A View From The Top: Peter Jensen, Moleskine head of digital innovation, on the future of note-taking

It’s 5am in California and Peter Jensen, head of digital innovation for Moleskine, is already up, gathering his things together ready for a flight to New York. It will be a while yet before he returns to his native Denmark, where he lives with his wife in Copenhagen. “Most of my work takes me to Asia and North America. Really I could be anywhere,” he says. “If you ask my wife she would say that typically I am anywhere.”

Jensen has been in LA to meet with digital partners of the company to talk about new uses for the app, which “talks to paper”, Jensen says. Moleskine technology makes it possible for users to interact with a digital version of the notes in their notebook on a screen.

The app syncs handwritten appointments in a user’s diary or planner across their digital calendars. “Once you write it into the planner with your pen, it will appear on your phone,” Jensen says.

In November, Moleskine launched a partnership that allows users to sync their paper notes with Windows 10 devices using a Smart Writing System. The system includes papers laced with code and a pen fitted with a tiny camera that retails for £199. Jensen says the app is the first step in a partnership with Microsoft that will continue to develop in 2018 as the two companies work on new ways for Moleskine users to integrate their online and offline notes.

At 47, Jensen has had plenty of experience guiding companies into the digital world. He grew up in the southern part of Jutland and studied at business school. His PhD thesis was on how to manage the language of design to make it as integral to the perception of a product as its logo. “That’s one of the reasons I’m passionate about Moleskine,” Jensen says. “I don’t need to look on the pack to know it’s a premium product.”

Moleskine was founded in Italy in 1994, when designer Maria Sebregondi was asked by design company Modo & Modo to create a range of products for the post-Cold War generation. In an interview with the Financial Times, Sebregondi described their target market as “the global nomads, a new creative class who constantly travels. People who are one day here, one there, here for a meeting, interview, there to see a show.”

In the 23 years since, the Moleskine market has only grown. The notebooks have achieved cult status for their simple design: elastic band, ribbon bookmark and expandable pocket in the back cover. Sales increased by more than 13 per cent in 2016, according to D’Ieteren, a family-owned Belgian car distribution and window repair company that bought Moleskine in 2016, taking the company from publicly-owned to private.

Jensen, who has worked at Moleskine for six and half years, says the transition from public to private has affected him “a great deal”. “Going back to being privately held means that we are able to develop a slightly longer horizon. The pressure of being publicly listed was very high. Not that we are financially irresponsible, but it means that the quarterly report is less of a challenge than it was in the past,” he says.

That security will give Jensen and Moleskine, which is headquartered in Milan, longer to dream up ideas to help Moleskine users make more of their paper notes – and protect the longevity of the brand in the process. “Your creativity and your ideas should be able to move from one platform to another,” Jensen says. “We are interested that these become fruit, material and important for your venture. We don’t want the process going from your thoughts to be tedious, because what matters is the idea.”

He says he knows that sounds grandiose. But Jensen also is aware of the power of the big idea. He has made a career out of finding ways for offline brands to tweak their messaging to suit the digital environment. Before Moleskine, he spent 13 years working for Lego. He still sometimes gets called upon to give a speech he calls “Saving the Dinosaurs” about a time twenty years ago, when “there was a video game-shaped asteroid heading towards planet Lego”.

“When I joined Lego everyone thought playstations would eradicate physical games,” he says. “What transcends the platform is narrative. One the big successes for Lego came with Star Wars, when play transcended analogue and digital. You have a child playing with Hans Solo on the floor, and subsequently playing with him as a character in the video game.”

Once, the iPad and other digital tablets might have been thought of as a competitor to physical notebooks. Yet Moleskine sales have increased since their advent. “We brought in a strategy to not see digital as a threat, but to embrace it,” Jensen says. “The process of taking notes by hand is important to work processes, both creative and professional.”

The new Windows 10 application allows Moleskine users to use their notebooks like a whiteboard. In meetings, one person might take notes in the notepad and have them appear on the screen, then distribute them as a digital document that can be manipulated and edited.

The company is pushing the business use for Moleskine and its digital accessories. Jensen says business users are still getting used to the idea of digital notes: “People in enterprise are concerned about what happens when you digitise your notes, they think they could go anywhere – but then you walk straight out the office with your notes in your hand.”

He’s excited about the possibilities for note-takers to be able to turn books of handwriting into searchable documents. What about diary-keepers who might be afraid to have their darkest secrets digitised in files? “Our proposition is that the notebook is a personal object, so the ability to take it into a digital form is at your request,” Jensen says.

The Moleskine app doesn’t do anything automatically. “Once you decide that you need your notes somewhere else or need to find a note, you are able to do that,” Jensen says. “It’s very important that your thoughts are your own until you decide to share them.”


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