-- on a desk, the kitchen counter, or placed under her keys near the front door. They were exquisite calls to action and artistic in their own right. First, she would fold a sheet of notebook paper in half, lengthwise. Her choice of paper ran the gamut from the classic back of an envelope to a torn kraft scrap from a grocery bag and in desperate times the smoothed out inside of a silvery gum wrapper. Then she would assign a task to each line in her singular shorthand --always in her legible and tidy cursive. By contrast, my list-making is a snapshot of my mental state-- sometimes the script is harried, other times it is carefully composed. My writing tools, however, never vary--an ultra-fine Sharpie, Muji pen, or Blackwing pencil.

2. The Design Evolution

I am a bookmaker, so I designed a notebook for my mother using her preferred list paper size. Then I brought my design to the studio. The List-It swiftly became a bestseller. We soon discovered that many of our customers needed a notebook dedicated just to list-making. We keep adding designs and they keep moving out the studio door. Here is a display stand with our most popular designs.

Our List-Its

3. The Why of It All

But then I started to wonder-- what is the allure behind list-making? I did a deep dive and came up with some answers:

Classic Topics

I started my research with what else, a list. Here are the top 40 popular list headings. Let us know if we've forgotten anything:

  • To-do
  • Grocery
  • Bucket
  • Pros and cons
  • Naughty or nice
  • Honey-do
  • Achievement (Dean's, Honors, Most-Likely, Top-10s, etc)
  • Reading
  • Packing
  • No-fly (TSA)
  • Most Wanted (FBI)

4. Lists Help Us Connect

After rounding up the classics and thinking more about a nearly universal attraction to lists, I came up with a theory. Lists are about identifying connections, and connections are the primary way in which we define our place in the world. Our brains are constantly processing patterns, as well as connections, so listmaking is a natural response to help us organize our stream of consciousness. For example, when we meet someone new, our brains immediately start seeking how we share a connection. Our brains are sophisticated foragers looking for intersections by creating a list of places, people, experiences, and interests. How does our own identity overlap with those of others? In this context, our impulse to make a list makes sense.

5. Explore More

Before patting myself on the back too enthusiastically, I hopped on the world wide web to see if my list theory held up. It didn't take long before I discovered this quote (hang on while I scratch “genius” off my list):

We Like Lists Because We Don't Want to Die

Umberto Eco, interview from his 2009 Louve exhibition about LISTS!

Perhaps this is a tad dramatic, but it seems clear that lists are a foundation of our society and a tool that we use to understand and communicate about the world. Most importantly, we are trying to exert some level of order, of control, despite how futile that might be. All this aside, lists are fun and offer a unique opportunity to engage creatively. Umberto Eco was not without this insight:

The list is the origin of culture. It's part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order -- not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart's librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. We also have completely practical lists -- the shopping list, the will, the menu -- that are also cultural achievements in their own right...

Umberto Eco

6. Productivity

When it comes to lists, productivity is the elephant in the room. The proliferation of PRODUCTIVITY JOURNALS and digital apps to maximize success while diminishing distraction is quite mind-boggling. I have to admit I have mixed feels about this trend. These beautiful productivity journals exude calmness via their monochromatic tactile covers, with soft-gray type, dot-grid backgrounds, and Smyth-sewn bindings (bookbinding nerd). Their form is alluring but implementation is another matter.

7. Down the Garden Path

Our studio team tried out the Best-Self journal at the beginning of the year. I believe that a guided goal is a great idea, but can also be a full-time job. It's difficult to achieve a goal if you haven't taken the time and soul-searching to figure out where you want to go! But it's also hard to move between scribbles on cocktail napkins to hourly accountability of accomplishments and nightly reflections on shortcomings. For some, this is a cinch, but for the rest of us, we need List-It notebooks.

8. Let's Get Real

As a self-diagnosed over-achiever, I felt defeated. I just couldn't keep up with the expectations of this journal. I think that the societal emphasis on empty email inboxes, task ticking, and clothes rolled up in the KonMari way is not entirely healthy. The danger lies in the push to attach more and more of one's self-worth to productivity. All of this "productivity" chips away at the space and time to be curious.

9. Famous Lists

These journals are hardly new. One of our founding fathers was also a forefather to the Productivity Journal. In fact, many modern iterations bear a striking resemblance to Benjamin Franklin's daily journal.

I decided to juxtapose Ben Franklin's daily list with the classic Johnny Cash list. Both are certainly genre classics. We can't all be Ben Franklin or Johnny Cash, but they are inspirational nonetheless.

10. The upshot?

I returned my beautiful cloth-bound Best Self journal to the shelf and picked up my favorite List-It. Then I cleared my desk and created an orderly list with my best penmanship, all thanks to my mother's example. Most importantly, I try to take pleasure in each item I check off and give myself a hall pass about the ones that stick around for another day, or two, and so on. If you have a moment, I recommend a blog from Isa's Journal, The Tyranny of Busyness. Just add that to your "to read" list.


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