Moleskine champions the future of handwritten notes in a digital world

Profile picture for user pwainewright By Phil Wainewright September 30, 2019
Upmarket notebook maker Moleskine is adapting to life in a digital world, both in its internal operations as a business and in its product line

Moleskine Dropbox smart notebook and app

For a company whose core product is a paper notebook, Moleskine is surprisingly digital. Its innovation team are avid users of Dropbox Paper, a shared digital canvas for collaboration, as I learned in conversation with Peter Jensen, Moleskine's head of digital innovation at last week's Dropbox Work in Progress conference. He also explained why writing things down in a paper notebook still has a purpose in a digital world.

Like so many other enterprises today, Moleskine is a highly distributed, digitally connected, global organization. The company has a lean operation, with very few functions in-house, handling production and distribution through long-term partnerships. Jensen's team spans the world. He's based in Copenhagen, there's a marketing person at the company's home base in Milan, an application development partner in Singapore, and other resources in Australia, the US and Canada. Unsurprisingly, the team are heavy users not only of Dropbox but also Slack and Zoom.

They are also avid users of Moleskine notebooks. Even in a digital world, a paper notebook remains an invaluable tool for marshaling thoughts — "a reflective interface," says Jensen. Rather than attempting to replace the notebook, the digital world should integrate it alongside other activities, he says.

If your perspective is enabling creativity, then you shouldn't care about if it came from paper, it came from screen, or even voice.

Notebooks in a digital world

Ever since a first tie-up with digital note-taking app Evernote in 2012, Moleskine has been finding ways to integrate its notebooks into the digital sphere. Its digitally compatible smart notebooks have a pattern of machine-readable marks printed on the paper. This allows any page to be captured in the mobile app and transferred online, as highlighted in May this year when Moleskine announced its partnership with Dropbox and the launch of a new Dropbox Smart Notebook (pictured above).

Being able to transfer handwritten notes or sketches directly to digital cuts out a lot of unnecessary transcription that people routinely do, says Jensen.

The real thing we use it for is to bridge from your head with notes, to sharing and collaborating, without any loss of time.

Instead of typing up your notes and then designing a Powerpoint image to share them, why not just transfer the handwritten page directly into the deck? That's a principle his team has been practising for some time, and others in the organization are now starting to follow suit, he says.

We're trying to remove, culturally, the steps in between, because the value you get from that is actually relatively small. For us, it's really agility and speed we value, much more than formality and form.

The same applies to notes you make for your own use. Once they're ready, just upload them for future use, he recommends.

I never type my notes. I capture, transcribe and store it. I can now search it, I can access them again ...

There's an element of self-curation. But then once you've curated mentally, you shouldn't have to curate physically.

Teamwork in Dropbox Paper

In the world of digital collaboration, the shared canvas of Dropbox Paper, with its ability to bring together files, text and action points, gives teams a similar curation space, suggests Jensen.

It has a lot of the qualities of a notebook. It's immediately accessible — the threshold for getting in is extremely manageable. But at the same time, we can have on-the-point and meaningful conversations, both synchronously and asynchronously, which are completely transparent to everybody at the same time, without files or documents. Also you take away the formality of everything, because everyone is just in there, commenting and contributing.

The last thing is, the way that we use it, we become very specific on the conversation. Everybody comments and at some point there is either a consensus or someone has to make a decision. But it's super visible to everyone.

That ability to focus around a specific task is what distinguishes Paper from Slack, which the team uses for more ad-hoc communications, such as reminders or alerts, says Jensen.

Slack is a very sequential experience. What we like about Dropbox Paper is that you post the creativity or the proposition there, and then all of the commenting happens around ...

Slack is great for many things. We use it as a way to just keep everybody in sync. Paper is more for working on a specific thing.

Democratic adoption

Speaking about the newly launched Dropbox Spaces, which replaces the traditional folder view of Dropbox with a collaborative workspace, Jensen welcomes the integration of Paper, which had not been part of the early release. Given how much Paper is part of the team's daily routine, that had been a significant omission. Now that it's included, he sees a lot of potential from bringing everything into one place.

I think taking away the cognitive dissonance of trying to understand what's going on in multiple tools, of actually having one view, will be massively beneficial.

If others in the team agree with that view, adoption is likely to be quite rapid. But it's an important tenet that adoption must be democratic rather than imposed, he believes.

There's a leadership decision of me saying, 'Okay, guys, we're going to try this.' And then there is the hope that people will see the value almost organically. Once they do that, then you can accelerate the thing.

It has been a super frustrating thing for me, when you do the overtraining thing initially, and not let people take ownership. I think the biggest paradigm shift in all of this is that it's democratic. The selection process and the buying process is that they have to buy into it.

That's one reason why the innovation team have been the early adopters within Moleskine of these digital tools — they recognize the need, says Jensen.

The benefit of having a very distributed team is that everyone can see the need of these things. The biggest challenge for implementing these tools are actually for people in headquarters. Culturally, they're tied into the dynamics of the company. When you're a virtual organization, accessing the value becomes a need.

My take

An interesting insight into the dynamics of digital collaboration from a business with a thoroughly analog product — but one which nevertheless is finding a role in a digital world.