On cultural icons, by Tricia Wang


Talk about timely. I can’t say how much I’m in love with this post by researcher and blogger Tricia Wang. (Talk about accomplished. I’m duly impressed.)


I love moleskin. I love its deep respect for user creativity.

The blank black leather cover whispers to the notebook owner,

“I trust you with this empty space to do what you need to do with it, just promise to carry me with you wherever you go. “

And its owners are loyal to Moleskin because of this message. Someone could put lots of stickers or someone could just tape their name on the cover or just leave it empty and allow time to wear its way in. It’s the tool for the mobile –  from wanderers to ponderers to thinkers to writers to programmers to storytellers and creators.

It’s not demanding or loud, but it’s not dull or passive. It sits there, comfortable in being opened or closed, knowing that eventually the idea from you will come. Its thick paper weight can bear the erasing, the constant revisions. The pen can scribble over words with great stress without burning onto the next page. This is the beauty of quality paper – the paper allows the ink to sink in without fading over the years. It holds ideas in process and it allows you to return to them. Ideas take years to work through, and the moleskin has been designed for this.

Moleskin has expanded into a new product line – bags, pencils, and book lights. (I must admit that I am excited to buy their book light even though I haven’t seen it yet! ) This new line speaks to their attentiveness to designing auxiliary supplements for the moleskin eco-system. The social life of a moleskin now has more texture than ever. Moleskins are no longer just limited to Muji writing tools; it can now have friends of its own kind.

Speaking about the new product line, Maria Sebregondi from Moleskin says:

“The idea has always been to put the notebook in the center of the galaxy, a system of nomadic objects related to contemporary lifestyle and technologies.”

She goes on to say that the

“Moleskine is a cultural icon. It is not a simple notebook, and it is not a commodity, but a free platform for creativity.”

If we look beyond the branding jargon – because let’s not kid ourselves, it’s a commodity and we don’t need to get Marxian now – what’s lovely about this statement is that it reminds us to see our daily objects as cultural.  The moleskin for creative and professional community signifies creativity – physically and symbolically.

So what digital tools are cultural icons now?  iphone and ipod, and very soon the ipad will become one if not already. The Apple design philosophy in many ways mirrors Moleskin’s design values: Anonymity, Simplicity, Desirability, and Usability.

So I’m wondering out loud – in our mobile society, cellphones are at the center of our entire social worlds. What kind of nomadic objects can be designed to support the cultural centrality of cellphones to our lives?

This question would be vastly different if instead of cultural centrality, I said practical centrality. If designing for practical centrality, I would think about mobile banking, distance education, digital health, battery longevity or e-governance. 

But if we’re designing for the cultural centrality, I think about games, the physical extensions of cellphones, its role in relationships, identity, social settings, physical places or creative uses.


Although this post starts off waxing lyrical about Moleskine notebooks (and rightly so, I would chip in), Ms. Wang extends her commentary to point out other kinds of everyday items that are icons in our culture right now.

She states that “cellphones are at the center of our entire social worlds” and notes that if we imagine this current cultural icon as characterized by practical centrality instead of a cultural one, then its more commonly associated functions and apps would be quite different from what’s thought of when it comes to mobile devices.

She also notes the cult following of Moleskines and makes a quick comparison to Apple products, linking their similarities in design philosophy. (Is this one of the reasons behind a recent obsession with Moleskine notebooks?)

A further reason why this post is resonating with me is because she asks a great question that has become stuck in my brain: “…what digital tools are cultural icons now?”

I totally look forward to reading more commentary by Ms. Wang and especially following along with her work on digital technologies usage among specific populations in China.