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In conversation with Octavo's Mark Holt & Hamish Muir

Between the years 1986 and 1992, as part of the design studio 8vo, Hamish Muir and Mark Holt designed and edited eight editions of the typography journal Octavo. The magazine, except for #8, which was a CD-Rom, was always A4, always 16pp, always used the typeface (Unica), and always with a trace cover, has passed into typographic legend. Long out of print, the journal is now being revived in the book Octavo Redux. It is also the subject of a fund-raising campaign on Kickstarter. You can find out more about it here: 

Muir and Holt spoke to us at length about the immanent re-publication of their journal. Here is part one of the discussion. Part two will follow shortly. 

Unit Editions: Why do you think there is so much interest in a typographic journal first published over 30 years ago?

Hamish Muir and Mark Holt: Although none of the printed issues of Octavo were produced on a computer, the journal spanned a period of transition from paste-up to the beginnings of desktop publishing (DTP). In the later printed issues, we were attempting things with high-end typesetting systems that were in some ways a foretelling of the future of a typographic synthesis that would become possible with the Apple Mac. The journal suggested a way forward for working with type that encouraged a younger generation of designers to break free from the tyranny of what was known as ‘big idea’ design, which dominated the creative' process at that time, and to explore typographic form as a primary means of communication.

Because Octavo was not like any other typographic journal, in that it set out to practice what it preached, it elevated design (and typography) to the same level as the content. It wasn't coming from an academic background, which all too often results in conservative approaches to design. Learned journals start with a two- or three-column grid and stay there forever. Octavo was a typographic journey – from three-column grid to interactive CD-Rom. A few subscribers got off before the last stop, dismissing out of hand the form of the later issues. But this book puts everything back together: it highlights both the point of departure and the points of arrival, and allows all eight issues of Octavo to be considered holistically as a series.

Octavo is sometimes seen as mythic or mysterious. But part of our aim with Octavo Redux is to continue what we started with our book ‘8vo on the Outside’ (Lars Muller, 2005) and tell it how it was: a bunch of ordinary people working hard together with a common purpose. In Octavo Redux everything will be shown at life-size with readable text. In other words, graphic design as object, not as icon. 

What was the motivation to start Octavo? 

It was a reaction to the paucity of good typography in Britain at the time. Typography back then was primarily the domain of newspaper and magazine art directors. Ad agencies just stuck the stuff at the bottom of ads – almost as an afterthought. It was also to put a marker down for our design studio 8vo (unknown at the time) – not as a publicity vehicle for the studio, but as a ‘put our money where our mouth is’ project, and one with serious typographic intent. 

There was a fine line to tread: we didn’t want to be seen as typographers, but as graphic designers who worked with type. In a way, the eventual trajectory of the journal suckered a lot of people who thought at first we were the former, only to later take the view we’d lost it from issue 6.

When you started Octavo, you set yourselves some stringent rules: A4, 16pp, trace cover, one typeface family, and only ever eight issues. Often, when designers self-author projects, they chuck out the restrictions, but you enforced them with rigour. Why?

It was the advertising man David Ogilvy who said, ‘Give me the freedom of a tight brief'. Without parameters, where do you start? If no one else supplies them you have to define your own. It’s easier to design and remain focused if there are some rules in place – something to work outward from. Restricting ourselves to 16 pages meant that we could think about each issue as seven spreads wrapped with page one and 16. The trace cover allowed us to experiment with transparency and layering, which was key in 8vo's output at that time. And the conditions helped ensure that each issue of Octavo was part of a whole.?

You used only one typeface family – Unica. Why? 

The simple answer is we wanted a sans serif face, but we didn’t want to use Helvetica or Univers. Back then, Helvetica body text was not particularly great, and Univers at headline sizes didn’t have what Helvetica had. Unica on the other hand gave us the best of both worlds. And it was relatively new at the time so seemed a good fit with our modernist, internationalist stance.

Part two of this interview will be posted here shortly.

Support the Octavo Redux Kickstarter campaign here!