Octavo: Eight Historic Issues

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Mark Holt and Hamish Muir, cofounders and partners in the London design firm 8vo, also conceived one of the most progressive type journals of the mid- to late 1980s: Octavo. Just before the digital revolution marked the first major departure in type and printing since Gutenberg (if you accept phototype as a blip in type history), the eight issues of Octavo raised the bar of commentary, scholarship and practice. The magazine addressed the history and theory of a new wave of typographic presentation and formulation. Unit Editions has published a complete reprint of the issues as well as reproductions of the handmade mechanicals and proofs—an incredible document. I asked Holt and Muir to talk about the magazine and why it was so influential for those who were beginning to rebel against Modernist orthodoxy.

I subscribed to Octavo when it first came out in 1986. It was as close to a revolutionary graphic design period as there was, and this was one of the clarions. What motivated its publication?

The motivations for working together and our ambitions for both the journal and the commissioned work undertaken by the studio, 8vo, which we co-founded in the summer of 1985, were underpinned by a shared interest in focusing on typographic design as the core component of visual communication. This ran counter to the prevalent trends in UK design at that time—the death throes of the school of big ideas meets design as big business. Our influences were informed by each of us having studied or worked outside the U.K. prior to joining forces—we looked to Europe for inspiration, where type had historically played a key role in graphic design—front and center and not as subservient in the endorsement of a witty idea or a visual pun. The work of the studio would be defined by doing and not just talking about it; the journal provided a more contemplative space to publish work with which we found common cause—in art, poetry and architecture as well as in graphic design. Although the studio and the journal were closely connected, we worked hard to avoid the latter becoming seen as a manifesto, or as some kind of glorified self-promotional project. Indeed, we soon found that a separation was necessary to avoid frightening away potential clients of the studio.

Were you inspired by Typographica or other “intellectual” design magazines?Not really, although Herbert Spencer’s Typographica (2nd Series) was a journal that two of the editors found of interest and regularly purchased back copies of when discovered languishing on shelves in second-hand bookstores. One thing we were keen to avoid with Octavo was a focus on the ephemeral; to avoid the pitfalls of the sorts of extended articles that had appeared in some publications; endless pages of ‘rubbings of Cornish gravestones’ or ‘typography on manhole covers’—that kind of thing.

The balance of scholarship and prescience was very special. How did you determine what you would cover and why?We didn’t have much of a sense of how the look of Octavo would develop over time but we did have some early starting points for the types of articles themselves. Of course wanting to discuss typography across a range of applications (education, architecture, environment, poetry, art) meant that the range of articles we would require, were, to a degree, pre-determined, in that they needed to fit with the editorial intent. The challenge was more a case of finding best practice and authors best suited to the task. It was also important that the journal have an international flavor. A good example of meeting this challenge is the article by Kenneth Frampton discussing Willi Kunz’s poster work for the architecture and planning school at Columbia University (NYC). Early on we especially wanted to document the work of a few unsung heroes, starting with typographer, educator and polymath Anthony Froshaug as well as the work of Geoff White.

You limited yourself to eight issues. Did that put pressure on your decisions?Quite the opposite in many ways. Having self-defined preset limits—eight issues, A4 16pp + cover and jacket, Unica—certainly helped in defining content issue by issue, and as the project progressed, the trajectory of the design development. Although we didn’t have a “plan” when we started, we were keen to avoid an “academic” approach to the design and we were determined that our journal should practice what it preached, responding to both the content of each issue, and in the later issues, the new possibilities within photo-typesetting and page make-up. As a result, the appearance of Octavo evolved, “moving-on” over time. Academic journals tend to start with a three-column grid and never deviate. That didn’t interest us. We were more interested in finding a way of making Octavo recognizable as a series without relying on standard editorial design mechanisms for achieving such coherence. But that wouldn’t have been possible without the initial conditions imposed at the start.

There are some pages that prefigure the digital shifts in hierarchy. How did you feel when the digital crested?

One of the reasons we featured the (pre-desktop computer) making of the journal in Octavo Redux is as a reminder to ourselves, and of course as a signal to readers, of how different the design process was at that time. Initially, our ambitions and interests for typographic modulation; navigation, layering, information structure and hierarchy, etc were limited initially by what could be fabricated using then traditional hand-based “mechanical” skills. But as typesetting technology becam
e more sophisticated, it was possible to start “engineering” typographic environments—through specification to skilled, professional operators—to levels of accuracy that were way beyond the tolerances of hand skills. (Many of the instructions for the last two print-based issues type were specified to the nearest one-hundreth-of-a-millimeter.) Ironically, it took us several years of working with our own computers (from the early nineties) to get to the same levels of engineering we had used in our pre-desktop work. It was only after we mastered the machine—and had left behind the stupid tricks of instant gratification that early encounters with the software tempted you to try—that we realized the computer (as a design tool) was only a very much neater and more precise way of doing what we had always done.

Is there room for another, a contemporary Octavo?That’s an interesting thought! But what would form would it take, and what would it concern itself with? What would be the-everything’s-online-everyone’s-a-publisher equivalent of eight issues times sixteen pages over four years? In part answer, it would perhaps be salient to compare then and now, purely in terms of the means of getting word into print, and the inherent “valueness” of things.

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About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →