Wherever you live, wherever you shop, chances are a Saul Bass design enters your field of vision at least once a day. The man who has transformed the look of feature films, airlines, gas stations and Girl Scout cookies knows you're part of his captive audience, and that sobers him.
"In the course of our daily lives, we're bombarded with a barrage of visual messages, some blatantly aggressive, some subtle," he says. "The trick is to find a way to break through without adding to the clutter and the ugliness. We have to be responsible about that."Bass, the Picasso of commercial artists, the graphic designer whose work has been exhibited at New York's Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian Institutes and the Library of Congress, wants to unclutter the American landscape. He also wants to prod American corporations out of what he sees as a national lethargy.
"The products people like best start with function and wind up with look," he says. "The dominant exporting countries today - West Germany, Japan, Scandinavia - understand that. But we've lost our momentum and initiative in this area.
"The key to industrial leadership is technology and design; of the two, technology is quantifiable and design is not. Technological improvements might make your product worth another $20. If you design something beautiful, what is that worth? It's worth whatever people will pay for it."
Once, Bass revolutionized the movies with bold visual composition in such films as "Psycho" (the shower sequence), "Spartacus" (the final battle scene) and "Grand Prix" (all the racing scenes). Today, Bass revolutionizes what he calls "corporate identity" by delving into the emotional side of a company's product or service.
When United Airlines asked him to revamp its look 10 years ago, he recalls, "people didn't talk about air safety because, in those days, it was a submerged idea - it was considered too profound a fear to deal with.
"But I felt it had to be dealt with. The first thing I did was paint the plane Cape-Canaveral-white to give it a high-tech look, an image of people in white lab coats ministering to this wonderful machine."
Next, Bass painted a rim of horizontal stripes around the sides of the plane "because stripes do a wonderful thing: they cause a plane to feel like a projectile going through the air in a powerful way so that it won't fall down.
This design auteur left New York in the early '50s for motion picture work in Los Angeles. He started out doing titles at a time when nobody paid attention to such static visuals. Before long, his explosive opening credits kept moviegoers from lingering at the popcorn stand.
Bass's first breakthrough was "The Man With the Golden Arm," an Otto Preminger film. The symbol he created for the movie - a jagged golden arm with a clawed hand - "was so seductive and became so embedded in the public consciousness," he recalls, "that when the film opened in New York, they just put the arm up on the marquee with no words, and that's all that was needed."
In everything he designs, Bass starts with the assumption that his intended viewers are as slippery as fresh-water fish: hook them fast or lose them altogether.
"We're in the telegraphic business," he says. "It's as though you're on Johnny Carson and he turns to you and says, `What do you do?' - and you know damn well that if you go over 10 seconds, he's going to cut you off."
Judging by Bass's office, he has a shorter attention span than any of his various audiences. His quiet den is a compressed museum of graphic oddities: the United plane model, a full Indian feather headdress spread on the floor in a circle, a Union Jack flag, a ghostly black-and-orange wall poster that turns out, on close inspection, to be a blurred profile of Jacqueline Kennedy behind the widow's veil.
Some items in his melange continue to fascinate Bass; others have somewhat lost their charm. He is not interested in talking about the Oscar sitting on a corner table, the one he and Elaine Bass, his wife and chief collaborator, won for their short film, aptly titled, "Why Man Creates."
The Basses went to China to work on the prologue for a $15 million feature film about silk trade in the Gobi desert in the year 1026. "I want to have my cake and eat it too," says the 65-year-old designer. "So many fascinating things are going on that I'll never quit."