How Graphic Designer Saul Bass Revolutionized the Movie Poster

Saul Bass helped define the visual culture of the 1950s—most notably through creating memorable movie posters that are still resonant today.
Text by

It might be the most memorable film poster of all time. Striking graphics, striking color contrast, and minimalism challenged everything we knew about movie marketing, making the Vertigo poster a pivotal moment in graphic design. For that, we can thank Saul Bass. 

He was a filmmaker, motion picture title sequence designer, and iconic logo creator—of Girl Scouts and Kleenex logo fame—yet his midcentury film poster designs would define his legacy. From a New York, Bauhaus-influenced education to working alongside the ranks of Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, and Martin Scorsese, Bass boasts a 40-year oeuvre that contains films spanning from Saint Joan to The Shining

What earned Bass his acclaim, though, was his spirited way of distilling an entire story into one, singular image. He was known for saying, "I just want to make beautiful things, even if nobody cares." Well, we certaintly do: here, we spotlight some of his seminal works from the 1950s capturing the visually stunning intersection of cinema and design.

Anatomy of a Murder, 1959

How Graphic Designer Saul Bass Revolutionized the Movie Poster - Photo 1 of 4 -

This film pushed boundaries, and so did the art. While most film posters spotlight the stars, Bass puts the attention on the victim. His take on the 1959 courtroom drama draws parallels between the anatomy of the case and a human, symbolic of the myriad components: the characters, the legal system, ethics and morals. It’s both simple and complex—as Bass did so well. The marketing campaign comprises dozens of iterations of this double—or even triple—entendres on everything from envelopes to billboards, newspaper ads, and album covers. How many ways are there to examine this story? For Bass, plenty.

Love in the Afternoon, 1957  

How Graphic Designer Saul Bass Revolutionized the Movie Poster - Photo 2 of 4 -

Is there symbolism in the large, black void of the curtain? Or how about the delicate drape closure? Interpretations aside, this artwork for the romantic comedy Love in the Afternoon captures the brilliance of Bass’s thinking and how a pared-down palette alone can revive the thrill of watching a movie. This poster also shines a light on his font skills—the kinetic-meets-constructivism typography is a Bass signature, and makes his posters instantly recognizable.

Vertigo, 1958 

How Graphic Designer Saul Bass Revolutionized the Movie Poster - Photo 3 of 4 -

Vertigo was the only film poster created for Alfred Hitchcock, and it’s arguably the most iconic. Akin to Anatomy of a Murder, a comprehensive marketing campaign was produced for this film with many iterations of its design. However, they’re unmistakably Bass, all donning the same mesmerizing image—the vortex that is also found in the title sequence, designed by John Whitney, Sr. Bass had a way of making it his own, though, with minimal yet bold colors, custom typography, and a sensibility that belies his background in logo design.

The Man With the Golden Arm, 1955

How Graphic Designer Saul Bass Revolutionized the Movie Poster - Photo 4 of 4 -

Here, we start to see the theme emerge: hands in action. Bass managed to work on many controversial films, and this one was no different; The Man With the Golden Arm’s focus on drug addiction made it taboo at the time. Perhaps the heavy-handed theme is a reference to the hand and mind connection or Bass’s own hand-drawn technique. Either way, you can’t unsee it—like any branding done well. For that, we’ll hand it to him.

Saul Bass: A Life in Film and Design
This is the first book to be published on one of the greatest American designers of the 20th Century, who was as famous for his work in film as for his corporate identity and graphic work.




Get the Pro Newsletter

What’s new in the design world? Stay up to date with our essential dispatches for design professionals.