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Why Saul Bass Is Still Today’s Most Relevant Graphic Designer

When it comes to the world’s most influential graphic designers, Saul Bass has to be the most iconic of them all. Even if you only take a passing interest in graphic design, you have probably seen some of his work, as he produced everything from corporate logo designs, such as the Kleenex and AT&T logos, to film posters.

Bass grew up in 1920s New York, where he was the son of Jewish immigrants. His innate talent for drawing took him to art college, where he studied under the master Bauhaus designer György Kepes. He moved to California after graduating, where he worked in advertising, before moving into film poster design.

One of the most celebrated movie posters of all time is Bass’ design for the 1958 Alfred Hitchcock film Vertigo. It’s still studied by graphic design students today, because it conveys so many of the principles of good practice in design.

The use of colour on the Vertigo poster is restricted to a palette of three strong primary colours: bright orange, white, and black. The vivid reddish orange background commands the attention, while conveying the drama and the danger of the situation, as the protagonist, an ex-police officer, wrestles with his extreme fear of heights.

The solid bright orange background clearly emphasises the spiralling white vortex, which draws the eye to the central silhouetted figures at the heart of the poster. The distinctive typography, which is in bold all-caps, but retains an uneven, hand cut feel, is easy to read yet expressive of the edgy tone of the film.

The information on the poster is kept to a minimum, with no more than three words on each line, conveying only the names of the lead actors, the name of the director, the descriptor ‘masterpiece’; and the title of the film in the largest typeface at the bottom.

Anyone designing a poster today can learn so much from these simple but very effective techniques: the use of a limited colour palette, with bold primary colour to catch the eye. The use of a solid bright background colour makes the poster jump out from a wall, and stand out from surrounding posters or other design features.

The information is clear, easy to read, and is economical, telling the viewer just enough. The layout is uncluttered, but contains a strong visual pull to draw the eye to the central theme of the poster. The font is memorable and unique, and yet this doesn’t detract from the legibility of the text.

The predecessor to Bass’ Vertigo poster was his poster design for Anatomy for a Murder (1959). This contains the trademark solid orange background, and black silhouetted figure, with the limbs, torso, and head disturbingly disconnected. The distinctive hand cut font is overlaid onto the dismembered black body.

The deceptively simple design manages to be just as unsettling, if not more so, than a grizzly realistic image would be. It was also considered revolutionary at the time, for putting the emphasis on the victim/protagonist of the story, rather than the star actors of the film.

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