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    Saul Bass

    1981 AIGA Medal
    1920, New York, New York
    1996, Los Angeles, California

    Beneath theory and rhetoric, and well beyond technique and jargon, the reason for design is to speak to people in a language this is familiar, but also new, to entice people to understand an old thing in a new way, or grasp a new thing in an old way. There has never been a designer who can do this better than Saul Bass, who adds the 1981 AIGA Medal to his long and quite extraordinary list of honors and achievements. Saul Bass honors this award.

    Saul Bass's work touches people. Not just designers, or students, or observers of design, or those who know and can explain what a designer is and does, but simply people—many, many people.

    The movie Grand Prix introduced Bass to me, though it took twenty years for me to discover that. As an average high school kid with predictable interests, growing up in an average suburban town, I went to the movie Grand Prix with the guys to see the cars race. Saul Bass must have understood this, because he got most of the exposition of the rather thin (as I recall) plot out of the way beneath the introductory titling and credits. Then, when the movie really started, the cars raced. And they raced in perfectly new and immensely satisfying ways: in multiple images, in speed-distorted images, in blurs and shimmering telephoto compression in pictures of whole cars and in extreme close-up—exhaust manifolds and the scream-pitched barks of revving Formula 1 engines.

    Saul Bass also touched this perfectly normal high schooler with his compression of the emotion of Exodus into a single image of a half-dozen reaching hands and a rifle. Why were there more hands than rifles? Were they celebrating victory? Were they defiant in the face of overwhelming odds? Were some hands trying to take the rifle from another?

    Later, Saul Bass's opening sequences and closing credits for West Side Story convinced the same suburban high schooler that New York City was no place for him. It wasn't the violence of the gangs (we had guys who belonged to gangs). It was the size and density and energy and potential for both great things and utter destruction and despair—all conveyed by the spinning, aerial introduction and the closing credits, graffiti-ed on the decaying surfaces of that alien city.

    Years later, working and living happily in New York, I was touched by Saul Bass (still unknown to me) two more times through North American Rockwell's new corporate emblem, in which I had a genuine if uninformed interest, and through a film for Kaiser, Why Man Creates. Without my knowing it, Saul Bass had turned me toward an interest in a lasting association with design communication.

    It's a cliché, but Saul Bass really has done it all. Films. Packaging. Products. Architecture. Corporate identification. Graphics. His work surrounds us. Pick up the telephone and you're hard-pressed not to recall Bass's ubiquitous Bell System symbol and look. Take a plane—United, Continental, Frontier: Saul Bass. Go to a film—Psycho, Anatomy of a Murder, Exodus, Spartacus, The Man With the Golden Arm, Advise & Consent, Such Good Friends: Saul Bass. In the supermarket or in the kitchen—Wesson, Quaker, Alcoa, Lawry's, Dixie: Saul Bass. Relax with a magazine, read a book, watch TV, take some pictures—Saturday Evening Post, Warner, Minolta: Saul Bass. Give to charity—The United Way, Girl Scouts: Saul Bass. Strike an Ohio Blue Tip match.

    He left his native New York for Hollywood in the mid-1940s to find a way to combine his restless, intuitive imagination and a few years of New York experience working in graphic design, into a career. Before anyone in the film industry, Bass recognized the importance of a movie's first moments: they should do more than warn the audience that a few minutes remain to make a trip to the popcorn stand. He invented the idea of titling movies—either at the beginning or end—with sequences that added something in a highly symbolic and evocative way and created print-graphic identification for films that not only title the film, but also serve to unify and drive entire marketing and advertising campaigns.

    If part of what design is about is communicating through symbols, Saul Bass and his firm have subsequently created a fair measure of what we now perceive as the modern business and commercial world. Either they have actually created these symbols or contributed mightily to the notion itself.

    Bass is the first to disavow the widely held idea that graphic design and film design are closely related disciplines. In medium, time, concept, technique and technical aspects, they are not. Graphic design is a solitary or small group exercise in creating. Film directing and producing are management efforts of large groups of people, equipment, variables and idea. Yet Saul Bass has not only mastered both, he is comfortable in both. And the Bass competence extends along another axis of accomplishment. At one end are designed communications that stem from, and depend on, the crackle of instant insight—both his and yours. These images are too urgent to refine, too strong and emotional in their effect to fuss with. At the distant other end of the axis is the attention to numbing detail and mastery of formidable scale best exemplified by the Bell System program, the largest and one of the most successful corporate identification design programs ever conceived and implemented.

    Like many top designers, Saul Bass is an ardent collector. More important than the classifications of what he collects (pre-Colombian figures, Colina rolled-clay figures, Ashanti dolls, Indian fetishes, et cetera) is the intelligence that informs his impulse to collect and what his collections give back to their collector. “These tiny remains of ancient human civilizations, in addition to their intrinsic beauty, bring with them a special kind of mystery—a quality of the distant past, the unknown and unreality of it all. Like the best kind of design or film work, they communicate on two levels: the visceral or emotional level and the more complex intellectual level. The goal, and the ultimate achievement, is to make people feel as well as think.”

    While Saul Bass listens to and respects the mute, visual language of the ancients, he is very much focused on the here and now, and on the future. Although his record is wide, thoughtful and deep, it is a prologue: to what's surely to come, and to the man himself.

    Copyright 1982 by AIGA.


    New York Times obituary, April 27, 1996.

    Additional Resources


    Meggs, Philip B. “Saul Bass on Corporate Identity.” AIGA Journal of Graphic Design 8.1 (1990): 4. Print.

    Staff Writers. “1981 AIGA Medalist - Saul Bass.” AIGA Journal of Graphic Design 1.1 (1982): 3. Print.

    Staff Writers. “Saul Bass 1920-1996.” AIGA Journal of Graphic Design 14.2 (1996): 54. Print.

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