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In conversation with Simon Johnston, co-founder of 8vo and Octavo

Simon Johnston was educated at Bath Academy of Art and at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Basel, Switzerland. In the 1980s he co-founded the design studio 8vo in London, and was instigator and co-editor of the typography journal Octavo. Later he relocated to California, where his current design practice, Simon Johnston Design, focuses on publications for galleries and museums. He is a professor and Creative Director of the Hoffmitz Milken Center for Typography (HMCT) at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena. In 2017 he launched the publishing house Verb Editions (.com). He is contributing a foreword to the forthcoming book, Octavo Redux.

Your current practice encompasses design, teaching, publishing and art. Do you bring the same sensibility to each of these disciplines, or do you adjust according to the requirements and demands of each?

I would say there are distinct differences. Commissioned design work is a collaborative, social, visual practice with responsibilities to client and audience. It is not just making cool-looking stuff for yourself. It is operational, not just retinal. For example, in the studio at the moment I am designing books for John Baldessari and Ed Ruscha, so the challenge is to design appropriate frames for their work, and kind of get out of the way of their work. My design voice is present, of course, but it is secondary. With my own art or photography, or my publishing practice there are no such responsibilities. I only have to please myself (and hopefully others). Teaching I find enlightening in the sense that it forces me to analyse and crystallise the design process in order to be able to effectively articulate it to others. But then I also learn from students. Even teachers have to keep learning. Perhaps what ties all of these things together is my goal to produce visually compelling and intellectually credible work in each of these areas. But design practice is not art practice. Attempts to “blur the boundaries” between them is just lazy thinking.

You famously studied in Basel with Armin Hoffman and Wolfgang Weingart. Their influence is visible in early editions of Octavo, and in 8vo’s work, but do their teachings still inform your work?

Both clearly were very influential, but in the long term I would say Hoffman’s teaching is still with me, and a part of what I do – a part of my process. Weingart’s influence comes more from his own work, in the sense that the freshness of his posters presaged the layering and collage quality that we now take for granted on the computer. As a teacher myself, I feel obliged to extend the references to include the lesser known, but equally influential Max Schmid (symbols), Kurt Hauert (drawing), Andre Guertler and Christian Mengelt (letterform design) at Basel, as well as John Furnival and Benno Zehnder at Bath Academy.

What you have to understand about Basel was the deep formal sophistication, a legacy built on disciplined training and serious craft skills. Few have patience for that kind of depth or formal research or training now. New technology has made us impatient. We need a slow design movement like the slow food movement in Italy. John Furnival was a great influence as well. As a concrete poet he opened up for me the possibility of letterforms being communication and art and poetics at the same time.

Mark and Hamish have spoken elsewhere about their reasons for starting Octavo. I wonder if your reasons were the same? And what role did your interest in language play in the founding of Octavo?

Yes, our reasons were similar, in the sense of wanting to bring a fresh, European type-driven modernist sensibility into the somewhat twee, sugar-coated narrative-based nostalgia and illustration-heavy design world of mid-80s Britain. Having been exposed to the clarity of purpose and beauty of hard-core European modern(ist) typography, my immediate feeling was that we needed that in Britain, as an antidote to William Morris, chintz and Thatcher. My particular goal, through my interest in language, was also to try to unify the approach to looking at visible language not just in design, but in art and poetry as well, which are typically different silos. I would say that there was also a bit of punk sensibility in there, not in visual design so much, but more in the DIY attitude, perhaps influenced by Factory Records, who we were working with at the time. We were a bit like The Jam, a 3-piece combo with plenty of attitude and a few good chords, but not as cool obviously.
The Kickstarter fundraising campaign to publish Octavo Redux has just been fulfilled. Why do you think there is so much interest in a typographic journal first published over 30 years ago?

I would like to think the journal had some influence and focused attention on typography more than had previously been the case. But the question of influence is for others to answer. I am too close to it, so I cannot know what its influence might be. I think, as well, that the fact that Octavo was produced before the digital typesetting revolution makes it of historical interest even from a technical, production point of view. We had high print standards, and I think that is appreciated more now, since the initial honeymoon with all things digital has leveled out, and we are more cognizant of what digital is good for, and what unique qualities print has: the tangible, the haptic, the sense of presence that is absent with screen-based media. And no hardware or software upgrade required of course. 

What do you hope your typography students would derive from a close study of all eight issues of Octavo?

I tell students that typography is the spine that runs through the body of graphic design practice. Language is always present. I also tell them that to be a good typographer you have to care about language. I would hope that the publication of Octavo Redux, and the access it gives them to the original pre-computer publications and preliminary studies, shows the importance of visual craft and making, and how the physical creation of something needs to be incorporated into the design process.

Cultural production, putting something new out into the world, often means taking a gamble, throwing the dice with no guarantee of success. It takes a certain amount of confidence, trust in your intuition, and no fear of failure. I tell students that there are no such things as mistakes – only learning. So, in that sense, I hope that it might act as an example of a kind of practice that encourages them to try things, and to think of designers as writers, editors, researchers and curators, not just facilitators and employed form-givers. I would also hope that it would encourage them to take influences and references from outside of the design profession.

Support the Octavo Redux Kickstarter campaign here.

Photography by Richard Glover