Friday, September 18, 2015

Saul Bass

In high school, I took a class in advertising and graphic design. It was quite a challenge for someone unused to the rigors associated with the field. 

I came to think of it as something akin to making art with letters. 

There was an assignment in which we had to design a logo for a word that would illustrate its meaning at the same time - similar to what this guy does. The word I chose was "hydrant." In addition to freehand-ing the letters of a font I got out of a book, I substituted the "H" with an image of a dog lifting his leg next to a hydrant and it kinda sorta made the shape of the letter. 

When I got into making comics, I had to hand-letter word balloons and design sound effects and logos, before computer lettering became more common. The approach I took was what I thought was the simplest one: to leave space for the text at the top and bottom of each panel and use a T-square to rule each line of text evenly. I knew that it was important for people to be able to actually read my words, so I took the time to make sure it came out right. 

Sound effects and logos were harder. My first comic book series had two different fonts for the title (seemed like a good idea at the time) and I remember all the long hours spent at Kinko's trying to shrink them down to the right size, and then struggling to make them level with each other and with the cover. As you might imagine, this was long before I got the hang of Photoshop and how scanners work. 

All of this is my way of saying how much I appreciate the work of someone like Saul Bass. In a time where movie posters have become less and less imaginative and distinctive visually, his work, much of it made in conjunction with his wife Elaine Makatura, stands out now more than ever.

And of course, in addition to posters and title credits, he also designed some of the best known corporate logos in the world.

His work seems simple, but speaking as an artist, I can attest to the fact that you have to do a whole lot of drawing and sketching and playing around with images to get to that level of simplicity in the end. Don't be fooled by what you see on the surface.

The fact that Bass' influence is still felt in Hollywood today is a testament to his impact.

Next: Ruby Dee

Movies with titles and poster designs by Saul Bass:

Jack Lemmon   Jean Arthur
Edward G. Robinson   Rita Moreno
Frank Capra   Bernard Herrmann
Joan Blondell   James Dean
Ethel Waters   William Powell
Tod Browning   Edith Head
Joel McCrea   Thelma Ritter
Douglas Fairbanks   Gloria Swanson
Robert Wise


  1. Beautiful article. I know I always liked looking at Bass' work, but it wasn't until I started hanging out with you artist types that I gained a true perspective on the combination of talent and work behind the images.

  2. Thanks. I had thought about doing a comic strip that would pay homage to Bass' work, but it didn't work out the way I wanted. Then I remembered my limited experience in graphic design and decided I wanted to talk about that instead.

  3. I really love graphic posters like this. I remember as a kid putting on headphones and listening to West Side Story (on vinyl!) and I would look at the record cover obsessively. I was always fascinated by the little detail of the male figure's (I assume Tony's) shirt sticking forward from his pants, as happens when someone is in that dance pose.

    I also love movie openings that are animated and clever. I don't know who did it, but I remember that Catch Me if You Can had a nice graphic opening credit sequence.

    Every summer, there's an exhibition associated with the Indianapolis International Film Festival that displays graphic movie poster designs by local university art students. I love, love going to that. They come up with incredible stuff!

    Oh, my, do I ever remember fighting so many battles at Kinko's... Those were the days.

  4. Looking back on it now, the most peculiar part about all those years doing paste-ups on my comics was that it never occurred to me to ask someone for help. I stubbornly struggled with it on my own because I felt it was my responsibility to present the copy clerk with as simple a task as possible. I didn't want them to do something that would mess up my work and possibly cost me money, so I felt like I had to get the pages as close to a finished state as possible. Of course, I still made mistakes, but at least they were mine and not Kinko's...


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