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9 best notebooks for ideas, to-do lists and journaling

·9-min read
A new notebook is a symbol of potential, of beginnings, or promises and pledges (iStock/The Independent)
A new notebook is a symbol of potential, of beginnings, or promises and pledges (iStock/The Independent)

The joy of a brand-new notebook cannot be overstated: it stands for so much more than a collection of plain pages. A new notebook is a symbol of potential, of beginnings, or promises and pledges. It is a commitment to a tidy desk, to fresh ideas, a lighter handbag or less screen-time.

In a digital age, it’s kind of wonderful that fresh stationery is still so inspiring – with notebooks especially respected. What makes a great notebook depends, firstly, on what you want to use it for.

Are you a prolific list maker or more of a visually-led person who would like space to draw as well as write? Will you be writing the start of a novel or song lyrics? Are you looking for a date-less diary or a space to journal? Will your notebook live on your desk or need to be diminutive enough to slip into an inside pocket?

The first thing to think about is how easy a notebook is to use. If you can’t write comfortably or if the paper is poor quality – either repelling ink or letting it bleed heavily – your experience is going to be negative. We want to see good quality paper that allows ink to flow easily – neither to shiny nor too mealy. Do you always want lined paper or the freedom of plain pages?

You also need to think aesthetically – and we think looks do matter here. This is an item that will live on your desk, you might take to meetings or have in your handbag. Whether you want a bold statement or subtle elegance, your notebook will say something about you.

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Many companies now offer personalisation – which is especially lovely when gifting. There are also a variety of eco considerations to be made – there are sustainable and vegan options out there.

As always, we’ve looked at a range of prices – from over £80 to under £10 so that all budgets and occasions are catered for.

You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world and expert advice. This revenue helps us to fund journalism across The Independent.

The best notebooks 2021:

  • Best overall – Hoxton A notebook for bad ideas: £15,

  • Best for writing reams and reams – Katie Leamon Lay flat notebook: £21.95,

  • Best for all-out luxury – Smythson Chelsea notebook: £85,

  • Best for escapism – Papier Mirage foiled notebook: £24.99,

  • Best for supporting women – Sasha compton large journal: £65,

  • Best for travelling light – Lava notebook: £6.50,

  • Best for design nerds – Moo Hardcover notebook: £14.99,

  • Best for understated elegance – Dot grid notebook: £28,

  • Best vegan leather – Yop and Tom Moon and stars lined journal: £14.99,

Hoxton Mini Press a notebook for bad ideas

Best: Overall

There are endless quotes about bad ideas attributed to brilliant people and they all essentially say “in order to have good ideas you must first have bad ones”. This is the thinking behind this notebook (20 x 14cm). Its creators describe it as a “perfect notebook in which to risk imperfection”. And it really is pretty perfect as both an object and a tool.

Inside the wrapping paper – a hand-drawn map of East London – you’ve got a hardback and beautifully bound notebook. Once you open the notebook you realise it can lie flat for maximum writing comfort. There are 160 pages of acid-free ivory paper ready for your failures and the subsequent successes. You can choose lined or plain.

We loved using this – the name gave us permission to seize the moment and stop trying to write neat, perfect ideas.

Buy now £15.00,

Katie Leamon lay flat notebook

Best: For writing reams and reams

Ever been irritated by how notebooks flip flop all over the place when you are in the middle of writing out your brainchildren? This flat lay notebook (14.8 x 21cm) is the answer. It opens and as its name suggests, lays flat on the table so you can write in comfort and with ease. After you’ve used this you will probably ask why all notebooks aren’t made like this. With a soft cover, this is fairly lightweight which is welcome for those frequently on the move. Other colourways are available but we thought this was the chicest.

Buy now £21.95,

Smythson Chelsea notebook

Best: For all-out luxury

Yes, yes, we know that’s a lot of money for a notebook but this (11.2 x 16.7cm) is arguably the smartest, most luxurious of its kind. The leather exterior is as soft as you’d expect lambskin to be and the 144 feather-light pale blue pages are tipped with gilt. The pages are lined and perhaps best suited to those with diminutive handwriting. Those with supersized cursive might find this tough to navigate.

