Review: The Levenger Circa System, Part I
Don't get me wrong: I love art. I'm married to an artist, and I've suffered my own artistic yearnings over the years. But the reason most often cited for purchasing many of the expensive products created by upscale manufacturers is that the objects are art in themselves, and not meant to be used seriously in any practical application. In other words, form does not always follow function. (Would one take a family trip in a Ferrari, or tote a $10K Prada handbag to a day-job?) Things precious to us, and dear to our wallets, can be merely a symbol that screams out, yes, I have arrived.
Time for some perspective. I'm definitely not the sort to pose in a Ferrari, nor in any other vehicular objet d'art. Neither am I a man of any great pretension, nor significant financial position. Give me a hefty, boxy, unergonomic, kidney-busting Jeep any day. If it's utilitarian, I'm quite happy. (Woe to my fashion-conscious wife with the delicate internal organs.)
Which brings me to Levenger. I've been watching the forums and comments with some interest, musing on the possibilities of the Levenger Circa notebook and folio line-up. But --as I said-- function is usually more important to me than form, and Levenger is widely known for insisting on a certain upscale aesthetic quality in their products, along with price tags that might prove intimidating to those folks overly familiar with the office supply section of Wal-Mart. True, Levenger does produce some beautiful gear --everything from Oxford bookcases to leather Quincy Winger recliners in russet-- and there's barely an item in their catalogue that doesn't awaken something in me akin to lust, but how much of it would prove useful on a day-to-day basis? And what of the costs? Are they really worth it?
I decided on a little experiment.
Picture, in a Closed Circle...
"Hi, my name is Douglas Johnston, and I'm a planner junkie. What? Oh, it started a few years ago, after my Palm IIIc crashed. Then there was that D*I*Y Planner thing, and people started giving me all kinds of great suggestions, and then there was that Hipster PDA thing. Yeah, I'm hooked. How many? Well, I use a leather Classic size Day Runner planner as my hub. But I have a Moleskine for keeping notes. No, I use two of them, a pocket and a regular, plus a couple of PaperBlanks. And a Hipster PDA for portable planning. And, the business card stuff, too, yes. And.... Hmm? Yes, I'm afraid I've even used letter-size at times, mainly for mind-mapping. Where does it all go? Erm, everywhere, I guess. And don't even get me started on sticky notes and online temptations.... Fragmentary, yes, that's a good word. It's a struggle to keep organised at times."
A Possible Solution in Sight
Strolling through the online Levenger catalogue, I was intrigued by the possibilities afforded by their Circa system. Thanks to a certain forward-looking employee of the company (forward-looking, because he listens and talks to some of his most inspired customers on our little site), I was able to secure a number of samples of different shapes and sizes of Circa gear, along with punches, folios, and other items that could be used for my "Great Circa Experiment." The goal: use the Circa gear for a month as a complete replacement for my hodgepodge planning and notetaking system.
Introducing the Circa System
Anyone who may have used a Rolodex back in the glorious days of paper contact management knows the basic mechanism behind the Circa series. Remember the large rings or discs with the little perpendicular strip around the outside rim (forming a "T" in cross-section), and the cards that were punched with "T"-shaped holes? The cross-bar ringing the outside exerted enough pressure to hold the cards firm, and yet by bending the cards slightly, one could easily snap the cards in and out at any position around the rings. This way, one could easily manage contact cards, free of the hassles of dealing with a snap-shut ring-and-hole system.
That painful ring-and-hole system is the basis of most day planners, including the omnipresent Day Runner, Day-Timer, and Franklin-Covey models. If you have such a planner, you know too well many of the problems with the ring system, including the insertion or removal of forms near the beginning or end of a full planner: one often has to remove up to a third of the pages because one side of the rings will not hold all the papers when shuffling. Then, of course, there's the incompatible ring configurations for different size planners, the inability to modify your ring size, and --in some models-- an awkward amount of pressure needed to open or close the rings.
Instead of rehashing the ring-and-hole system yet again, the Circa system applies the Rolodex concept to notebooks and planners. Instead of two fixed rotating rings, there's a series of discs with edges that are --in cross-section-- like a "T" with a rounded top. They are held in formation by the paper sheets and covers that they're holding, which in effect become a spine. The paper, of course, is punched right to the edge with that "T" shape.
To build a standard Levenger Circa notebook, one first inserts discs into the punched holes of the covers. This will keep them steady enough to insert the paper. Then one takes a few sheets at a time and presses the area around the punched grooves (using two fingers) to force the paper onto each disc. Once there's about 20-30 pages, there's enough of a spine that the rings become fairly fixed. From then on, one can easily insert paper anywhere by the same method, or remove a page or three by pulling the sheets downward from the top.
But here's a clincher: since the rings are equidistant in everything Circa, one can insert any Circa-punched page into any product with Circa rings, as long as the maximum physical dimensions permit. So, for example, you can insert a punched index card, a compact sheet, a "junior" sheet, or a letter-size sheet into a letter-size planner. Therefore, the system does offer a variety of interchangeable options.
Do you hear a siren song for those suffering from chronic PSS (planner switching syndrome)?
The Gear Arrives
It's to Levenger's credit that there's a wide variety of options within their catalogue for implementing a Circa notebook or planning system. In response to my request to test a number of those options for my Great Circa Experiment, I was to be shipped a representative sample of products in various sizes and shapes. I also asked specifically for any "planner insert" pages that they produce.
It was like an early Christmas for me as I tore open the shipment to find the beautiful packaging that awaited me: the product boxes were slick greenish-gold with the Levenger name in raised print, and all were held tight with cloth bungee-style straps wrapping around from beneath. Truly, every box looked like a handsome gift. Inside, the leather goods were coddled in fine light-grey Levenger-branded cloths that protected the contents. This was almost decadent.
