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In conversation with Octavo's Mark Holt & Hamish Muir: part two.

The second part of our conversation with Hamish Muir and Mark Holt.

Unit Editions: You have often cited your dissatisfaction with the state of British graphic design in the late 80s. What was so bad about it, and in what way was Octavo a riposte to that state of affairs? 

Hamish Muir and Mark Holt: As we said in our editorial for Octavo #1, British design was very parochial, full of in-jokes and cultural references that did not transfer well across European boundaries. There appeared to be a love affair with symmetry. A lot of design was cute, banal, or twee, and terribly British in a Dick van Dyke-like parody kind of way. Much of the typography around was simply in service to the ‘big idea’. Octavo was fuelled by contempt for this kind of approach. It was peddled by a self-satisfied, ossified profession who thought too much of itself  – if we want to laugh we’ll go and see a comedian thank you; your ideas are neither funny, nor as clever as you think. Most of the energy being expended in the profession appeared to be towards designing solely in the hope of winning D&AD pencils. 

8vo, the design studio you ran at the time, did work for some high profile clients. Did the journal lead to any of these commercial opportunities?

Wim Crouwel, who had taken up the directorship of Rotterdam’s Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, certainly began talking to us about his museum’s needs on the back of seeing Octavo. But that was only when he found out we ran a design studio as well as publishing the journal. When we approached him to write an article for issue five, he thought we were a publishing company only. He liked the consistency of format, but also the fact that we took a different approach within each issue. He wanted his museum catalogues to be ‘products’ of the museum, clearly coming from Boymans, but not all alike, using a single grid, as he had done previously at the Stedelijk. 

As for showing Octavo to potential clients, we stopped after a while when it became apparent most people just didn’t get it. The journal became a complication when talking to commercial clients about commercial needs.

Issue #8 was a CD Rom. That format is dead – mostly unplayable. Do you regret not making
#8 a printed edition?

Absolutely not. At a time when the printed page was facing extinction from electronic media – as many journalists would have had you think – it would have been irresponsible of us not to address the surrounding issues. CD-Roms back then were seen as a new-fangled wonder platform by the publishing trade; books behind glass, or a series of spreads complete with vertical lines acting as a spine.

But there was another big problem – the discussion about the immanent death of print. But graphic designers didn’t seem to have been invited to take part in this debate. So we decided to push our way in, and to produce a new way of approaching on-screen typography, complete with voiceover and an interface that allowed the user to control the pace of the presentation. Of course, our subscribers, eagerly awaiting another A4 printed issue to complete their collection, were largely disappointed, or considered we had committed an act of treachery. We liked that idea of not giving our subscribers what they thought they were getting. It seemed the perfect way to end the series. And the irony that a project with a built-in self-destruct device expired (in most people’s eyes) an issue early is particularly sweet. And for those subscribers who at least tried to interface with the last issue, the expiry of 92.8 came pretty quickly afterwards anyway, as changes in technology rendered the content inaccessible.

What can a designer starting out today learn from Octavo? 

They can learn how graphic work got produced before the computer became an ubiquitous design tool. Artwork was made by specifying instructions, just like an architect, so that others could build what you were striving for. Visual engineering we called it. It was hard work and required patience, persistence and a belief that anything, if correctly specified and described, could be produced. You just had to find a way. 

They can also learn about the benefits of collaboration. It was collaboration that moulded both the journal and the output of the office (8vo). The four editors were in constant discussion about content, design and production – often during long evenings and at weekends, which is when Octavo mostly got made. It was sometimes acrimonious and you had to be prepared to come back to the studio the next morning and decide to tear everything up, or have one of the others do the same, and start again. That can only happen if everyone involved believes in the greater purpose.

We learned to be un-precious about our own ideas and to embrace the dynamics of collaborative working, where 1+1+1+1 = 6 (or at least four and a-half). Hopefully, that is evident in the output. The biggest lesson is things don’t just happen, they get made, and that takes a lot of hard work, a lot of energy and huge commitment.

Support the Octavo Redux Kickstarter campaign here.