Process: Octave

About Octave

Octave, Josh Finklea’s 2022 release with Sharp Type, is a reconsideration of the modern sans serif typeface. Octave doesn’t indulge in visual flourishes, nor does it cling to steadfast rules that hold other typographic standbys and contemporary revivals in the past. Instead, Octave embraces the overall design ideology of the modern sans serif while reasonably allowing for design structures and aesthetics to be logically reexamined and refined. There have been many expertly drawn revivals of classic typefaces in the last decade, but this isn’t an attempt to revive a classic, nor a comparison with these revivals. Octave is a typeface that harkens to the reliability and sensibility of the mid 1900s and comfortably displays its contemporary improvements.

Octave Construction

Shifts in technology tend to dictate the designer’s approach to the drawing of letterforms, determining the literal shape of communication. However, when established designs are redrawn for new technologies, sometimes a typeface’s features are incorrectly adapted from the old to the new. Since a note-for-note interpretation of the old forms is almost impossible, the designer must use their best judgment. Finklea pragmatically acknowledged this by foregrounding Octave’s digital context, thereby ensuring that the design follows today’s functional needs.

Generationally, many of the typefaces drawn during the early days of digitization were completed before the medium allowed for more nuanced designs. Some of the earliest digital typefaces in circulation are almost 40 years old, dating back to the Macintosh in the 1980's. There have been generations of designers who have studied these typefaces and understand their value: their place in type design history, constructional innovation, artistic merit, and functional qualities. And yet, the digital version that lives on their computer is often a poor facsimile of the original artwork, shoehorned into a new medium where its visual properties do not always make sense.

Pre-digital versions of Univers, Helvetica and Folio.

The lead type version of many modernist sans serifs have a fundamental disconnect from their digitized form. Some of the original needs and attributes of these typefaces are no longer necessary, but the digital version retains vestiges of a former medium–and not always favorably. This disconnect reveals itself in subtle ways that ultimately lend an archaic touch to something that is otherwise timeless. The same can be said for the inverse; the character and quality found in the lead version of many modernist sans serifs have lost their printed voice during digitization.

Glyphs, Reconsidered

Finklea took a no-nonsense approach in designing Octave, walking a considered fine line: admiring and knowledgeable of the International Typographic Style’s most iconic typefaces without being beholden to them. “These are classic things of the past that don’t have a contemporary take, and these contemporary takes can live alongside the classics.”

Frutiger's original design for Univers used the French-style 'et' ligature for its ampersand, while Octave utilizes a more traditional one.
Univers features a more humanistic question mark which feels disjointed from the rest of the typeface, while Octave's question mark retains continuity.
Octave / Univers Next.
The @ symbol had no standardized usage in the 1950s, so many of its designs do not harmonize with the weight and style of its respective typefaces of the era. Octave has an @ symbol designed with consideration to the typeface’s specific weight and style.

The disconnected design of the upper and lowercase 'K' in Univers was beautifully drawn to slightly fill-in when printed without feeling visually heavy from the ink’s expansion. However, in its digital form, this characteristic is not needed. In Octave, Finklea extended the formal connections of the upper and lowercase 'K' in a way that lends cohesiveness without drawing unnecessary attention to a functionally antiquated form.


With Folio and Helvetica, the leg of the uppercase R and the bowl of the lowercase a connect in a way that feels organic and curvilinear. While this may not be an issue for standalone letters, this gives them a formal quality that is at odds with the rest of the letterforms in their respective families. The construction of Octave’s letters is more stylistically consistent, lending a sense of harmony to the overall typeface.


A variety of uppercase Q designs were used throughout the modernist sans serifs of the late 1950s. Octave references a design more similar to Helvetica's original influence, Akzidenz Grotesk, from 1898.

Frutiger’s original obliques for Univers used a severe 16 degree slant. Linotype’s digital version was designed with a 12 degree slope, which is still fairly extreme for most contemporary sans serif usage. Octave employs a more modest and manageable 10 degree slant.

The Octave Family

6 weights, 12 total fonts.

Context is everything: while typefaces like Folio, Helvetica, and Univers–all published in 1957–were inspirational for Octave’s conception, these typefaces were made in response to a different time with particular needs. After WWII, there was a general mandate to rebuild the world and to introduce new ideas, but some of these ideas became fundamentally prescriptive. Typefaces of the International Typographic Style were designed to exist without any associated meaning and chased objectivity, but the broader context of their creation inevitably systemized them, anchoring them over time to certain technologies and movements. In retrospect, many of these systems are more restrictive, ideological, and ultimately more subjective than they were originally considered to be when established.

By removing what is unwarranted when practical, and adding only what is necessary, Octave offers a reconciliation of the past with the design sensibilities of the present: a 21st century impression of the modern sans.

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