Design Tools: Top Notebooks and Writing Utensils for Sketching

Like I’ve said before, every designer should be starting their process with sketches. It can be on paper, a whiteboard, or a tablet – the important thing is that we’re spilling out our ideas in total freedom, without the distractions and restrictions of a computer.

So what tools are the best for sketching? The truth is there are no superior tools to sketching out design ideas. Much like a photographer will say “the best camera is the one you have with you”, as a designer, “the best sketchbook is the one you have with you”. It could be a Mead Five Star spiral notebook and Bic ballpoint pen, it really doesn’t matter. What matters is you have something to jot your ideas down.

If you really want to know what my favorite tools are, here’s my list:


muji notebook

Muji Notebook – a coworker turned me on to these notebooks by Muji, a Japanese brandless brand. Muji is know for making amazingly designed products with pretty much zero branding.

The paper is smooth and the notebooks are small (only 30 pages) so you don’t have to lug around a big sketchbook. I prefer lined notebooks because I also write a lot of notes while I sketch.

Price: $8 (5-pack)
Store: Amazon

moleskine notebook

Moleskine – yes, the stereotypical, overpriced notebook for designers. However, these are actually really great sketchbooks. Not only can you pick from blank, lined, grid, or dot grid pages, but you can also be certain that these notebooks will hold up in your travels. Out of all the notebooks I’ve owned, Moleskines seem to age the best. My favorite is a medium sized lined notebook, which usually comes in multi-packs.

Price: $5.95 – $9.95+
Store: Barnes & Noble

Writing Utensils

faber castell pen

Faber Castell Essentio Ballpoint Pen – I love pens – pencils are messy to me and allow us to get caught up in shading and contrast black holes. I came across a Faber Castell store in Tokyo and ended up splurging to get a ¥4400 pen after testing it out (that’s about $35 USD). It’s by-far my favorite pen I’ve ever used for a few reasons: it’s a great weight, the ink lasts nearly a year before running out, and it writes as smooth as butter.

Price: $35
Store: Faber Castell

papermate pens

PaperMate InkJoy Pens – Like I said, I love using a pen to sketch. The pens I use the most are the large, 1.0mm ballpoints. These allow me to keep my sketches simple, which is key in early wireframing. The PaperMate pens have the smoothest writing for standard store-bought pens and last quite a while before running out of ink.

Price: $11.99
Store: Target


ipad pro 2018

iPad Pro + Apple Pencil – I don’t actually own one of these, however I do know of a few designers who swear by the Pro and the Apple Pencil. Having tested them out at the Apple Store and can definitely confirm it feels amazing. Not to mention the massive support for full Photoshop and all the Adobe sketching apps. The downside – it cost about as much as a new MacBook Air.

Price: $799 – $1899 (iPad Pro) | $129 (Apple Pencil)
Store: Apple

ipad and stylus

iPad 6th Generation + Bamboo Stylus – Looking for a normal person price-point? Then I encourage you get what I use (sometimes): a standard iPad and a cheap Bamboo Stylus. I love the iPad in general because it just seems to work flawlessly compared to Android or Windows tablets, plus the cool designer apps typically come out for iOS first – like Invision’s great all-in-one app that includes Freehand.

Price: $329 – $459 (iPad) | $16.99 (Bamboo Stylus)
Store: Apple & BestBuy

There’s obviously so many other great paper, pens, pencils, and tablets, but these are my personal favorites from over the years. Yes, Samsung does make some great tablets with the S Pen, and I would recommend one of those if you’re looking to go digital without getting into Apple’s ecosystem. However, be warned: there are very few good drawing apps out there that work as butterly smooth as on an iPad.

Now I leave you with the question: what’s your favorite tools to sketch with? Leave a comment below and some links to the stores where you can buy them!

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