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Note Paper Design

27 August 2009

Last year, I designed some note paper for general-purpose writing. This is a little different from the common lined “filler paper”.

Book Design

I chose a “disc binding” system, because I can open it up 360 degrees and fold it back around. Ring binders won't do that. And it looks more like actual binding than rings, too, with the pages held rigidly with very little play so the pad stacks up squarely.

Physical Paper

First, I print it on nicer paper, not the shoddy stuff. Even nice writing books are surprisingly inconsistent in terms of how the paper is.1,2 Nice paper is not too expensive, and it's more important to be carefully selected than to be costly. What I’m using now is heavier weight than the common filler paper or the bargain-basement copy paper. Good stuff can be had for USD $8 to $15 per ream. Only using a few sheets per week, that will last years so cost is not really an issue. If cost is more of a factor, you can at least be selective, finding what is acceptable at a good price, rather than the random non-brand at the mega center.

You can choose from many different options. First is the weight. I like something a little heavier than the standard copy paper, and certainly better than the sub-standard bargain copy paper or notebook filler paper. That alone will give a general air of quality. I’m using “70 lb. Text” which is 104 g/m2 in sensible units. That is the the same as “28 lb Writing”, which you can compare against the common 24 lb. paper. Cheap paper is “sub 24” which is even flimsier.

Another choice is color. Even without going for actual “color”, there are may whites, off-whites, and traditional backgrounds like “ivory” and “creme” to look at. Even among just plain white, you can get the super-brilliant white that must be using phosphorescent enhancers, the regular pure white, and others with different degrees of brightness. For writing paper (as opposed to making charts pop) I want a natural-looking white, not an unnaturally bright white. Neenah has six different whites in their Classic Crest line, for example. I’m using a color that Finch calls “Vanilla”, which is more yellow than Neenah’s “Natural White”. It is much nicer than the garish yellow found on common legal pads. If you like the yellow pads, look into that as a classy alternative.

Then there is the “finish”. For plain paper, there are different degrees of smoothness. Some brands have “smooth” and “super smooth” to choose from. And different brands have a different texture to them. Then you can get something that has a definite pattern to it, or “laid” paper which is kind of like embossed lines that make it resemble cloth. The texture makes a difference to the way your writing works.

Finally, choose paper that just plain works. If printing lines or other stuff before writing on it, be sure it works in your printer. Most of the stuff for sale in letter-sized reams for office use will indeed be excellent for both laser and ink-jet printers. But what about the writing? If using fountain pens, be sure to try it first. Many nice papers, especially recycled, are not fountain-pen friendly at all. If you like gel pens, make sure it takes without smudging. If using pencils or graphic-arts markers, make sure it performs as you would hope when actually marking on it, and doesn't bleed through, feather, smudge, dry too slow, transfer to the back of the other sheet, or whatever. Paper is always a compromise as people use any number of different marking technologies on it. But you know what you have in mind, and can choose something that is excellent for just that. Beware that some brands have different behavior for every individual product, and you can’t infer that one behaves like another even though you think that only the color is different, for example.

Note Page Design

Finally, we come to the design of the lines on the page (see files below). This is different from common filler paper in a couple of ways. First, the lines are more subtle. The right margin is even more subtle, being more of a suggestion than a hard limit.

Second, there are even fainter lines between the main lines. This shows the “x-height” and full height of the letters. I put those in when trying to learn a different handwriting and improve my hand writing in general. I raised the middle line higher to help me make the bodies of the letters larger: the x-height is higher than 50%, as larger “small” letters are more legible. The top line reminds me not to make the ascenders or capitals too large. Like with type, the line spacing is larger than the letter height. The one line does not mean both! These internal lines are very faint.

I also print on one side of the sheet only, as I only write on one side. Some people do write on both sides, so I print both sides for them.

The header and footer area are worthy of note, too. After toying with many ideas, I went with the single row of four boxes. After much use, I've stuck with that. It gives some structure in that you can decide to put a title, subject, date, page number, etc. in different spots and it looks like it belongs there. But it’s free-form enough so you can make up whatever convention you like, or do different things for different applications. The divisions serve another purpose: they mark the half and quarter distances in within the margins. You can eyeball that or use it as a mark to draw a line from top to bottom, if you want to make columns.

