Digital Fountain Pen, Anyone?

Our second guest post is by Australian professional business communicator Lee Hopkins, a guy well-attuned to entrepreneurship, marketing, organisational theory, information technology, and getting his point across. (No small feat, in the same guy.) The reason for asking Lee to contribute is thus self-evident: he has a really cool accent. - DJ

Ditch your digital PDA...I'm no different from any other entrepreneur - at any moment I need access to a diverse range of information: phone numbers, email addresses, website urls, project notes, timesheet logs, and so on. The lovely thing about either a digital or paper-based PDA is that you do have access to such knowledge relatively easily.

But there the similarities cease.

Until recently I enjoyed the luxury of an ancient and crusty Palm III. But somehow, at a party, I misplaced it and its loss has been my pain. This forced me to dig out my trusty old leather A4 paper planner and look around on the web for a suitable set of pages.

Thus I was delighted to find Doug Johnston's D*I*Y Planner; I printed off various pages and all was well.

As you might guess, a leather A4 planner (approximately letter-sized for US readers) has the potential to weigh quite a bit. Add to my workbag my hefty notebook and you have the potential to keep chiropractors in Porches for life.

Now, I love writing by hand -- the feel of my fountain pen on a crisp virgin sheet of high-grade paper is a joy that thrills me to my core. Visceral, sensual, almost spine-tingling at times. Writing with a plastic stylus on a tiny plastic screen does not an epiphanous moment make.

But I have to weigh up the joy of ink versus the weight of a digital PDA. I can put a small digital PDA into my jacket pocket and know that I can update it or my Outlook contacts file at a moment's notice.

And that, for me, becomes the crux of my problem: data transportability versus the sensuality of the hand-written word.

I am torn between wanting to replace my Palm III and keep my leather-bound A4 planner. On the one hand you have an incredibly light, easy to synchronise, easy to carry unit that requires battery power and is small, finicky and with so many keystroke options and operations to complete that it is easy to make mistakes.

On the other you have a cumbersome, weighty data capture solution that transfers information poorly yet can be updated almost instantly, never runs out of power, looks smart and helps keep my handwriting skills alive. Plus it allows me the flexibility to share any captured knowledge relatively easily -- I just remove the project notes I have written, for example, and store them in a project-specific ring binder; I remove my project-specific contacts list, photocopy it, and give it to a colleague.

But as a professional communicator, I have to ask myself: what message is each medium transmitting?

The digital PDA is modern, technologically aware, leading-edge. The A4 planner is conservative and --with my fountain pen-- a reminder of an older, gentler time. The digital PDA is sharp; the fountain pen professional, in the way of my old family doctor, lawyers and medical specialists.

Nothing looks sadder than some middle-aged bloke struggling through his glasses to see the tiny print on his digital pda and then prayerfully, tentatively making stylus-impact choices. Why do early 20-something designers think that everyone has the same perfect vision as them? Who in their right mind thinks that 6pt screen fonts are easily read by the more senior members of the community?

So I remain in a quandary. I have yet to make up my mind on which tool I should focus on.

Some have suggested I use both, but to me that becomes confusing. (I am, like Pooh, a bear of very little brain.) Which tool to use in which circumstance becomes yet another decision to make, in a day already full of decision-making requirements.

If only I'd listened to my mother when I was younger.

What did she say? I don't know, I didn't listen....

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At last....

....somebody in the same quandary as myself. I found myself agreeing with every point you have made in your article; I need one place for everything but paper does some things better than a digital PDA and vice versa. I would be very interested in the route you decide to take - paper or digital and the rationale behind your decision ?

You're not alone...

I'm imagining a initial impression left with many people visiting this site is that we're all a bunch of luddites and paper fetishes, including myself. Nothing could be further from the truth, and in fact many of us (including myself) are Information Technology professionals with a definite hankering for gadgets and technology-driven solutions.

