Spring 2006

The process is the premium

8vo: On the Outside

By Mark Holt and Hamish Muir
Lars Müller Publishers, £32.50

British design group 8vo formed in 1984 with an ‘idea-driven’ approach to graphic design. They emerged with this unpretentious attitude at a time when style was to the fore, as typified by the work of Neville Brody, Malcolm Garrett and Peter Saville. For the next seventeen years they pursued their own idiosyncratic path, gracefully easing between work for The Haçienda Club and American Express, and designing and writing their own deliberately short-lived and influential publication, Octavo: International Journal of Typography. By 2001, they had disbanded, all but shut down by the lack of interest from potential new clients. Now, five years on comes 8vo: On the Outside, a refreshing creative postmortem, written and designed by founding members Mark Holt and Hamish Muir. The book’s emphasis is necessarily on process, not output and looks back at how the work came to be. For a partnership founded on a collective distaste for the idea of designer as celebrity, this was the only way Muir and Holt felt they could discuss their achievements without self-indulgence.

8vo: On the Outside is, as Wolfgang Weingart calls it in his essay, very much a ‘workbook’. In a similar vein, 8vo preferred to call their studio a ‘workshop’. Keeping to this idea, 8vo founder Simon Johnston writes in his essay that one of the many problems in discussing graphic design history is the tendency for work to invariably be discussed in terms of ‘visual residue’, that is with an emphasis on the visual outcome of the work at the expense of the forces that organically drive any given work or project. So instead of merely reproducing their final work and in doing so producing the hackneyed design studio monograph, Muir and Holt opt for showing 8vo’s work via its process. We are treated to multiple spreads documenting mock-ups and varied layouts of the same piece of work; the effect is illuminating and fascinating. For instance, the journey to the finished poster celebrating the fourth anniversary of Manchester’s legendary (and now defunct) Haçienda club is told over fifteen pages, giving the reader a profound insight into the studio’s inner workings. And it is this insight that makes the book so vital, because it shows us something that we are rarely, if ever, given the chance to see and experience.

Whether revisiting their ‘arty’ (their adjective) work (sleeves for Factory Records, posters for the Flux New Music Festival in Edinburgh and the Serpentine Gallery), the polemical self-publishing of Octavo, or ‘non-arty’ work (American Express statement, Thames Water Utility bill and Powergen’s combined bill), the book reveals the studio’s consistent conviction that typography sits at the core of any design solution.

It also shows 8vo’s remarkable ability to balance, as Ian Noble highlights, ‘client, user and functionality’ with their own distinctive, authorial, provocative voice, best exemplified by their confrontational appearance on BBC2’s The Late Show in 1990. On the show, Holt, Muir and associate Michael Burke shouted slogans such as ‘Reject the past, reject style’ or ‘Simplify design’ and criticised what they deemed to be over stylised or superficial design (like Brody’s work for The Face). Their TV appearance showcased their clear and uncompromising design philosophy (not to mention their defiant attitude) and somewhat unexpectedly landed them the Amex job the following day.

Running alongside this visual portal into their working process, is a substantial narrative by Muir and Holt, backed up by short, articulate essays from Simon Johnston (who left the practice in 1988 and now works in LA), Simon Esterson, Wolfgang Weingart, Friedrich Friedl, Wim Crouwel and Ian Noble. In many ways, 8vo: On the Outside reads like an autobiography, and although the idea of a design partnership writing their own obituary sounds like a project fraught with shortcomings, Muir and Holt succeed in producing a history that is thoughtful and well written.

Despite this, there is a tension throughout the book that stems from Muir and Holt wanting to present 8vo’s work in an objective way – for instance when setting a historical context to their work – and inherently not being objective. After all, they are writing about themselves, and nobody can do this in a way that is completely objective. This problem is partly eased by the accompanying essays, which lend the book a broader context.

This small criticism aside, the book is a considered, thoughtful and fitting posthumous discussion of the work of a design partnership whose legacy sits prominently, yet unassumingly, within graphic design history. The book, in subverting what we have come to expect of the design monograph, manages to not only to show us the studio’s inner workings, but it also succeeds in engaging us in this process, continually reaffirming the uniqueness of 8vo’s thinking and the continuing potency of their ideas and voice.

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