From films to corporate logos, Saul Bass shares insight all artists can learn from.
The legendary Saul Bass is considered one of the all-time greatest designers. His worked spanned several mediums — creating world-famous opening titles for films, classic movie posters, and iconic corporate logos.
I began as a graphic designer. As part of my work, I created film symbols for ad campaigns. I happened to be working on the symbols for Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones and The Man With The Golden Arm and at some point, Otto and I just looked at each other and said, “Why not make it move?”
It was as simple as that. — Medium
Image via Art of the Title
Director Otto Preminger would be the one who brought Saul Bass into title design. Bass designed the poster for Preminger’s film Carmen Jones. The poster was so impressive, Preminger asked Saul Bass to create the opening title sequence as well, thus beginning the designer’s career in motion graphics.
My initial thoughts about what a title can do was to set mood and the prime underlying core of the film’s story, to express the story in some metaphorical way. I saw the title as a way of conditioning the audience, so that when the film actually began, viewers would already have an emotional resonance with it. — Film Quarterly (Autumn 1996)
In 1955, Bass met Elaine Makatura, a fellow designer with an incredible eye to detail. Elaine had worked in the fashion industry which ended up leading her to a job with Capitol Records in Los Angeles. She then recalled:
After about a year I was looking for something more challenging when someone told me that Saul Bass was looking for an assistant. I had enjoyed the credits for The Seven Year Itch very much… — Saul Bass: A Life in Film & Design
Bass and Makatura went on to create some of the most memorable opening credits and posters of all time. In 1960, the two co-directed the opening credits of Spartacus and were married. The two would go on to work together for over 40 years, often collaborating with great directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Martin Scorsese. Take a look at a sample of their work in this great roundup from Art of the Title.
The style of Saul and Elaine Bass has gone on to inspire many artists, especially those in the same industry. Kyle Cooper, a legend in the making who created opening credits for films like Se7en, Mimic, and Spider-man, talks about the influence of Saul Bass in the video from TCM.
Cooper describes a title sequence’s ability to set up the expectation of the film you are going to see. The old, formulaic title-card credits were completely revamped by Saul Bass. His titles always had a beginning, middle, and end. The typography integrated with the action, and a story quickly unfolds. The type and graphic design were a metaphor for the film, very simple things that set the appropriate tone.
Saul Bass is a storyteller. People looked at that and realized they don’t need to do things they way they’ve been historically done. I think people kinda woke up and said – Hey! – the main title sequence can be a vehicle by which an artist can express themself. — Kyle Cooper
In 1968, Saul and Elaine made the short film Why Man Creates, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary — Short Subject. They used parts of that documentary in their pitch to create a new corporate brand identity for the Bell System. The film was presented to Bell executives. That video, provided by AT&T, shows the entire 26-minute pitch. This is a must-watch video for learning brand development, as they cover the basics of fonts, design, and overall look of an iconic brand.
The pitch begins with footage from Why Man Creates, but leads into the need to feel free. It was the classic play on the lifestyle changes of the late 1960s and early 70s. The mini-documentary covers the changing landscape of consumerism through the decades, eventually leading to the popularity of the telephone and new technology.
“Times have changed. Looks have changed.” Around the 7-minute mark, the video begins a breakdown of other company rebrands. Chase National Bank reinvigorated their brand to be innovative and part of today. RCA moved from an electric company to an electronic company.
The main takeaway is the breakthrough from the environment with the right trademark. The video lists the three basic categories of trademarks.
1. Monochromatic Form
- Quickly identified
- Readers must know what the letters stand for
- Blends into the environment like “alphabet soup”
2. Logotype Form
- Name of the company is the trademark
- Lettering that is too easy to read blends in with other trademarks
- Stylized font loses legibility
- May require geometric shapes to stand out, but many shapes are similar
3. Symbol Logotype Form
- Uniqueness of mark is in the symbol
- Symbol becomes a flag for the company
- Symbol serves as the focal point, drawing attention to the company name
- Requires two element at all times
- Name may not be legible with small symbols
If you don’t think Saul Bass knows his stuff, here are just a few of his corporate logos. Many of these symbols are so iconic they can be identified without the logotype.
Image via Geek
Learn to Draw
One of the most important tips Saul Bass offers, “Learn to draw.” You can get by without knowing how to draw, but when you realize you don’t know how — you’ll never be able to learn.
Bass also offers a tidbit that many tend to forget, aesthetics is the problem of the designer. They are the only ones who truly care about the design.
I want to make beautiful things, even if nobody cares. — Saul Bass
Many designers have taken the words of Saul Bass to heart, as his work is commonly used as inspiration in countless fan posters. His style of animation still appears in film, like the opening of Catch Me If You Can.
For more on Saul Bass, be sure to visit the wonderful page on Art of the Title. The site has a great look at many of his legendary title sequences.