The notebook designed by Aha Notes is engineered so people can easily swap out paper for whiteboard or transparent acrylic.


Scott Rouse has been searching for the perfect system for cataloging scattered drawings, notes and lists for decades. The creative designer now thinks he has the answer.

Aha Notes, Rouse’s Madison-based tech startup, has engineered two products for visually inclined people who prefer to take notes with an old-fashioned pen and paper: A modular leather-bound notebook and a phone-based app for cataloging notes.

According to the company, the two offerings create a system of note taking that takes advantage of digital technology, while rejecting trends of automation and artificial intelligence. Aha Notes, said Rouse, celebrates the creativity of taking notes by hand.

“This project purposely fits with the idea of, what if we designed something that purposefully doesn’t make the human obsolete,” he said.

The “notebook” constitutes of a 5.5-inch-by-8.5-inch empty leather binder that users can fill with bundles of paper, a small whiteboard, or acrylic transparencies interchangeably. Instead of using rings or other traditional binding methods, the boards and paper made by Aha Notes feature magnets that easily click into the leather cover.

Rouse, who has worked with other Madison tech companies like the web and software developer Earthling Interactive and digital flashcard maker StudyBlue, said he has spent years of tinkering with methods of note taking and brainstorming.

“I’ve always kind of had this love of … things that are tangible,” he said. “I had all this analog stuff lying around.”

The end product of that tinkering, which the local engineer and company co-founder Jon Alling helped design, is a versatile tool that Rouse thinks creative thinkers could use in a way that best fits their needs.

The trick is keeping those notes organized, he said, something that has always been difficult with analog note taking. That need is met by the digital side of Aha Notes, Rouse said.

The smartphone app, like the popular online tool Evernote, allows users to scan drawings and handwritten notes, and then store them either on their device or on the cloud.

What differentiates the app from competitors is its focus on visuals. Users skim through their saved notes by looking at little cropped snippets of the images. The app also uses “object recognition” technology from Google to figure out the words that are featured in a note, allowing users to search their drawings with keywords.

Either product — the notebook or the app — can be used on its own. But taken together, the company says they have created the best possible system that connects digital technology with the act of taking notes by hand, a practice that the company believes is alive and beloved.

“Handwriting really is an emotional process,” said public relations officer Jared Sandlin. “The notes industry is moving toward digital. We definitely need to bring some sort of bridge to take handwriting into the digital age.”

Building out a sophisticated note-taking platform has been an ambitious project for the team of six. Sandlin said they’ve sunk thousands of hours into developing the products. They’ve been financing the work themselves, without taking on any outside financing — an approach known among entrepreneurs as “bootstrapping.”

The project is all the more ambitious, given the note-taking industry that they’re entering — one dominated by heavy hitters like Moleskine and Evernote.

“If we can make this our jobs, that would be our goal,” said Sandlin.

The company is on the verge of launching a Kickstarter to help manufacture the product. To kick off the campaign, they’re hosting a demo event at the Great Dane in downtown Madison next Wednesday where people can try out prototypes.

The company hopes to release the notebooks and platform in February of next year.

Erik Lorenzsonn is the Capital Times' tech and culture reporter. He joined the team in 2016, after having served as an online editor for Wisconsin Public Radio and having written for publications like The Progressive Magazine and The Poughkeepsie Journal.