Well, enough with the fancy presentation already. The Jeep driver in me decided it was time to get to work, so I unwrapped everything and surveyed my options.
First, there were a few packages of discs, or rings. The discs all have the same thickness, but come in a variety of diameters and colours. In practical terms, it means that if you find yourself needing a bigger ring than, say, 1/2", you can step up to 3/4" or 1". Unlike a snap-ring or spiral-bound planner or notebook, you can easily modify your gear to accommodate whatever number of pages you wish.
Next up, there were covers and generic refills for compact, junior, and letter-size notebooks. The flexible covers are all made of slightly-cloudy translucent plastic, about double the thickness of a typical plastic report cover, and are slightly larger than the paper they're meant to cover. The letter size is normal 8.5" x 11", the compact size is 4.25" x 6.75" (the same as Franklin-Covey compact size), and the junior size seemed slightly shorter and wider than Classic size, which is 5.5" x 8.5".
This led to my first point of confusion. I shuffled through the various "junior" sized forms, covers and tabs. There were several inconsistencies. For example, the plastic tabs of one set seemed to be designed for the "standard" junior size (as evidenced by the refills), while another set seemed more suitable for the taller and more narrow Classic size. The agenda pages seemed to be just a bit smaller than either. It appeared that the more recent the product design, the closer it was to the Classic sizing of 5.5" x 8.5". I mentioned this odd finding to our Levenger contact, and I was told that the company is actually in the process of slowly switching all of the slightly different junior sizings to the standard Classic size. Of course, this is wonderful news to most North American users of the D*I*Y Planner, as all of the Levenger gear will fit our forms perfectly without resorting to any time-consuming trimming. Even if you don't use the D*I*Y Planner, it's still far easier to find refill paper that's half letter-size.
(A brief aside: don't fret if you have a slightly older junior product, or are thinking about buying a junior product now -- the differences are negligible enough, as you'll find out in the next article.)
I'm told the Circa paper sheets are 60 lb paper. While this affords a higher quality writing surface, it does mean that your notebook or planner can mustre fewer pages than with standard 20 or 24 lb paper. (More on that later.) The refill packages are offered in three styles: blank, lined and gridded. The latter two are done in a semi-Cornell fashion -- the left side contains a blank "gutter" for keywords, sketches, headers, and so forth, while the right side is standard lined or gridded. Unlike Cornell, however, there is no summary area at the base of the page. I'm not bothered by this, and in fact, find the layout quite useful as is. These refills are also offered five-colour packages of 300 sheets.
Also included in the shipment were a few leather folios and notebook covers. I'll come to these in the next article.
Almost lost among its larger siblings was a small Circa index card notebook. First, a word about Levenger index cards: in contrast to standard cheap index cards like those of Oxford or no-name brands, the Levenger cards take ink very well (even from a fountain pen), have a nicely-coated service on both sides, and provide a stiffer and more durable writing surface. Besides offering the usual 3"x5" cards with blank or lined/gridded faces, the company also sells a perforated type that can fit into said Circa mini-notebook. As you finish off each card, you can tear off the punched edge, resulting in a standard 3"x5" card. That being said, those people who want to create Circa mini-planners with the D*I*Y Planner Hipster PDA Edition cards are probably best advised to scale their print-outs to 93-95% with a further 1/4" margin, which should allow printing on standard index cards while providing enough room for Circa punching.
A Few Lines about Punches
The Circa Desk Punch is a slickly-produced and hefty metal appliance that looks like it could eventually be inherited by your great-grandkids. While its weight means you won't want to lug it everywhere, it's a handy (and necessary) accoutrement to any self-respecting D-I-Y addict who wants to produce his or her own Circa-based planner or notebook system. The $64 price may seem rather prohibitive, but --speaking as someone who really knows his punches-- I can vouch that its quality is far better than many 3-7 hole punches retailing for several times the cost.
The Circa Portable Punch is a completely different beast. It's certainly an imaginative solution to the problem of producing the many holes needed for Circa binding. The gorgeous little jig consists of two pieces: a long clamp/guide and a small roving puncher. One inserts up to three sheets in the clamp, shuts it tight, and then --using a series of notches to aid positioning-- punches a series of holes along the edge of the paper. It's rather awkward at first, but one does get used to it. At $38, it is a little pricey, and unless you need the portability, I'd advise just spending the extra $26 to get the desk version. And if you intend to punch plastic, or anything else besides paper or thin card stock, you definitely need to use the heavy-metal variant.
Before I leave the topic, I've heard a few people elsewhere advocating a possible portable Circa "snap punch," like the common thin three-hole punches that fit into the rings of a binder. Frankly, I doubt this would work, for two reasons: first, most of these become dull very quickly, and are rarely worth the money paid for them; and second, because of the number of holes necessary for Circa punching, the pressure-to-hole ratio is tremendous -- a three-hole punch is hard enough. It's possible that a clever product engineer may come up with a solution to these issues, but it won't be an easy one.
Taking the Plunge, Circa Style
I picked and prodded and shuffled my way through all the sumptuous folios, notebooks, inserts and refills scattered across my desk. I wanted to used almost every single one of them. Did I dare? Wasn't this going to destroy the last coherent vestiges of my productivity system?
Stay tuned for next week's installment, in which your befuddled protagonist attempts to recreate his once-trusty planner in a brand new image, spews forth the occasional curse word, has an epiphany or two, and muses upon the eternal question: can art be functional?