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Awesome Men Throughout History: Saul Bass

First off, raise your hand if you watch Mad Men. Okay, good. Now put your hands down because none of us can see each other and we’re all being ridiculous.

Now then, if you’re like me, you’re immediately drawn into Mad Men by the cool opening credits sequence that introduces the mood and tone of the show. As it turns out, that credits sequence was directly influenced by, and wouldn’t have been possible without, the work of Saul Bass, a graphic designer and filmmaker whose body of work is stunning in its originality and long-lasting impact on the film industry.

The great Saul

Bass was a big fan of kinetic typography (aka moving text) and used it to great effect for the opening credits of North by Northwest, Psycho, West Side Story, and even more modern stuff like Goodfellas and Casino. Before Bass came along, opening credits were an afterthought, and were sometimes just projected on the movie theater’s curtains before they opened to reveal the screen. They were hardly seen as an art all to themselves, but Bass thought they’d be an effective way to “reach for a simple, visual phrase that tells you what the picture is all about and evokes the essence of the story.” Turns out he was right.

And he didn’t stop there. Bass designed posters for a lot of movies too, and again his work revolutionized the industry. Back in the day, movie posters were mostly scene depictions or headshots of the top-billed actors, and the designs themselves were often cluttered, without much thought given to visual hierarchy (aka the order in which the human eye perceives things and gleans information from them).

Bass saw this as another place to innovate, and his poster for The Man With the Golden Arm, which features a paper cut-out jagged arm and complimentary typography, was a revelation. It communicated a central theme of the film (heroin addiction) in a visually interesting way, and with a minimalist design. This approach would become his trademark, and he designed posters for a wide range of films, including Vertigo, Anatomy of a Murder (widely considered one of the best movie posters of all time), and The Shining.

I’m guessing Bass was one of those Edison types who never slept, because he somehow found the time to do a lot of logo designs for companies in the United States and Japan. Bass was responsible for both the Bell Telephone logo and the AT&T globe logo, which was commissioned after the Bell monopoly was broken up the early 1980s. Bass also did work for Dixie, United Airlines, Geffen Records, the Girl Scouts, and Kleenex. It’s fascinating (well, to me anyway) to see how that minimalistic style carries over between so many wildly different projects.

When all’s said and done, Saul Bass changed the visual representation of films forever, and on multiple fronts (we haven’t even gotten into his filmmaking efforts yet – there just isn’t time). His influence is still seen today, particularly in things that reference the aesthetics of the 1960s and 70s; Archer and The Venture Bros. owe as much to his work as they do to James Bond. And yet, unless you’re hanging around film majors or graphic designers, you never hear his name. Well, far be it for me to sit back and watch as ordinary citizens are forced to hang around film majors and graphic designers. Saul Bass was awesome and people need to know about it. Check out some of his finest work and spread the word.

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.

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