I just want to stress that it's not all about *abandoning* PDAs and software. It's about figuring out where the line in the sand is drawn, where paper makes more sense than digital tools, and vice versa. As you'll see from my personal Hipster PDA kit, I do occasionally carry around a Palm. I use it to carry ebooks, MP3s, daily news, encrypted documents, a word processor (with keyboard), and several years' worth of contact addresses (no need for all those in the planner). Paper, however, is where I track my days, plan for the future, keep my important lists, muse aloud by writing and sketching, and generally romp around with half-baked ideas. It is both planner and playground.

Some people are no doubt best suited for completely digital solutions, and others completely paper. Different lines, all, but worthy of a little experimentation in both directions.

I'm glad for Lee's article here, and you voicing your own quandary. Hopefully a few more people can chime in here with their experiences.

all my best,

Paper vs PDA

I've been going through a bit of thrash with this as well. So far, the dividing line for me is email & contacts, and I am undecided about calendar.

I have a blackberry 7750, which is the color version with the larger screen and I absolutely love it for email and contacts. Right now I have my calendar synced to it, but I am leaning towards the DIY planner put into a Franklin Cover Classic size leather binder that I have.

I carry a Moleskine pocket size lined notebook for todo's and misc notes and I am going to print DIY pages for my project notes to keep in the Franklin Covey.

I would be interested in any recommendations for a good fountain pen for left handers.

Which kind of left-handed?

"Left-handed" includes a wild selection of writing grips, directions, and angles, as you can see from this page on John Mottishaw's web site. Mr. Mottishaw is a well-known nib worker in pen collector circles.

I'm a left-handed "underwriter," meaning that I hold my pen much like many right-handers -- my hand is below the writing line, so I don't drag my hand across fresh ink. My writing mechanics seem to let me use whatever fountain pen I like, at least so far.

-- flexiblefine

Smaller planners and satellites

When I was struggling with productivity problems last year, I went back to a letter-sized planner I had used at a previous job. Like you, Lee, I found the weight of the big planner too much to want to wrestle with all the time.

When I adopted GTD, I specifically went looking for lightweight stuff that would let me use my fountain pens. I ended up using Moleskine pocket notebooks for several months, and now I've moved back to a planner -- "classic" size this time, roughly A5.

The advantages of paper often come in terms of input speed and data portability -- it's easy to scribble a note when you need it and hand it to someone else. The advantages of digital methods are in sorting and searching. One of these days, I think we'll reach the point of real "computer notebooks," which will have all the flexibility and ease of paper with the sortability and searchability of digital, with the added bonus that they won't get heavier when we stuff more info into them.

To help prevent high chiropractic bills, I would suggest trying out a smaller planner. A5 can still offer room to scribble and have epiphanous moments, but with less bulk. Depending on what you use your planner for, you may be able to go smaller -- I used my Moleskine for capture only (writing notes, as opposed to planning or reference), for example. If nothing else, consider a "satellite" notepad or Hipster for appropriate moments.

For easy digital reference, I suggest leaving info on your desktop computer. If you need info from your digital store, make yourself a note and follow up later. :) The ability to have information accessible at all times in all places doesn't necessarily imply the actual need for that instant accessibility.

I'd better stop writing now, before this turns into a guest post of its own.

-- flexiblefine

thanks for sharing...

I love this article and I feel your pain. Thank you so very much for sharing, and please keep us up-to-date on the ins-and-outs of how you ultimately decide, if you do. I'm still in the process...

[addendum - as I've written more of this, it's beginning to sound like a 'confession' post...hope I don't go too off topic here - i'm having the same problem flexiblefine had.]

[addendum 2 - screw it, it was way to long and wandering - I posted it in the forums, so if you want to see my rambling confession of an artist/manager debating the organization of life/work and whether it should be done on paper/palm, go here.]



