Review: The Levenger Circa System, Part II
A little more than a decade ago, I was scouting out some venture capital for a possible multimedia project, and made arrangements to meet with a retired paint manufacturer at a cafe. Wanting to appear as professional as possible, I wore my best suit and tie, got a hair cut, and filled my slick black vinyl day planner with all the requisite calendars, to-do lists, expense sheets, project planning forms and special notecards that I thought might convey a good impression. I therefore felt a little awkward when he hobbled in through the door wearing a t-shirt and long shorts that barely skirted the top his knobby knees, toting a worn leather planner that looked like it might have been subjected to World War II. In fact, it had been: he had used the same planner for over five decades, spanning a wartime stint in the navy to the present day, and it was now a rich but scarred ochre brown, replete with years of yellowing papers brimming with ideas, random numbers, and a legacy of tasks undertaken and completed. During the conversation --not much was to come out of it-- I was at first amused, and then transfixed by the rustic nature and longevity of both the man and his queer little "catch-all," as he called it.
The necessity of quality workmanship was made all the more plain when the following month --while trying to stuff too many papers into my own planner-- the cover split along the spine from an errant stitch, and I sliced my finger open. By contrast, I can today hold all of my fatherâ€™s 50-year-old gear from his army days, from notebooks to sliderules to map cases, mostly still in excellent condition, and the value of investing in quality starts to really hit home.
In my last article, I looked at some items in the Levenger Circa line, and wondered if it crossed the boundary from form into function. Since Iâ€™ve already covered the system in general, this article will review the basic core of any planning or notetaking solution: the notebooks and folios that bring all the papers, forms, writing tools and techniques together. And then the big question: is the quality worth the price?
Itâ€™s all about perspective, young man...
By even bothering to pose the question that way, itâ€™s clear that weâ€™re talking about some fairly expensive gear. But letâ€™s put on the brakes here, and seek some context:
- How much would it cost for, say, a medium-to-high quality Franklin-Covey or Filofax planner? Roughly $90-135 to start, and up to twice that.
- How much does it cost for a higher-end one-time-use notebook, like a Moleskine? Roughly $12-15.
- How much for all the gadgets one buys that become outdated and disposable after a year or so? I donâ€™t know about you, but almost everybody I know spends hundreds, if not thousands of dollars on cell phones, MP3 players, GPS systems, laptops, and other devices that are constantly being replaced by "next-gen" versions.
Given that reference point, a $12-18 notebook that can last for years isnâ€™t all that bad, nor a $70 planner that can last for decades. The question then becomes, would you be wasting your money if you purchase them? To that, Iâ€™d answer, it depends if you use them. (Ah, such a simple answer indeed.) This little review may help you decide that.
Yes, but can it make breakfast?
Last week, I wrote about the Circa Translucent Notebooks. In a nutshell, these are notebooks of various sizes --letter-size, junior (almost half-letter), compact, and index card-- that are bound by a set of Circa rings and contained by a stiff set of slightly frosty covers. The notebooks do indeed have their benefits. All but the letter-size covers are strong and stable enough to be used as a writing surface, even when held in your hand, and all can fold back around, like a spiral-bound notebook, and therefore take up less space in use. Itâ€™s very easy to insert and remove pages at any point in a notebook, and thereâ€™s no snapping of rings and awkward shuffling of pages.
Plus, Circa-punched papers of any size can also be used within a notebook of a larger size, meaning that you can mix-and-match several different note-taking and planning solutions. I use a few different sizes for various projects, and love this ability. Unlike a regular notebook, you can insert different styles and thickness of paper to suit your needs; for example, a designerâ€™s notebook may have lined pages, blank sketch paper, storyboard forms, and much thicker paper for ink and wash. You can vary the thickness of the notebooks by swapping ring sizes, effectively creating anything from a 20-page watercolour portfolio book to a 200-page planner. And lastly, a matter of aesthetics: the translucent covers will show any picture page laid under them, allowing you to customise the outside look to your liking.
This is not to say that the notebooks are perfect. Although the 60 lb refill paper at Levenger is high quality and thick, not to mention fountain-pen friendly, it is still rather expensive if you write a lot. You can however purchase compatible Rollabind paper at cheaper rates, or you can make your own (assuming you spring for the special punch). If you use larger rings, you may note that the "spine" tends to jiggle a bit vertically due to a slight give between the rings and the paper. Since there is no fixed spine, like in a planner, this is natural, and using a smaller ring size mitigates this somewhat. There is no loop for pen or pencil, and so youâ€™ll have to improvise for that. And finally, there may sometimes be an occasional â€œcatchingâ€ and bending of the perforated paper between the rings, depending on the paper-to-ring size ratio.
