Giving Your Right Brain a Regular Workout

Design Heroes: Saul Bass

Long before movie tycoons started using words like ‘franchise’ in relation to their productions, it was well known that the best way to lure your audience into cinemas was to paste the mugs of your leading cast in the middle of your advertising. The bigger the star, the more the appeal. So it must have taken a brave boardroom decision (or a mail room mix-up) for the producers of the 1955 film The Man with the Golden Arm to approve Saul Bass’ revolutionary poster for the film. Bass had pushed aside the visages of Frank Sinatra and Eleanor Parker in favour of a grotesquely bent arm reaching boldly through a higgledy-piggledy font in which the title appeared.


Image credit: Wikipedia

The poster kicked off a revolution in movie poster design (albeit one in which only the boldest of film execs would dare take part). Bass was hired to design dozens of film posters and quite often a title sequence to match the print (you can check out a swag of his title sequences on YouTube – their presence and devoted viewership often overshadowing the films which they once heralded). Amongst these designs were the likes of Saint JoanVertigoAnatomy of a MurderPsycho and The Shining. With such an appetite for cutting-edge design and all that comes out of left-field, it’s not hard to see why Saul Bass got along with the likes of Kubrick and Hitchcock.


Image credit: Wikipedia

Sometimes his work was summarily rejected – Fellow Jewish-American Steven Spielberg didn’t think Bass’ poster for Schindler’s List did his film any justice. Others thought it so good that they flat-out plagiarised it (ahem, Clockers 1995, cough, splutter).

Looking at Bass’ early posters, it is necessary to draw a link to Russian revolutionary graphic design; bold contrasts between solid blocks of colour, jarring angular shapes, sporadic rule-breaking in regard to composition. In places the art of both the Russian constructivists and of Bass could be the work of a child, but the whole thing is brought together with such finesse that the overall intention is elegantly clear. Look at the oddly bent figures, swirling chaos and borderline op-art of Vertigo; a true reflection of what the viewer might expect of Hitchcock’s psychological thriller, balanced out by (almost) horizontal black text.


Image credit: Wikipedia

Saul Bass’ work was not restricted to the cinema. He went on to design corporate logos which are so well-known that there is a fair chance you have one in the room with you right now. The likes of United Air, Kleenex, AT&T, Minolta and myriad others saw the value of a Saul Bass design.


Image credit: Wikipedia

Saul Bass passed away in 1996. In his wake, he leaves a possible gap in the graphic design market – In an age when most film executives still think photos of the emotion-filled faces of handsomely-paid actors are the only draw card for the indecisive movie-goer, perhaps it is time for a new style of poster to hit the walls.

 

Further reading (and viewing):

  1. Saul Bass (AIGA)
  2. Martin Scorsese on the talent of Saul Bass (The Telegraph)
  3. The Title Design of Saul Bass – a brief visual history
  4. Saul Bass: Why Man Creates (video from Dailymotion)
  5. Saul Bass: On Making Money vs Quality Work

 

And if you’re a fan, check out Saul Bass: A Life in Film & Design – released earlier this month.

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