Saul Bass And His Influence On Modern Graphic Design

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Saul Bass constituted himself one of the most influential graphic designers of the modern world through his innovative and unique design style. Born in Bronx, New York on the 8th of May 1920, Bass was educated at James Monroe High School, then due to a scholarship, Art Students League in Manhattan and finally, attended Brooklyn College completing a graphic design course. His departure from school led him to becoming a freelance artist among advertising companies. Bass eventually located in Los Angeles during the 1940s, where he engaged in Hollywood projects involving print work. 1954 marked his career break, where Otto Preminger, a renowned Hollywood director, asked Bass to design a poster for an upcoming movie. Bass’s work impressed Preminger, ultimately leading to his success as a reputable graphic designer.

The nature and variety of their work

The aesthetics and functionality of Bass’s designs led to his extensive influence in the graphic design industry. When advertising for a film, posters are an essential part of the marketing process, either contributing to the film’s success, or leading it to its failure. Posters with pleasing aesthetics will engage the audience and incline them to see the film as opposed to a bland poster. Bass achieved engaging aesthetics by showcasing one concise centerpiece, a simple colour palette and bold typography. These elements created the pleasing aesthetics which lead to his popularity and interest within society. Bass’s designs were also influenced by their necessity to achieve a poster’s functionality. A movie poster must excite and compel a viewer to see the film. Bass achieved this objective by utilising minimalistic images that encompassed the film’s themes and ideas. Bass aimed to create designs that were, “so simple that it would make you think and rethink”. Through Bass’s use of minimalism and metaphorical images the audience was intrigued, therefore maximising the functionality of the poster. Thus, aesthetics and functionality were leading factors which influenced the creation of Bass’s designs.

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Bass’s work on movie posters, title sequences and logos shaped his dominance and influence in the graphic design world. The poster that led to his eruption in the industry was Carmen Jones (1954). This was followed by posters for The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), Vertigo (1958), and Antomomy of a Murder (1959), being some of his most notable work. Title sequences also played a dominant role in shaping his popularity and influence in the graphic design industry. His most recognised title sequences included Anatomy of a Murder (1959), The Man with the Golden arm (1955) and North by Northwest (1959). Bass also contributed to the business logo industry. He designed the Warner Communications logo (1974) and the Girl Scouts Logo (1978), which are among some of his logos which remain virtually unchanged to this day.

Bass was able to amass popularity in his work through the usage of simple images and geometric shapes. All Bass’ posters portrayed a dominant image which stood alone to represent themes and the plot line associated with the film. This image would depict themes of the film and help the viewer understand the plot like more cohesively. He would utilise a maximum of 3-4 colours to adhere to his minimalistic style and not overcrowd the design. Bass’s archetypal lettering held a hand crafted feel which was simple and did not overcrowd the design. A recurring concept evident in Bass’s work was the use of negative space. This principle outlined that a poster should not be cluttered with images or colours. His use of negative space was conversely varying from popular early 20th century posters which displayed a cluttered visual. Thus, viewers were intrigued by his unique design, contributing to his eruption in the 20th century.

Additionally, kinetic typography was a concept established by Bass which made his title sequences so revolutionary. Kinetic typography employed the animation of words and images in a title sequence. Title sequences before Bass’s influence showcased black screens which were disconnected from the rest of the film, yet Bass believed title sequences could ‘enhance the viewing experience’. The combination of these techniques manifested Bass into the influential and revolutionary designer he became.

Teacher figures and philosophies influencing his design work

Factors attributing to the success of Bass’s design include his teacher figures and personal philosophies. His study at Brooklyn College was guided by teachers who migrated from Central Europe and specialised in the ‘New Swiss Style’. The fundamentals of this style outlined that an effective design did not need to conform to societal values. Instead of marketing a product aiming to appeal to a collective view point, for example, society’s ideals of female beauty, Bass utilized this technique to design posters that did not symbolise a specific point of view. This in turn led to his posters portraying images which leave it up to the viewers to create their own personal interpretation .

Bass’s work with Howard Trafton, an esteemed commercial artist, for three-and-a-half years also influenced his design endeavours. Trafton’s archetypal lettering and typography can be observed through Bass’s freely brushed letters and hand drawn impressions. Trafton’s insistence on developing his drawing skills can be observed through Bass’s preeminent advice for graphic design students, “Learn to draw”. Bass believed that drawing was one of communications’ most basic but richest forms, and aspiring designers must learn to draw, or would “live your life…trying to compensate for that.” Bass’s personal philosophies included his passion for ‘rendering the ordinary, extraordinary’. This is showcased by acquainting his audience with familiar objects, then connotating them in an unfamiliar way.

Bass also rose to acclaim for his reimagination of movie credits, originally rendered with a black screen. Bass quotes, ‘I had felt for some time that audience involvement with a film should begin with its first frame.’ This shaped his design approach, invoking emotions associated with the film’s themes in the design of his credit scenes. Bass’s incorporation of various design inspirations and his own personal philosophies influenced his designs.


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