"We're currently halfway through designing the third issue of Plastique magazine," says Matt Willey of Studio 8 Design. "It's unusual for us. All the other mags we work on are art, literary or cultural - stuff we're interested in. Plastique is slightly odd as it's not content I really care about. I eventually agreed to it, as long as we could do whatever we wanted."
It's a strong indication of the studio's integrity that the publishers of Plastique - a quarterly fashion magazine - should not only offer them the job, but also be perfectly happy to allow them free reign with it. But then Willey and fellow co-founder Zo Bather have earned it, having specialised in a diverse portfolio of print design projects for three years in their current incarnation. "Plastique's design is immediate, and visceral, and plays around with typography," Willey continues. "This is a rare opportunity. The inspiration was the first magazine I did with Vince Frost, called Zembla, which didn't have any stylesheets and completely ignored the grids. Lots of magazines are too templated and can be designed somewhat lazily, due to time restraints, making them look really uninteresting. Plastique magazine is fairly free with no rules, which means it's difficult because with each spread you have to start again - because of this it's much more hard work."
The pair met at Frost Design, set up by the eponymous Frost, and soon became creative directors there. With more and more work coming their way, they independently went freelance and eventually found themselves sharing the same studio space. Almost haphazardly, Studio 8 Design was born from a common love of the printed medium: "It was just what we did. We'd met a lot of people and become known for doing that [at Frost Design]," explains Bather.
This inventive approach to editorial design is evident in each project. "For Plastique, we've created rubber stamps of the typeface we use called Rhode," continues Willey. "We use it almost like letterpress, on features. If you haven't got massive budgets you can't commission your own fonts, so you have to think of other ways with type to be more creative."
Studio 8 also regularly designs Map magazine, the quarterly international art magazine based in Scotland. In contrast to Plastique, each section of Map is pre-designed, based on a template that Willey, Bather and designer Matt Curtis created for the issue 11 refresh.
"The concept for the cover was designed on issue 1, which we created while still at Frost Design," explains Bather. "After that we handed over the templates to Matthew Ball, who did the next nine issues. We specified the typefaces and how to use them, and the grids, but they're not too rigid. The idea is that the design of the features can respond to the content, which is a tricky balance to give to another designer."
Every cover has a map-style image, with the masthead moving around as necessary and page numbers 'mapping out' the progress through the magazine. With the redesign, Studio 8 implemented a more templated approach, expanding on certain elements that had been there from the start.
"There's the use of boxes for example, which is reflected from the cover," Bather continues. "Now we use the boxes to hold things together at the front and back sections of the magazine, and the features in the middle are more expressive of their content," she says.
Astonishingly, the redesign took a mere two weeks. "What was nice was that we could do a sort of refresh rather than starting from scratch, which we normally do," adds Curtis. "We could massage it and make it a bit more contemporary. Another good thing was that once the design was sent off we got it back within two weeks, which makes a change from seeing it six months later."
In addition to these regular commitments, the studio takes on a variety of other semi-regular and one-off projects: brochures, record covers, editorial, posters, awareness campaigns and more. This, says Bather, suits their way of working perfectly, with the team all concentrating on a number of projects simultaneously. "Personally I prefer it to working on one job for, you know, the next six months. That would probably drive me crazy. I quite like juggling things. It's a kind of organised chaos and everyone gets to experience the projects - there are no project managers here."
Can Studio 8 remain a print-focused agency, though, in an increasingly interactive digital age? Is there a place for print in the world of the future? "Yes," says Willey firmly. "Everyone's been talking about this in a sort of scaremongering way for as long as I can remember. There's just been a transition in the sort of people that read magazines. Mags such as Esquire and Playboy don't sell hundreds of thousands any more, they sell 30,000 or 40,000.
"But there are more magazines than you can count, and they appeal to niche audiences. It's interesting because people become more inventive, especially when it comes to getting readers to subscribe, such as by producing subscriber-only covers."
Bather agrees that while the sheer volume of print material may be going down, its quality is rising correspondingly. "I'm starting to notice clients asking: 'What is this thing going to do and why do we need it?' instead of just saying: 'Okay, let's print another brochure'," she explains. Rather than simply duplicating material already available on their websites, clients are "thinking about things more and their briefs are becoming more focused. So the briefs are more challenging - and there's more pressure."
The Studio 8 team thrives under pressure, particularly the stress of trying something new, and one of Bather's favourite projects provided plenty of that. It was commissioned by a charity scheme called JoinedUpDesignForSchools, which pairs designers with students and schools all across the country.
"One of our projects was with Abbeydale Grange School in Sheffield, which had a really bad reputation," Bather explains. "They seemed to be blamed whenever anything bad happened in the area, and they thought this was quite unfair. So we rebranded them. For instance, we focused on the fact that there are over 56 different languages spoken at the school, and that it has a really diverse community."
A similar project on which they're still working is with Dunraven school in Streatham, which wanted to produce a new school magazine that they could put together as students, and that would replace the rather tatty weekly newsletter. The result was Zero magazine, with ideas produced by 20 pupils aged 11-15.
"The students set the brief, and we presented the ideas to them," says Bather. "They were pretty blunt about what they did and didn't like! It's quite an interesting experience when you're used to clients being polite all the time..."
One extra difficulty was that the magazine design had to be reproducible by the kids for later issues, none of whom had had any graphic design training. "It was like [1980s kids' TV show] Press Gang - they made the mag in a day. That was great because it got us out the studio. It meant we worked with a totally different sort of client - and it was hard, because it had to work for them."
In the near future at least, Studio 8's output looks set to remain in the print world. Both Willey and Bather, though, would like to get involved in other areas. Bather says she's "really envious" of art created in situ, with which the public can interact - citing Why Not Associate's Cursing Stone projects as a perfect example. On a similar note, Willey adds: "I really love Paula Scher's work with signage on buildings."
With nearly all of their work in the last three years coming from word of mouth, the pair also feel it's time to become a little more proactive, approaching clients with ideas. One thing that won't change, though, is the team's small size, which is just how Studio 8 likes it. "I think most of the design studios in London at the moment are moving the same way, having a three or four person team," says Matt. "It works because we have to be careful not to overstretch ourselves - so each client gets the attention they deserve."