The momentary magic of Saul Bass’s film titles

Ask anyone in design to name their favourite architect and you’ll be lucky if they cite the obvious Norman Foster or, if they are particularly interested in the subject, Daniel Libeskind or Frank Gehry. Such is the distance between the professions that designers are only one up on the general public in their awareness of the key architectural players.

But ask either camp about film titles and you are likely to hear the name Saul Bass (see feature, page 12). The late great virtually invented the genre at a time when computer special effects were the subject of sci-fi epics rather than the means by which they were made. He is remembered by designers of all disciplines for the sheer brilliance of his work. Like James Bond set designer Ken Adams, his reputation extends far beyond the world of film and his influence on design has been phenomenal.

The difference between Bass and more recent exponents of his art is that he was essentially a graphic designer who, working alongside his wife Elaine, focused on film. His work is ideas-based and beautifully crafted. There is no house style, except in its ingenuity.

His show at the Design Museum should be a must for all in design. Of particular interest will be the means by which he achieved his effects in the pre-computer era, using tea bags to create wrinkles and back projection to give a spooky air to humble, handmade props. There is much to be learned in the simplicity of the approach.

There is much to be learned too from the integrated approach to his designs, blending 2D with 3D design to create imagery that doubles up as advertising for the film as well as providing a foreword. It has become fashionable for the likes of D&AD and WPP Group boss Martin Sorrell to promote the merits of such an approach at a time when the creative industries are highly sophisticated, but over-specialised.

These days, it takes a big effort to integrate the skills of consultancies offering varying approaches. In Bass’s day – and probably still in the film industry – people were used to crossing the artificial boundaries between disciplines set down by educationalists and professional bodies, which limit the free flow of ideas.

Few designers have skipped the fence to move into entertainment from a more conventional background. Architect Mark Fisher is legendary for his Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd sets, but not many of his profession have followed his example.

There is still much to be learned from the momentary magic that Bass and his ilk conjure up. It must be good, because however fleeting the experience, the archives are full of the footage. How many designers can say that of their work?

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