Case Study: Redesigning My Colleague’s Notebook With Phallic Iconography

Throughout my professional career as a designer, I’ve done a myriad of global campaigns and user experiences for big brands, including Google, Spotify, and Pinterest. But if there’s any project that I could mark as the pinnacle of my success, it would be the time I redesigned the visual identity of my colleague’s notebook. The final product would completely change the core experience of note-taking and forever disrupt the design industry as known to white mankind.

The project fell into my lap serendipitously in the fall of 2017, when one of my colleagues left a notebook behind in one of his meetings. I perused through the pages to figure out its owner, and couldn’t help but notice a glaring problem throughout the meticulous bullet points and scrappy sketches: there was a severe lack of cohesive identity tying the whole system together. These were just disconnected pages, filled with nuggets of ideas from the brilliant to the mundane, but no central theme that would keep the user engaged to the material he would be using every day.

I took it upon myself to solve this problem using important design principles and thinking that have led to my own career advancement. As any designer knows, our job isn’t to make something pretty. It’s to solve problems with creative solutions. And as any UX designer knows especially, our job isn’t to give users what they want. It’s to give users what they need.

Framing the Challenge

The challenge: to take a physical application that the user loves and uses every day and transform it into a memorable and engaging experience using phallic iconography.

I broke down the idea of redesigning this existing application to two key components:

1. Core Experience (Function)

Before any project begins, we must first address the why. It is important to recognize the purpose of designing a schlong on my coworker’s notebook beyond its aesthetic glory. What is the reaction, the feeling, and the connection that the user makes with this product — in other words, what is the experience?

A notebook is something that many users take for granted, especially after constant daily use. My redesign needed to shake up the user from the monotony of his daily routine with something that demanded attention without compromising the previous work already established in the other pages. The design therefore needed to take place in the middle of the notebook (a common pain point where most users begin to lose interest) and elicit an emotional reaction.

The goal was less about inciting a specific reaction from the user, and more about sparking a spectrum of emotional responses from him when he views this design. This spectrum might include reactions such as:

  • Surprise upon the first time the user sees the penis
  • Curiosity to who was the mastermind designer behind it
  • Urgency to close the notebook and shield its identity from our CEO, who was waiting for him to present his notes

Notice how all 3 reactions complement and correspond to one another. The best designs are the ones that don’t create separate result, but one cohesive experience. The point of this behavioral design, ultimately, is to create a lasting impression and remain memorable to the user and his peers.

2. Visual Identity (Form)

[The ideal design is] a gleaming chest, bright skin, broad shoulders, tiny tongue, strong buttocks and a little prick.

— Aristophanes (c. 448 BC to c. 388 BC)

Long before circles and squares, it was the phallus that had been the first shape known to artists. Depictions of penii date back all the way to ancient Greece. The shape is iconic enough to still serve emotional resonance in modern times, and therefore became the primary symbol in my redesign.

A penis cums in all shapes and sizes, so to truly create personalized content for my colleagues, the messaging would need to be customized based on their behavior and interests. This is where user research naturally lends itself into the process.

User Research and Data

The robust nature of penises shows the beauty of diversity, but the challenge of narrowing down the visual identity to one perfect schlong. After all, what kind of penis will this be? Is it a grower or a shower? Cut or uncut? Is it veiny, hairy, or all of the above? Is length more important, or girth? These are the necessary questions one must ask.

Since my colleagues were all my target audience, I divided the office into focus groups and conducted surveys among each one of them. Notable anecdotes from these user interviews include:

“I’m more of a Goldilocks type of gal. Not too small, not too big. The experience should feel effortless.

— Alyssa G, Designer

“Barry [the notebook owner] is a super hairy guy. I’d be surprised if there was a bald spot anywhere. Wait, what is this for?”

— Mark H, Developer

“What the hell is wrong with you? Do you want another HR report again?”

— Sarah L, Office Manager

The insights from these user interviews were eye-opening — beyond just discovering how much of a prude Sarah is, these answers led me to the conclusion that it’s less about what they want from a penis, and more about the type of penis that truly represents my colleague slash notebook-owner. While eye-catching aesthetics are important, it’s the storytelling that must be engaging and personalized enough to best suit the user.


Several iterations were made in rampant speed before the final model. The design was finalized after an hour of brainstorming, researching, and prototyping before being shipped off to my colleague’s desk.

The iconography uses a minimalist visual style with bold lines handcrafted in Sharpie Permanent Marker Fine Point Black™. The penis brazenly stands erect in the midst of an emission. Detailed lines trail across the shaft to represent veins. The clever use of negative space subtly allows the veins to spell BARRY without sacrificing the integrity of the entire composition.

Response to the final product was mixed — but such is the nature of the design industry, which requires creative risks in order to make progress.

The main user had only one thing to say:


— Barry, Notebook Owner

It’s a simple yet poignant question that opens up the true purpose behind this project. Creativity isn’t about making something totally original, but creating a fresh spin on something that has already been done. In an industry that’s constantly pressured to innovate The Next Big Thing, we often don’t realize that The Next Big Thing is already sitting in our laps, waiting for the right person with balls of steel to bring it to life.

For me, this endeavor has been incredibly important because of its unique demands that differ from regular client work. Passion projects prove themselves to be much more challenging and complex, because its purpose goes beyond just filling your paycheck. The very point of a passion project is to achieve something greater and push yourself beyond your preconceived abilities. This wasn’t just a task to improve the design of my colleague’s notebook, but a test of faith for my own self.

At the end of the day, it’s not the flashy TV spots, social campaigns, and animated microsites that will leave the office with me. It’s the memory and honor of creating something that truly matters.

Several times throughout this process, so many people have asked me, “Why?” Why do this? Why draw a penis on your coworker’s notebook and disrupt the entire design industry with such audacious goals?

And to them, I say: Why not?

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