MAKE Asks: Notebook Organization

MAKE Asks: Notebook Organization

MAKE Asks: is a weekly column where we ask you, our readers, for responses to maker-related questions. We hope the column sparks interesting conversation and is a way for us to get to know more about each other.

This week’s question: How do you take notes when working on projects? Be it on loose pages or a notebook, link to a scan that represents your work, or simply describe your note-taking process.


I document my projects in a loose, amoebic style on my Maker’s Notebook. Often they consist of short lists that are outlined and separated from other sections. Notes from the same project will often be spread out over many different pages, but I can recall them based on the page’s visual signature. Here is an explanation of the notes in the image above, counter-clockwise from the upper left (click here for a high-res version).

– Directions to the MoMA in NYC.
– Documentation as we were committing notes to tape for the Magnetotron.
– Parts costs for a recent project.
– Hours spent in working on the same project.
– Notes for the grease pencil markings made on the tape used for the Magnetotron.
– Fluorescent light SKU for use in a recent project
– Tool list for a recent construction job.
– Parts list for the Magnetotron.
– Parts costs for a recent project, continued.

Post your responses in the comments section.

28 thoughts on “MAKE Asks: Notebook Organization

  1. Jeff Patton says:

    I use a moleskin

  2. Jack says:

    I try to follow the recommendations given for keeping a notebook that could potentially be used to patent, or defend a patent, on your ideas. I use bound notebooks with page numbers from Laboratory Notebook Company in Holyoke, Mass and follow these general guidelines:
    1. Write only in ink. If you need to correct something, draw a single line through so that it is still somewhat legible.
    2. Write only chronologically through the pages. I don’t keep a certain page, or set of pages, for a project. You just write the title of the project/idea/thing at the top of each new page, and then only write things pertaining to that subject on that page. This is the biggest help, and it creates less anxiety about laying out your notebook. Never again wonder “how many pages should I leave for this subject”.
    3. Keep track of projects in an orderly manner by using the first two pages for a table of contents. Every Friday I am religious about adding page numbers to the topic headings I have created as I go.
    4. Never, NEVER tear out pages! Also, don’t try to add pages to the notebook. That’s why a bound notebook is recommended.
    5. Sign and date the pages, and if you have something that you think you would potentially patent, or may be some sort of breakthrough, get someone you know and trust to witness and sign the page as well. (I never do this, but then I haven’t come up with anything that I thought I would ever patent)

  3. James Patrick says:

    I’ve tried the bound notebook approach that Jack describes, but it got tiring really fast. The simple requirement of a pen is enough to hamper my creativity. Now I prefer spiral notebooks with non-perforated pages. The perforated ones tend to self-destruct in my backpack.

    For school, I have a separate notebook for each class, and I get new ones for each semester. The ones with folders built in help with organization. One thing that I started doing recently is keeping a BIC mechanical pencil in the spiral of every single notebook. This way I never have to look for a pencil or bother with a sharpener. If I were developing a potentially lucrative design, I would use the bound notebook/pen method as recommended by the USPTO.

  4. Michael Colombo says:

    Well, first comment wins the prize for brevity. Second comment wins the prize for verbosity. :) BTW Jeff, the Maker’s Notebook is very similar to a Moleskine, but with a whole lot of cool stuff packed into it.

  5. chuck says:

    I use spiral bound note books and loose leaf graph paper. I’m left handed so I flip the notebooks around with the spine on the right and work backwards. I only write on one side of the page so every page is faced with a blank for further notes later. I usually write with mechanical pencils and ultra-fine sharpies. Other than that I’m pretty disorganized. I usually have several note books going at once and I have to hunt for the right one. I’ll have directions to a client’s house next to a schematic and a list of music a friend recomended. I also have pages with nothing but one or two sentence ideas with an asterisk next to it. These are for times when I get stuck and need to think of other things.

  6. Kevin Bailey says:

    I tried lab notebooks, but got too frustrated with trying to find that one page in that other notebook related to Project X. Now I cut 8.5×11 scratch printer paper in half, hole punch for 5.5×8.5 and put in the little loose leaf notebooks that you can get at Office Max. They have ones with built-in pouches where you can put pens, rulers, etc.

  7. Liam says:

    I use a variety of paper and electronic notes. For daily to-do lists I use a small notepad with perforated grid-ruled pages. For meetings I use a dedicated grid-ruled composition book with permanent pages.

    For larger projects, reference notes, etc. I use a tiddltwiki ( It’s completely client-side, searchable, and easy to edit or update.