Paper-PDA merged

I have been through this quandry myself, as I am slowly weaning myself from my PDA back to more paper-based planning. I have yet to come up with a truly acceptable solution, although I am trying something with intriguing possibilities:

(drumroll please....)
The Logitech IO digital pen! More info at:

This device works by having an on-board digital camera just below a ballpoint pen nib. The camera reads reads anything written or drawn on a special (read somewhat overpriced) paper. The paper has a barely perceptible pattern of dots that is unique on a km by kilometer scale. This unique pattern anchors the text in digital space and when the pen is restored to its recharging/download cradle, the bundled software transfers it to a special file. There are more than a few idiosyncrasies to using this tool, but there is a third party vendor who provides a handwriting recognition software solution to turn digital images into text characters.

I don't think this is a complete solution, as the handwriting recognition is problematic for some folks, including me, but on the upside, there is (was?--couldn't find a current reference on their site) a Franklin Covey planner/software combo that works with this the pen system and Microsoft outlook to synchronize planner and outlook components. This package also is supposed to work with lotus notes, the email/planner/calender software our organization uses, but it never worked for me. Oxford paper in Europe also sells a complete solution called the easybook. It looks good from this side of the pond:

The current version of the IO pen fits in my pocket, although it is a bit large for some. Think Mont Blanc size meets space age tech design.

There are other manufacturers of digital pen and digital paper sources in Europe. The digital paper technology drives these products and the patent is held by a European firm, Anoto (

My off and on experience suggests that this type of technology may eventually become very useful, particularly for those of use who prefer or depend on paper, but that it this point in its evolution, you may want to think carefully. That said, at less than 200$US, it may be worth exploring.

I started out earlier this

I started out earlier this year with a Palm Zire and it quickly became a paperweight. Why? Not becuase it didn't do everything it was supposed to, but you see, my handwriting is downright attrocious. Yes, sometimes I have a hard time reading what I write. I had to rescribble every letter at least twice, sometimes I gave up and went to the little on screen keyboard it has because I grew tired of redrawing and redrawing every single damned letter. Maybe a high tech one like a Blackberry with those little keyboards may have kept me with digital, but at what cost?

So for someone like me, a old school daytimer was the only way to go. I'm loving the feel of this thing, and am constantly finding new usefulness out of it.

Thanks for making the 2up kit available bro! Keep it coming.

Best of both worlds

Like many of you on this site, I have come to appreciate the value of both digital and non-digital organizational systems. For sorting through vast amounts of data, digitial is hands down the best. For data entry and flexibility, non-digital is the way to go. I originally wanted to use exclusively a Daytimer or a digital PDA, yet that just wasn't practical for me. So, now I'm testing a new system that takes advantage of the strengths of both pen and stylus. For contacts, I use my cell phone. For planning material that I access frequently (i.e. daily schedule, next actions, etc.), I use the Hipster PDA. For planning material that I don't need to access more than a couple times a day (i.e. monthly calendar, projects), I use my Day Timer. Every morning, I synchronize my Hipster PDA with my Day Timer, and thus I have easy access to everything that I need in a very small package.

Fitting electronic devices

Fitting electronic devices in your pocket is not alway what it is cracked up to be. Especially when someone *cough coug* tries to use the first thing near by (their husbands jacket) to fan an overly sensitive smoke detector while they are making toast.

Insert blushing smiley here.

And then there was the one that got full of rain...


i agree with that

of course there's always the one cowerker who gets the midget, tiny cellphone cos it's kewl. shows it off to everyone. and then loses it the next day because he left it in his pants and had to wash them. $500 down the drain all because it was so tiny and light, he forgot it was there.

same goes for those who sit on their toys because they dropped it into the back pocket and forgot to take them out before sitting on them.

Digital/Paper blending

I love my HP iPaq, let there be no mistake about it. With it, I can check my email in coffee shops, keep hundreds of contacts, and get reminders of events that I scheduled months or even years before. However, small as it is, I hate sticking it in my pocket. That's where the Pocketmod ( ) comes in. Portability? It's one sheet of paper. I put new information on the pocketmod quickly in pen, and then, usually at the beginning of the next day, add pertinent info to Outlook or directly into the iPaq. That also keeps me from building up 200 files named "groceries1, groceries2, groceries3, etc...

Long live the PDA! Long live paper!

-another jp