There are plenty of colours to choose from but the scarlet makes the biggest statement. You can also have it embossed in gold – another little luxury that will seem essential after using this! The only drawback as far as we can see is that it’s almost too beautiful to be used.

Buy now £85.00,

Papier mirage foiled notebook

Best: For escapism

There are 96 leaves of 85gsm paper – it feels thick and luxurious while still being practical and “everyday”. We love that it can be personalised on the front and the spine is very pretty – lovely if you’re someone who likes to file your notebooks on a shelf.

This notebook (15.3 x 21.5 cm) is part of a gorgeous new collection from Papier – all evoking the heat and brightness of the summer months. We love how the palm trees and mosaic detailing speaks to faraway lands and holidays, something most of us could all do with.

Buy now £24.99,

Noble Macmillan x Sasha Compton large journal

Best: For supporting women

This leather notebook (15.4 x 21.9 cm) is part of a collaboration between Noble Macmillan and artist Sasha Compton. It features the latter’s Female Dancer illustration on the cover and her “Every pair is perfect” design on the inside covers. The exterior is made of a calfskin leather – smooth to the touch and unbelievably soft while inside are 80 pages of unlined cream pages that are thick and, we thought, worked beautifully with a fountain pen.

If you’re not tickled pink by this shade, there is a navy version, but it’s smaller. Aside from being easy on the eye and a joy to write in, it’s also a force for good beyond storing our lists, ideas and memories: fifteen per cent of the profits from each book goes to the charity, Smart Works which provides high-quality interview clothes and interview training to unemployed women in need.

Buy now £65.00,

The Completist lava notebook

Best: For travelling light

This is a cute little book (4.8 x 21cm) with a bright, jolly cover (and the inside cover is a treat for eyes too – a deep green block) of 300gsm card with white wire binding for the spine. What we loved – aside from the price – was how you can choose the interior detailing: line or grid? There are 44 pages of TCF (total chlorine-free) paper and we loved the slimness. It means you can slip it easily between laptop and novel in your rucksack and it weighs next to nothing. A bargain that looks expensive – result!

Buy now £6.50,

Moo hardcover notebook

Best: For design nerds

This hardback cloth-bound notebook (13 x 20.7cm) comes in its own hard case – a beautiful, sculptural object that any design buffs will go wild for. There are loads more features to get stationery junkies hot under the collar – the Swiss binding to ensure the pages don’t pop up all the time. We opted for the grey version but there are others available. You can choose whether the paper inside has lines or dots on it but either way it’s delicious. There is also a section of 16 pages of coloured paper running through the middle of the book (ours were green).

Buy now £14.99,

Mark & Fold dot grid notebook

Best: For understated elegance

Made sustainably in Scotland, this soft-cover notebook sings with understated quality. The cover is 300gsm and made from used coffee cups, giving it stellar eco credentials. It offers 128 pages of 5mm “dot grid” paper, which makes it versatile – ideal for people whose work entails writing, sketching, bulleting and doodling.

It’s simple and elegant with a thread-sewn seam and lay flat design for the spine ensuring easy writing. If dots aren’t what you’re after there are lined versions and plain versions but all are easy to write in, even with thick ink. We plumped for a mustard shade for the cover – but if you want something more discreet there are other hues to choose from.

Buy now £28.00,

Yop & Tom moon and stars lined journal

Best: Vegan leather

We love the weightiness of the book – it feels substantial and important. And we always love a notebook with a strap to keep it closed – so we were cheered to see one on this vegan leather-covered hardback journal (A5). It feels like “real” leather and encases 180 lined pages of crisp white paper. We were also especially pleased to find that the vegan leather is stain resistant, particularly when we spilt a double espresso on it. Wiped off without a trace! The flat lay design is great for comfort and it’s always handy to have an inbuilt envelope for receipts, stamps and postcards.

Buy now £14.99,

The verdict: Notebooks

We’re in love with the Hoxton Mini Press a notebook for bad ideas – it’s inspiring, beautiful, practical and doesn’t cost the world. It’s a really thoughtful gift – especially if you’re giving it to yourself at the start of a new creative project.

The Smythson chelsea notebook is in another league when it comes to luxury, but the price tag reflects that. While at the other end of the spectrum The Completist’s lava notebook offers a super-affordable journal that is easy on the eye, a delight to use and feather-light.

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