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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
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
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
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
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
Copyright 1982 by AIGA.
New York Times obituary, April 27, 1996.
The distinguished AIGA Medal is awarded to individuals in recognition of their exceptional achievements in the field of design.
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