All told, these are minor quibbles, and the translucent notebooks are an excellent bargain, depending on how you fill them. (Ah, this is where we get all D-I-Y in the next article.) For a $10 starter kit and a punch --a Levenger or a cheaper Rollabind-- you could be using a completely customised notebook for many, many years.
A quick note to elaborate on something I mentioned last week: the fact that Levenger is transitioning its middle-size notebooks and paper from their "Junior" size to the North American industry standard of Classic size. As you probably know, Classic is half of a letter-size page, which is to say 5.5â€ x 8.5â€. Itâ€™s fairly easy to find this size, or to make your own by chopping letter-size stock in half. Junior size is rather awkward, slightly wider and shorter than Classic. However, I do find that the current Junior sized gear does facilitate Classic pages quite well. I use a combination of both Junior and Classic, and the differences are small enough that I barely notice. True, the edges of the paper donâ€™t line up exactly right, but given my history of making my own pages by chopping and punching, Iâ€™m rather used to that anyway. The important thing is that Classic pages still fit in Junior notebooks and folios, as long as youâ€™re careful about how you punch the pages.
I should note that the newest colour "Junior" tabs produced by Levenger are in fact Classic size. The previous set seemed too thick, to the point of sheer bulkiness, and were (some would say) a tad too colourful. The new thinner ones offer rich, earthy hues that match well the green and gold Levenger colour scheme, and strike me as far more attractive.
A question of lust?
One of Levengerâ€™s top sellers is the Circa Leather Foldover Notebook. (The Junior size I tried is item ADS2280.) I can see why people like this product so much. Or rather, desire them, almost illicitly. Instead of a translucent cover, this model uses a rugged black plastic "skeleton" layer wrapped by finely-stitched leather. The inside front is plain, but the back cover sports three pockets: one full-length for tucking larger papers, and two that hold business cards or sideways index cards. A thoughtfully-designed pen loop with leather facing outside and elastic facing inside will accommodate almost any pen, although it will be pushed outside the notebook if one uses tabs. The covers are just thick enough to offer excellent support without feeling bulky, and the whole affair has a unique classic-futurist feel to it: classic because of the leather, futurist because of the Circa rings. Overall, itâ€™s quite pleasant to hold and use. The fairly high sticker price is $58-94, and thus any decision to purchase will probably come down to a matter of cost versus quality and longevity. Given the amount of money that people like me spend on office supplies, journals, notebooks, binders and other productivity paraphernalia, it strikes me as a good buy. In fact, I like it so much that Iâ€™m saving to purchase one in green, to match my planner.
Who needs a digital hub? Gimme analogue.
Oh yes, my planner. My Great Circa Experiment was conceived as a way of consolidating all my various bits and bobs of productivity gear into a collective whole, with the notion that a Circa system might be able to forge some semblance of compatibility. The core of it would have to be, of course, a planner.
Iâ€™d like to say that I donâ€™t switch planners lightly, but the sad fact is that I do. The constant tweaking, experimenting and designing of different size template "solutions" is what led me to this sorry circumstance. Was it truly possible to create a system where I could implement everything I needed to do to become productive, creative, and â€”wellâ€”- on time for appointments?
The dubious honour of my next planner falls to the Circa Zip Folio (item ADS2985 for Junior size). I refer to mine as my Levenger Lincoln Green Special Edition, because the only other time Iâ€™ve seen that specific colour was on Errol Flynnâ€™s costume in The Adventures of Robin Hood. Levenger, with a somewhat more staid market in mind, calls it "Evergreen," a limited edition colour. Whatever the case, I love the hue of the full-grain leather, as itâ€™s completely unlike any other planner Iâ€™ve owned, and it somehow reminds me of the nature I'm missing in this near-Arctic winter. (I'm also a decent medieval longbow archer, but take that as ye would.)
The folio meets my criteria quite well. First, the leather is rugged without seeming bulky, and the folio seems far slimmer than my Day Runner. The zipper enclosure helps keep my papers, cards and pen protected in the rugged clime I live in, and I can easily carry a Circa notebook with 1â€ rings inside (fitting about 150-200 pages). There are plenty of pockets on the inside of the front cover, including three full-length ones (that can carry a letter-size sheet folded in half), a see-through business card window, two deep pockets that can hold index cards, and four that are suitable for holding business cards. The planner is supple enough that it can easily open flat, and the pen loop is the same leather/elastic combination that works so well with the foldover notebook. The cost for the Junior version is $78, just $10 more than the foldover, but note that one has to purchase a Circa agenda or translucent cover notebook to go inside.
