“Work? It’s just serious play,” Saul Bass remarked in a 1993 interview. Indeed, Saul Bass’s marvelous career, which spanned from the 1930s until his death in 1996, is defined by his trademark wit, humor, and playfulness. Whether it was in movie posters, billboards, brand identities, or packaging design, Bass always injected his work with a delightful energy and intelligence, quite remarkable given the distilled simplicity of his work. Bass not only designed some of the most iconic brand identities of modern time (AT&T, United Airlines, and The Girl Scouts of America—to name a few), but was also highly respected for his work with film posters and title sequences (such as Psycho, Vertigo, The Seven Year Itch). Today, one would be hard-pressed to find a person alive who hasn’t encountered the work of Saul Bass.
Born in 1920 to Eastern European Jewish immigrants, Bass lived in New York City for most of his early life. Even as a young boy and teenager, Bass excelled at the arts, designing book covers for friends and posters for high school events. As a young man, Bass studied design at Brooklyn College and The Arts Students League in Manhattan. Although he was trained in the Bauhaus style, Bass’s later work veered away from this modernist objectivity and drew greater inspiration from the expressive styles of designers like Paul Rand and Alvin Lustig. Bass’s own talent lay in his ability to communicate meaning with just a few ingredients, something that is evident throughout his work.
Bass is probably most well known for his work in film and his partnerships with directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Otto Preminger. Bass worked on eleven films with Preminger alone, including Anatomy of A Murder, The Man With The Golden Arm, and Carmen Jones.
Bass’s visual language is illustrated beautifully in this 1960 poster for Exodus, a Preminger film about the founding of Israel. Here, Bass combines the film’s biblical title with stark symbolic imagery in order to communicate the film’s overarching themes of religion and conflict. “It was an attempt to symbolize the struggle of the Jewish people to establish their own land,” Bass said of the poster. “The reaching hands are an attempt to imply spirituality.” At the bottom of the poster, flames reach up to engulf these outstretched hands, creating the illusion that the poster itself is on fire.