Sidestepping the brash exterior of much of the 1980s design in the UK, one publication quietly challenged the status quo, combining the influence of Swiss modernism with a British penchant for mischief. Over the course of six years and eight issues, the journal Octavo proved that British designers could deliver sophisticated content, within a contemplative style, layout, and structure. Its impact was felt throughout the press, schools, and studios of the time, and had a formative influence on some of today’s most pre-eminent designers.
Now, more than 30 years later, the journal is being re-published, along with original ephemera and mock ups, as Octavo Redux. The articles within provide a chance to revisit a discourse which traces the legacy of European modernist typography. Meanwhile, we’re reminded how much we owe to a publication where the form itself embodied the editorial’s challenging approach.
Founding member of the journal’s creators 8vo, Hamish Muir, has been instrumental in bringing the journal back to life. But Octavo’s journey begins in 1975, when Muir took a foundation course in art and design. Here, he first encountered the work of German typographer and grahpic designer Wolfgang Weingart, who had a profound effect on his understanding of typography. Muir was inspired to undertake a postgraduate course at the Basel School of Design under Armin Hofmann, with Weingart himself one of the tutors.
Also studying at Basel, though a year later, was Simon Johnston. The two alumni met in London in 1985 and, together with Johnston’s existing partner Mark Holt as well as Michael Burke, formally established 8vo as a studio. Together they began work on the first issue of Octavo in early 1986. For those unschooled in the finer points of book design, Muir explains the name’s origin: “Octavo describes a book bound in 16-page sections, made by folding each signature three times to form eight leaves / sixteen pages. It is abbreviated as 8vo.”
The significance of the name would run throughout the publication. “It was always intended that the journal would run to only eight issues and that each issue would be A4, 16pp, plus cover and trace jacket, typeset throughout in Unica,“ says Muir. In a new text which forms Octavo Redux’s introduction, he explains how as well as working at both headline and body size, Unica “was relatively new at the time so seemed a good fit with our international, modernist stance.”
An education at Basel inevitably teaches students to thrive under stringent rules, and for 8vo that was certainly the case. “These clearly defined parameters were key in shaping the design trajectory for the project”, says Muir, “they provided a number of constants which defined Octavo but allowed freedom in typographic exploration across the project as a whole.”
As a “typographic exploration” one might assume that typographers themselves would be a core audience group, but 8vo had grander ambitions. “We saw typography as being too important to be the remit of only typographers,” says Muir. “We were aware that their interests in type were often at the academic, technical, or arcane ends of things—it was not a journal for the nerds; in fact it pissed off many people in that audience group.”
Unable to afford advertising, the group had to be resourceful with the launch. They resorted to a subscription card model, targeting AGI members by finding their contact details in a handbook in the Ravensbourne College library. But word spread quickly—Wim Crouwel was one of the first subscribers—and people signed up in droves, to the extent that each issue sold out. In a neat addition, the original subscription cards are also reproduced in Octavo Redux.
Muir believes design in the 1980s was in a “parlous state”, which he describes as “the last vestiges of ‘big ideas’ meets ‘design as big business’ (in the UK at least), with a pretty-pretty twist.” This gave the group room to have an impact on the design scene: “It was easy to stand out; to be different by making a publication that focused on type as the core means for effecting visual communication.”
Fast-forward 32 years, and the revived journal has been funded via Kickstarter, and is about to be unleashed on a new audience. Rather than replicate the individual magazines, this release is being pitched as “a record of Octavo”, and takes the form of a single, 384pp book.
Muir claims the intention for Octavo Redux was to“make a full-scale, readable record of the project—to give it context and to show how it was produced (pre-desktop computing)—to make the original content accessible to a new audience.”
In the beginning, the creation of Octavo was very much an analogue process, but it’s clear that its six-year existence traces the colonization of design by digital; issue one (86.1) features an essay by April Greiman on the benefits of the Macintosh computer, while the final issue (92.8) caused controversy with the inclusion of a CD-ROM.
It’s entirely appropriate then that an online Kickstarter campaign spread on social media would catalyze its revival. Yes, the special inks (metallic gold, soft neon yellow) and materials (reflective mirror paper, translucent self-colored trace jacket) will look great on Instagram, but the real joy will be found in holding and reading a true piece of design history.
For more on Octavo, purchase a copy of the very first issue of Eye on Design magazine, themed “Invisible,” here. In his article Getting Rid of the Grid, Luc digs into issue 7 of Octavo, in which 8vo brings the magazine’s grid to the surface, rendering it in bright yellow.