The Art House: A Pain in the (Saul) Bass

The Art House

Designer /client relations don’t get a whole lot of coverage when you’re going through art school. The closest my education came was when my professor made an impassioned speech stressing the importance of convention over style in appealing to the widest audience possible. I was told to scrap what I’d done and to start over with their suggestions in mind. For an inexperienced twenty-one year old, you can guess how the conversation went from there: a similarly passionate rebuttal cut down by a warning that, if this were the “real world”, I’d be fired so fast I wouldn’t know what hit me. It was a taste of what can happen when two people aren’t on the same page.

Not everyone shares similar views, but the relationship between a designer and a client should be that of a partnership. At best, they share a spectacular marriage of goals and ideas; at worst, a clash of differing opinions with an end result not quite what either had in mind. One side holds the purse strings, and they are the one’s with everything to lose. Tired and true methods feel safe compared to chancier avenues, which designers often covet because of their ability to elevate their clients above the crowd. And that’s where conflict can arise, with one side desperately trying to remain financially sound while the other tries to solve the problem in the best possible way, even if it means leaping into the darkness.

This isn’t endemic to a specific caliber of client, or designer; the best of us can find ourselves in similarly wonderful situations or absolute nightmare scenarios. One of the most renowned designers of the 20th century did, on a number of occasions.

We tend to romanticize the past and mythologize the people we see as heroes. Saul Bass is rightly remember for his incredible skill and seemingly unending creativity, a man who cared deeply about making things beautiful, even if no one else cared. His work exists as a testament to the idea that good design can exist even in the most monetarily concerned places. From the 1950’s until the early 1990’s, he created more than a dozen campaigns for films, with an even higher number dedicated to title sequences. Yet his work in print was often met with heavy resistance, or worse, reassembled by a studio’s second set of hands.

Film posters have had a history of clinging to certain preconceived notions about what sells a picture to an audience: bombastic headlines, easily recognizable imagery of actors and actresses - uncomplicated and consistent with everything else out in the wild. Success or failure at the box office, especially in the days before social media, was believed to rest heavily on how well the advertising campaign did it’s job. Even more scrutiny was placed on the visual identity of a film in print than it is today, bringing with it a greater unwillingness to gamble on the potential earnings for a film. After all, when your main thrust for exposure lies in trade ads or a one-sheet, there are less outlets available to mitigate your risks on.

And much of Saul’s work was just that: risky. The clutter from a traditional poster bent on throwing as much information at an audience as possible was largely gone, second only to the absence of the grand visages of the film’s stars. In their place were largely stripped down affairs that focused and strengthened attention rather than overwhelmed and scattered it into a million pieces. Colors were few, but bold in their application. The text and imagery itself was often treated similarly to a logo or a symbol: strong, simple, memorable, metaphorical, and easily applied to any number of other graphic applications. These were posters less concerned with selling as much as they were with standing out in a sea of clutter, making a film’s presence known. It was a different approach to advertising, one that couldn’t have a financial return charted through past successes or failures simply because it hadn’t been done before.

Left, Bunny Lake is Missing; Right, Such Good Friends by Saul Bass

People are often reserved when it comes to journeying into the unknown; the reasons for staying behind where it’s safe tend to outweigh the potential rewards that come from hedging your bets and risking it all. The embolden press on, regardless. And in the end, what helped get much of what Saul Bass produced out the door wasn’t the courageous actions of a few stalwart film execs, but the directors themselves. They tended to work closely with Saul and held a shared interest in the way their films were going to be unveiled to the world.

Right, "The Man with the Golden Arm" by Saul Bass.

The battles themselves were never easy, and rarely was the outcome as simple as the aesthetic Bass pushed in his work. Otto Preminger fought against financial concerns over "The Man with the Golden Arm" and the absence of it’s star studded cast in the visuals, ultimately conceding to their addition within the abstract rectangles of the final design. Similar alterations were done on "The Cardinal", a poster driven solely by type, with imagery of the actors added to soften the unconventional poster.

Left, The Big Country trade ad by Saul Bass; right, The Big Country (designer unknown)

Concerns over marketability drove changes from trade ads to theatrical art, with only certain elements being carried over by another party into a different design. The Big Country retains Saul’s dust encircled sun and the silhouettes of a group of riders, but the type, layout, and faces of the film’s stars were put together elsewhere.

Left, Spartacus trade ad by Saul Bass; right, Spartacus (designer unknown)

The blood-soaked design for Spartacus made famous through Criterion’s home video release was simply another piece created for a trade ad, and like Country, the theatrical poster for Spartacus incorporates only a few elements from Saul’s initial design.

"The Magnificent Seven" is an even less fortunate example; the early proposals were left completely on the cutting room floor due to their extremely minimal nature, with more conventional advertising being employed for the final artwork.

Left, Grand Prix by Saul Bass; right, Grand Prix (designer unknown)

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Despite featuring more traditional pieces of key art, posters for "Grand Prix" and "Seconds" coexist alongside two of Bass’ more reductive efforts, offering a sharper view of the demands made by commerce over art.

Left, Seconds by Saul Bass; right, Seconds (designer unknown)

The busy, traditional advertising method of filling a space with as much information and imagery as possible versus a sharp, succinct image that teases and invites the viewer in for more.

Left, Vertigo by Saul Bass; right, Psycho (designer unknown)

Poor initial reactions to "Vertigo" caused studio execs to demand an entirely new campaign in favor of something easily digestible to boost box office receipts. Ultimately, the tense, spiraling imagery by Saul (and Art Goodman) was left largely intact, going on to win several awards that year and becoming one of the more iconic pieces of key art throughout film history. Despite being brought back to design the film titles for Hitchcock’s next feature, Bass is conspicuously absent from poster duties on "Psycho", which instead aligns itself more towards the desires expressed on Hitch’s previous film for a straightforward campaign.

For all the disagreements and changes that occurred throughout Saul Bass’ career, the work reflects a voice that was persistent in its aims at achieving clarity and beauty through design, but at times unafraid to make compromises for the benefit of the client. Relationships can be tough, with it feeling like a client is on a completely different page than a designer, but the end goal on both sides is always the same: to create something that is noticed by an audience. Everyone has their own concerns, their own perspectives, and their own agendas on how to do that. Sometimes it’ll seem like monetary concerns and committees are working to strip the life out of something, while to others it’ll feel like a designer is being willfully obtuse to keep their vision intact. The best one can hope for is a partnership with everyone working off of a similar page.

Left, Nine Hours to Rama by Saul Bass; right, Nine Hours to Rama (designer unknown)

When that’s not possible, you do what you can to see it through, keeping your original intentions in a folder close by. Saul did, and those are the pieces that add to the story that history remembers him by.

Source notes

Saul Bass: A Life in Film and Design

Reassessing the Saul Bass and Alfred Hitchcock Collaboration

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