Why you should care

Because analog note taking isn’t dead in the digital era.

It’s become a cliché: genius ideas that started with simple doodling on a napkin. Author J.K. Rowling used serviettes to sketch out early thoughts for Harry Potter, which grew into a worldwide empire. But many artists still reach for pen and page — like the Moleskine, the classic notebook beloved by writers and revered by startups. The trouble is, how do you get your handwritten creations converted from analog to digital?

With smart notebooks. Moleskine’s Evernote line ($25-$30) lets you take photos of your handwritten notes and sync them with your Evernote account. “Smart Stickers” can be used to tag specific parts of your handwritten notes — labels like travel, work or action — that the camera recognizes. There’s also the Livescribe Smartpen and special dot paper combination ($30); as you write in the notebook, the content appears real-time in an app. Another option: The Moleskine Smart Notebook, Creative Cloud connected ($33) version, which launched last year, converts your writing or drawing into workable digital files. Take a photo of your work using the free app (note: this requires an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription) and the software converts it to a vector image that is uploaded to the cloud.

But considering other technology available, are smart notebooks useful? Myriam Joire, a San Francisco-based tech pundit, said in a statement that she thinks they’re “pretty cool” but prefers to take notes directly on her phone. However, she adds, they can be handy when traveling in remote areas where power is scarce. When I tried the Creative Cloud-connected Moleskine, sketches I shot with an iPhone translated pretty well to the computer. The free app also works a normal blank sheet of paper — a much cheaper option — although the vector conversion didn’t work perfectly.

We don’t live in a digital world. We live in a physical world that has that new fourth dimension, which is digital.

Moleskine’s CEO Arrigo Berni

Designers say having both digital and analog tools (like even “smart” Post-it notes) are helpful in their work. Nadeem Haidary, an industrial designer at Gravity Tank, finds prototyping on paper “a lot less daunting to get started.” Colleague Justin Rheinfrank, an interaction designer, is also a fan of handwritten sketches; they help get the ideas out in a clear and concise way, speak to others in ways “that a fully rendered illustration doesn’t,” and can yield different feedback. However, neither Haidary nor Rheinfrank regularly uses Moleskine notebooks — the premium price is a factor.

Moleskine CEO Arrigo Berni says the company created these smart products after finding customers were having a miserable time moving content from paper to digital. Now the company approaches products by having a physical component with an application or digital tool, he says. “We don’t live in a digital world. We live in a physical world that has that new fourth dimension, which is digital.” Berni points to the excitement around the Internet of Things and 3-D printing as proof: digital developments that are building upon physical products.

And Berni is finding that digital-native millennials are actually showing a stronger emotional connection to unique physical objects that have an interesting backstory. Moleskine was founded in 1997, but the notebook style has the legacy of being used by greats like Hemingway, Picasso and Van Gogh. Not bad company to have when you’re doodling your next big idea.

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