By comparison, my clunky half-leather/half-vinyl Day Runner retails for $85, and some (unused) Franklin-Covey planner binders in my possession retail for $120 plus. The quality of the Levenger Zip Folio is similar, if not superior. It feels like it could last for a long, long time.
That being said, the product is not flawless. First, I really wish there was a second pen/pencil loop. I carry around a mechanical pencil as well as a fountain pen, since many of my appointments and contacts change regularly, and there was no obvious place to store it. Second, and the source of many late-night oaths that would no doubt induce fainting spells in those of a more delicate constitution, was the infernal sliding of the notebook within the folio.
Some further context: only occasionally do I use a planner on a table or firm surface. Most of the time, itâ€™s in my lap as I muse at the base of a tree, scratch out mind-maps while leaning precariously back in a chair, or jot memos to my future self while sitting up in bed. My life is not meant to be lived solely in compartmentalised boxes, on stable surfaces, or in a perfect office environment, and thus my planner has to be yanked out at a momentâ€™s notice to catch whatever leaps wildly from my brain.
In a Junior Zip Folio, the back cover of a Circa notebook is meant to fit inside the pocket of the back folder to keep the book stable. But this only works on a flat surface. Holding the folio at an angle, I found that since the back cover didnâ€™t fit tightly inside it, the notebook would shift all over the place --usually declining to the left-- while I wrote.
Thankfully, thereâ€™s a happy conclusion to this sordid development. I carefully measured the inside of the folio and sketched out a little hack. Using a guillotine, some scissors and the inside of a plastic Levenger file folder (though any stiff report cover would do), I created the shape you see at right, then punched it with the desktop Circa punch. I rounded the corners, attached it to my notebook, and slid it inside the back pocket. Voila! No more sliding, and I can now easily clip my mechanical pencil below the notebook. A major pain, a simple solution. Score one for the flexibility of the Circa system, a modder's delight.
There are a few other hacks I pursued while turning my folio into a viable planner, but those will have to wait till next week, when Iâ€™ll review how I set mine up using a D*I*Y Planner approach.
Head in the clouds, feet on the ground
But the questions remain. Are these upscale notebooks and folios really worth the cost? Do they possess both form and function? Will you still be using them decades from now?
Back when I was twelve or thirteen, I told my father I wanted to buy a computer. (This was in 1981 or 1982, mind you.) He gave me a friendly whack upside the head and said, in his usual direct and indomitable tone, "Never buy anything you wonâ€™t use." I bought it, and twenty-five years later, Iâ€™m a multimedia producer. Of course, Iâ€™m not using the same old VIC-20 (would that I could), but Iâ€™ve invested in my equipment wisely over that time.
Likewise, it pays to consider carefully any path that involves time, effort or money. Itâ€™s folly to pay $60 for an attractive notebook or folio youâ€™ll use for a week. But itâ€™s certainly worthwhile to invest that money if you plan on using it for years to come. Many people ask me for advice when choosing a planner. I tell them to start cheap, perhaps with a $20-40 model, and then â€œupgradeâ€ to a high-quality one if their usage warrants it. (After all, many people purchase paper planners and never use them.) By the same token, if the Circa system interests you, Iâ€™d suggest buying their inexpensive starter kit and some refill paper. If you use it regularly, then consider a punch next, especially if you like to cut or print your own forms. Then, look at the pricier upgrades. All things told, itâ€™s still a heck of a lot cheaper than a comparable Franklin-Covey or Filofax solution, and more so if you use D*I*Y Planner forms or blank fills.
Really, itâ€™s all about investing your money over the likely lifetime of a productâ€™s usage, and then deciding if itâ€™s worth it. In the case of the Levenger Circa notebooks and folios, I certainly see its value for my own use.
In retrospect, the old man in the cafe no doubt found me just as amusing as I found him. Hereâ€™s a young whippersnapper, trying to impress me with his business wiles, and heâ€™s probably not written a single idea in that fancy black planner. Of course, he was right. Itâ€™s just taken me a decade to understand the emotional involvement he had with his catch-all, and the untold hours of quality time he probably spent with it. I think itâ€™s a safe bet that this wouldnâ€™t have been so, if it had been made of plastic.
Next week, the birth of a Circa-based planner, D*I*Y Planner style.