  8. Karel says:

    At home: notes everywhere… loose pieces of paper, or anything that holds ink (cardboard, wood, etc). It’s a difficult to maintain archive – which I don’t maintain.
    At work, that’s different. No wood :-)
    I work at a large company, with a large R&D. We are supposed to keep notes and labjournals as Jack describes. Besides that method, we have a networked labjournal, to “easily manage notes and find results and methods of others.” That doesn’t work, because of reasons similar to those of James: there’s a threshold for using it. There is no access to the network labjournal in the lab, so you have to write down notes, and then type them in when your back at your workspace. Result: out of ~800 potential users, there were <5 hardcore users and maybe 10-20 occasional users. Failed.
    I once was in charge of a project to create a better digital networked labjournal. The idea: lower any threshold for using it. When more people start using it, value comes on itself.
    The set-up I had in mind was:
    * SharePoint server for keeping and searching documents. Options are in place to secure it for patent applications.
    * Several input methods (to match the various working methods around):
    – Direct via OneNote: enter tekst, graphs, sketches directly to a document. Even graphs and screenshots from other programs. Connection to sharepoint is available. On your own PC or a tabletPC
    – Directly via Word/excel (used by most people), On your own PC or a tabletPC
    – And finally, for people who can't miss paper, for labwork without computer available (or in dirty / chemical environments): use Anoto paper with an Anoto digital pen. When docking the pen to your PC, the documents you've written are automatically transferred and processed. An interface would have to be created to automatically read text fields on your pages, to save the document (including project, date, keywords, graphs, sketches, etc) to sharepoint.

    Due to lack of funding (programming of anoto and sharepoint were required) this project stopped after a short pilot and some tests. I might pick it up again in the future, when the financial tides turn :-). I appreciate discussion and any experiences of others!

  9. Patrick Carroll says:

    I’ve always kept a spiral one subject notebook to keep notes. Once I started working on more projects and ideas, not just work or daily stuff, I used a dedicated Project Notebook. I always put a title and date at the top of the page for each new project, but that’s about the extent of my organization. I’ve recently discovered the Make project books, and am now trying to solely use these to document my “maker” type projects.

    I also started taking digital photos of my bigger stuff like welded bike contraptions, but never figured out a good way to organize and document those builds… I also need to write more notes. Before, I would just sketch ideas graphically with little verbiage to back it up. Now I’m trying to put a brief synopsis of the idea after the title, then add sketches, BOMs and notes as I go.

    1. Michael Colombo says:

      One way to organize digital pics and documentation is by starting a blog! Then you can submit your projects to MAKE and maybe we’ll cover them :) For pics specifically though, storing them in Flickr sets is great. Once you reach their picture limit, go for the Pro account. It’s worth the money IMHO.

      1. Patrick Carroll says:

        A blog is actually a great idea. I’ve never been a big fan of on-line storage, but blogging might give me motivation to document things better, as I would always need more info for a blog!

  10. Sally Carson (@fixpert) says:

    For ideas, and projects, I use a grid hard-cover Moleskine, 5″ x 8.25″ — this one:

    I leave the first 4 pages blank. I number all the pages in the sketchbook. Once it’s filled, I create a Table of Contents in the front, so that I can quickly find ideas later on.

    When I’m working on a specific project, I go through old Moleskines, read the Table of Contents, refer to any relevant pages, then use tiny stickies to bookmark places that I need to refer to repeatedly.

    For my less “evergreen” stuff, like to do lists, I usually just have printer paper on a clipboard. I refer to items in my Moleskine as needed in my tasks. Like, “Conceptual sketches for explaining our API – see notebook pg 63”.

  11. Ian Oliver says:

    I use Evernote exclusively, because it makes organization, basic formatting, picture embedding, and web clipping easy, and because I can access it on my phone. I make one note per project; these notes are organized into notebooks called Hardware, Software, and Systems, which are all in a stack. I type in my ideas in either paragraph or hierarchical list format, depending on how I feel like writing. Sometimes, I write paragraphs with lists in them; sometimes, I write paragraphs that are organized in lists. In any of the formats, I sometimes give each paragraph/list item a title in bold.

    Re the use of lab notebooks for proving that you had an idea at a certain point in time, what about keeping most of your notes however you like, and then every time you add to them, you put a dated and signed summary in your lab notebook?

  12. New Advances in Computer | Your #1 Source for Technology and Information says:

    […] MAKE | MAKE Asks: Notebook Organization document my projects in a loose, amoebic style on my Maker's Notebook. Often they consist of short lists that are outlined and separated from other sections. Notes from the same project will often be spread out over many … […]

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In addition to being an online editor for MAKE Magazine, Michael Colombo works in fabrication, electronics, sound design, music production and performance (Yes. All that.) In the past he has also been a childrens' educator and entertainer, and holds a Masters degree from NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program.

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