The Files

You can download this design, ready to print on 8½ by 11 inch paper, as this notepaper.pdf file. When you print it from Adobe Acrobat, choose “Page Scaling: None”. The default is to shrink to fit the printable area, and this page is meant to cover the whole sheet. It will just cut off the lines where the printer can't get up to the edge. But you don't want to scale and change the spacing of the lines.

You can also download notepaper.svg, which is a Scalable Vector Graphics format that the PDF was created from. You can edit this in a plain text editor, XML editor, or SVG drawing program, to customize it as explained below.

You can also download the Perl program noterules1.perl that was used to generate the SVG file. You can run the program with different command-line options (and/or edited constants at the top of the file) to change the style, line spacing, page size, and anything else.

Another feature of the paper, which I designed in when experimenting with different styles, is an indicator to tell which one I was looking at. If I had several different variations, and decided “I want more of this one”, just which one is that? In the lower-left corner at the margin line is a nearly invisible line of tiny yellow type. This states the command-line options used when running the program. If necessary, you can read it using a blue filter and a magnifying loupe. Or, you can scan it and zoom in, and enhance the color in the program.

Customizing the SVG file

How it prints will vary greatly depending on your printer. It might not print properly at all on business laser printers. It will print well on a photo-quality printer. But, the darkness of the lines will vary from printer to printer and even appear different on different papers. You also may want the lines to be more or less prominent than designed. You can change the line styles by editing the SVG file as plain text. When you open the file, you’ll see this section near the beginning:

<style type="text/css">
  .tbox {
     fill: none;
     stroke: #B3B3FF;  /* light blue-grey */
	stroke-width: 0.2pt;
  .baserule, .tbox_div {
     stroke: #B3B3FF;  /* light blue-grey */
	 stroke-width: 0.15pt;
  .xhrule, .toprule {
     stroke: #eee;
	 stroke-width: 0.15;
  .margin_left {
     stroke: #B3B3FF;
	 stroke-width: 0.2pt;
  .margin_right {
     stroke: #eee;
	 stroke-width: 0.15pt;
  .logstr {
     font-size: 4pt;
	 font-family: monospace;
	 fill: lightyellow;

This is indeed exactly like you use with HTML on web pages. The tbox style is used for the boxes in the header and footer. baserule is for the main rule lines. xhrule is the “x-height” line, and toprule is the higher interior line.

Change the stroke property to the color you want. This is the same syntax as color or background-color on HTML pages. The stroke-width is a measurement, just like the width property in HTML pages.

You might also want to change the margins. This is designed with standard margins, but if you are using disc binding (which is very close to the edge compared with a ring binder) and want to use more of the available space, it is easy to change this value in just a few locations. After the styles, you will find these declarations in the SVG file:

<g id="writeline">
   <line x1="1.25in" y1="0.05625in" x2="7.5in" y2="0.05625in" class="toprule" />
   <line x1="1.25in" y1="0.135in" x2="7.5in" y2="0.135in" class="xhrule" />
   <line x1="0in" y1="0.28125in" x2="8.5in" y2="0.28125in" class="baserule" />

And near the bottom:

<line class="margin_left" x1="1.25in" x2="1.25in" y1="0.875in" y2="9.875in" />
<line class="margin_right" x1="7.5in" x2="7.5in" y1="0.875in" y2="9.875in" />

To remove the toprule or x-height rule, delete the corresponding line.

To change the margin, change the “x” values of each line as necessary. Any change made to the "writeline" definition here will be applied to every rule on the page. And the left and write margins are simply one line statement for each.

Finally, change the “log string” to reflect what you did. At the very least, note that it is customized, and perhaps the file name you saved it as, so you can know what you need more of some time in the future. This is the contents of the two elements beginning with

<text class="logstr" …

which you'll find right after the “writeline” section described in the previous step, and before the main bulk of the file.

Customizing the SVG file II

Some other things you can do are more easily done using a graphical editor such as Inkscape. Do the manual text editing first, and then switch to the graphical editor.

You might, for example, put your name or logo on the page. You can delete elements such as the top or bottom boxes (or some of them) to make room. You can redraw the top or bottom margin areas if you have a different idea.

Finally, use Inkscape (or whatever SVG editor you use) to print or export the result. I always export to a PDF file and print that, since the PDF has better printing controls and I know I get the same results as what I'm sharing.