Saul Bass – the great graphic designer of the mid-20th century

Saul Bass                              “Design is thought made visual”

This post is completely dedicated to the American graphic designer and film title designer Saul Bass. I actually watched North by Northwest two days ago and commented about the opening titles and how I thought that they were great, the wording sits along the same horizon as the building does which comes in slowly so that the words are over the building and the texts slant becomes obvious why. Although I did not know it was Saul Bass who has designed it when I watched it!

As well as doing over 50 film titles collaborating with film makers such as Martin Scorsese, Alfred Hitchcock and Otto Preminger, he has also designed many groundbreaking film posters, and logos. His iconic work is often in only two colours, if you search his name on Google images the screen is dominated with orange and black. Two of my personal favourite film posters of his are Vertigo and The Man with the Golden Arm, both Hitchcock films, I feel that for Hitchcock to use the same designer for many of his films poster design really shows that Hitchcock feels Bass’ work fits the bill for what he wants, especially as he uses Bass more than once. Contemporary designers have designed new work that in ‘in the style of’ Bass as his work was and still is very influential to other designers. I have got a few examples here…saul-bass-north-by-northwest-title

Vertigo-1958-USA-Movie-Poster-Art-by-Saul-Bass-James-Stewart-in-Alfred-Hitchcocks-Vertigo1ManWithTheGoldenArm saul bass North by Northwest is a 1959 American thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock

North by Northwest is a 1959 American thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

Vertigo is a 1958 psychological thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock based on the 1954 novel D’entre les morts by Boileau-Narcejac.

The Man with the Golden Arm is a 1955 American drama film by Otto Preminger.

The design I have included here for The Man with the Golden Arm is a square design Saul Bass did for the record accompanying the film.  He also did a landscape and a portrait version with the same design of colour blocks.

“When the reels of film for Otto Preminger’s controversial new drugs movie, The Man with the Golden Arm, arrived at US movie theatres in 1955, a note was stuck on the cans – “Projectionists – pull curtain before titles”.

Until then, the lists of cast and crew members which passed for movie titles were so dull that projectionists only pulled back the curtains to reveal the screen once they’d finished. But Preminger wanted his audience to see The Man with the Golden Arm’s titles as an integral part of the film.

The movie’s theme was the struggle of its hero – a jazz musician played by Frank Sinatra – to overcome his heroin addiction. Designed by the graphic designer Saul Bass the titles featured an animated black paper-cut-out of a heroin addict’s arm. Knowing that the arm was a powerful image of addiction, Bass had chosen it – rather than Frank Sinatra’s famous face – as the symbol of both the movie’s titles and its promotional poster.

That cut-out arm caused a sensation and Saul Bass reinvented the movie title as an art form. By the end of his life, he had created over 50 title sequences for Preminger, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, John Frankenheimer and Martin Scorsese. Although he later claimed that he found the Man with the Golden Arm sequence “a little disappointing now, because it was so imitated”.   –  taken from the Design Museums website.

Martin Scorsese once described his approach as creating: “an emblematic image, instantly recognisable and immediately tied to the film”.

Anatomy of a Murder is a 1959 American courtroom crime drama film directed by Otto Preminger

Anatomy of a Murder is a 1959 American courtroom crime drama film directed by Otto Preminger. Similar to the poster above this one also features black block design of the human limbs, but here also the whole body is included, along with simple blocks of colour providing the background. This design is then made better with Bass’ choice of typeface which are simple but so very effective. Also in his work it is common to see little or hardly any text as part of the design, he has done some film posters where the accompanying text is made very small and unreadable without close inspection as I feel this leaves the graphic design and title room to breath. Some examples of this are belowbunny lake is missing otto premingerthe human factor saul bass

 Bunny Lake Is Missing is a 1965 British psychological thriller film directed and produced by Otto Preminger.

The Human Factor is a 1979 British thriller film directed by Otto Preminger.

All his work is instantly recognisable and I feel that that is why a designer stands out from other designers, because of their style. To end this post I have finished on his iconic poster for the Design Museum’s exhibition of Saul Bass in 2004.saul bass design museum poster design


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