Wednesday, 17 April 2013

The Picasso of Commercial Artists

Throughout the period of 1946 to 1996, a designer created a wide variety of very successful and influential work. He followed a “pragmatic approach to design, incorporating lessons learned from both European modern art and from abstract art” (Farmington, 2001). Distinctively, this commercial artist was able to communicate design in a new way; a simple direct language. This paper will discuss how he was able to achieve direct simplistic communication design to appeal to a broad audience, what steps he took with his career and how his designs have had an impact on its viewers. This prestigious designer is Saul Bass.

Saul Bass graduated high school at the early age of 15. He then continued his education as a part-time student at the Art Students League in 1939. He also took night classes at Student Brooklyn Collage in 1945 (Bass, 2013). Even though Saul Bass went to art school he did not attain a degree in design. This was because a ‘design school’ did not exist at this time. Therefore, much of Bass’ education was self-taught (Thomas, 1986). Bass broke out into the design profession by apprenticing with several design firms in Manhattan. Saul’s professional work did not take off immediately subsequent to his schooling. It was not until a few years later when he moved to Hollywood when his career started to thrive. Driven by what he once described as "the desire to be able to control the kind of work I do," he moved to Los Angeles in the early 1950's and opened his own studio (Thomas, 1996). This is where he submerged himself into the film industry. Over the years, he has designed: packaging, products, architecture, corporate branding and graphics.

Paul Rand was a big inspiration to Bass because of his use of shape and asymmetrical balance. Rand’s compositions were focused on shape, colour, and texture; Bass took these elements and reduced them to a single dominant image (Meggs, 2012). Bass was able to focus his design to a simple pictographic image in order to express a complex message (Farmington, 2001). An army of imitators arose depicting Bass’ design past his death without changing his ideals about design. This alone proves that his designs are timeless.  For one example, a modern artist named Tom Whalen, has taken Saul Bass’ style to a digital level (see figure 1). Tom as well has created his breadth around movie posters.

In the pre-computer era Bass worked with his hands to create his pieces. For Bass’ style, he cut paper irregularly, for a rigid look. Every aspect of his work was often stiff and off centred due to the fact that he did not use measurements. Bass’ typography style consisted of freely drawn decorative letterforms combined with handwriting. There was a robust energy and casual quality to all of Bass’ executions (Meggs, 2012).

In Hollywood, Bass emerged in the film industry where he designed the movie poster for “The Man With The Golden Arm” (1955). The jagged arm was a powerful symbol of drug addiction (Thomas, 1996). When “The Man With the Golden Arm”, opened in New York, the movie poster, depicting the arm, served as the only form of advertising (New York). This renowned poster helped launch his career into the direction that Bass was seeking. Bass utilized his interesting minimalist style to create unforgettable movie posters. A small sample of Bass’ striking movie posters throughout his career are: “Anatomy of a Murder”, West Side Story”, “Walk On The Wild Side” (see figure 1), “Around the World In 80 Days”, “Psycho”, “Vertigo”, “Goodfellas”, “Cape Fear”, “The Age of Innocence”, and “Casino”.

Along side of Alfred Hitchcock, the director of “Psycho” and “North by Northwest”, Saul Bass was able to create new groundbreaking experiences for the opening title sequences of these films (Josh Greenhut, 2012). His title sequences were so innovative because during that time the most interesting credit scene depicted a book, having its pages flipped, which displayed film credits on each page. His ingenious ideas were highly renowned in the film industry. This allowed him to begin building relationships with other major players in the industry. Using these connections, Bass was selected to be creative director for several scenes in a variety films (Meggs, 2012). After his tenure in the film industry, “he stopped producing title sequences he stepped up his work for corporate America” (Thomas,1996) (see figure 3).

Bass knew the difference between making money and quality of work. He highly believed in creating things that are beautiful, regardless if the client, or anyone else for that matter, understood the design or not. It was irrelevant what anyone thought of his work as long as it was worth it to him. Bass believed a corporate identity must be timeless and must have recognizable presence (Bass et al., 2011). 

Saul Bass had a strict philosophy for doing business with any company. He believed that:

“We learn the company’s history, their unique characteristics, their strengths, their weaknesses. We analyze competitors. Who is doing well or poorly and why. We collect and analyze all the client’s communication materials, everything that carries the corporation’s identity. If market research exists, we enlist it. If it doesn’t, we might recommend that it be undertaken, and though we don’t do the research ourselves, we participate in creating the design of the research to make sure that our questions are answered” (Bass et al., 2011).

Specifically for his studio, the employees would follow a step-by-step formula to produce the best design for the customer’s product. Research of the customer’s company and product was the first and most important step. A thorough, but discreet study of the company was needed. The study was conducted by doing a one-on-one interview with a high level executive of the company. Saul Bass preferred to do this interview himself rather then having his employees do it for him. Typically the interview lasted over an hour (Josh Greenhut, 2012). 

Using the research, Bass then defined the problem that the company was facing.
A proper objective needed to be implemented for something that will lead the studio to a solution. They obtained this objective by forming a rational basis for evaluating their work. After this process, the design of the product could be sketched out. They showed all their sketches to their client, whether it be good or bad. This allowed them to examine all options and eliminate the least fitting designs. Bass’ studio narrowed down their options to 2 or 3 final designs that they believe were the most viable. Once these designs were approved, the polished rendering begun. Upon completion of the designs, Bass reviewed them and chose the design that fit best with the original objective. (Bass et al., 2011)

“The reason for design is to speak to people in a language this is familiar, but also a new way” (Bass, 2013). Saul Bass was able to see modern life today in the fact that the attention span for commercial art was limited. He understood from this how he would approach his designs. His ultimate goal is to make people feel as well as think (Bass et al., 2011).  “design is thinking visual” - Saul Bass

Greenhut, J. (2012). Josh Greenhut. Retrieved April 7, 2013, from

Thomas Jr, R. M. (1996). Saul Bass, 75, Designer, Dies; Made Art Out of Movie Titles. New York Times [New York]. Retrieved from http://

Boston, A. [archieboston]. (2007). Saul Bass: On Making Money vs Quality Work [video file]. Retrieved from

Farmington, G. (2001). The Design of the Familiar. Encyclopedia of American Cultural and Intellectual History.. Credo Reference. 18 Oct. 2012. Web. 7 Apr. 2013. Retrieved from

Bass, S. (2013). Marquis Who Was Who in America 1985-present. New Providence: Marquis Who's Who LLC, 2013. N. pag. Credo Reference. 15 Feb. 2013. Web. 7 Apr. 2013. <>.]]]]]

Bass, J., Kirkham, P., & Bass, S. (2011). Saul Bass: A life in film & design. London: Laurence King.

Figure 1 Dracula by Tom Whalen  
Figure 2  “West Side Story” movie poster 1961 by Saul Bass.
Figure 3 collaboration of company branding samples by Saul Bass
Figure 4 Saul Bass Signature

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