Taking Credit: Film title sequences, 1955-1965 / 3 Visions in Motion

Essays by Emily King
2 192 words11 min read

1: Visions in Motion: the American graphic designer and modernism.

The generation of graphic designers practising in the United States in the 1950s were confident of the importance of their role in modern American life. An editorial in Print magazine described the States as ‘a land of a fast-increasing population, with fast-increasing monies to spend’ and suggested that ‘it owes its present progressively grounded status in large part to the Graphic Designer ... who has reached into all corners of our way of living to point out new avenues of thought, expression and methods.’ A robust belief in modernity partnered with a firm faith in the importance of the designer in the process of progress was inherited by the American graphic designer from their adopted ancestors, the European modernists. The 30th anniversary issue of Print, published in 1969, chose to concentrate on the Great Graphic Designers of the Twentieth Century . Fifteen great graphic designers were discussed. Beginning with El Lissitsky, the magazine went through, among others, Laszlo Moholy Nagy, Gyorgy Kepes and Paul Rand, until it ended up at Saul Bass and Milton Glaser. Through this genealogy, the professionalised graphic designers who edited and subscribed to the magazine elected themselves the heirs of the European tradition.

Laszlo Moholy Nagy (1895-1946) and Gyorgy Kepes (b.1906) played an active role in forming the American designers who followed them. Moholy Nagy’s influential text on the Bauhaus preliminary course The New Vision was translated into English and published in America in 1932, spreading his ideas to the United States five years before he was appointed as Director of the New Bauhaus in Chicago 1937. At the New Bauhaus, renamed the Institute of Design in 1944, he became directly responsible for teaching many of the designers who were among the most influential practitioners of the 1950s and 1960s. Gyorgy Kepes, a Hungarian-born graphic designer who had worked with Moholy Nagy in Berlin in the 1930s, played a similarly important role in educating the graphic designers who would become the most prominent of their generation. Between 1938-43 he taught at the Chicago Institute and from there he went on to teach at design schools along the East Coast until his retirement in 1974. Kepes published a number of texts which brought the principles of the Bauhaus to designers and design students schools throughout the United States.

Traditionally the American counterpart to theoretical European modernism has been seen as non-ideological. Lorraine Wilde in her essay ‘Europeans in America’ has suggested that ‘When Modernism was finally integrated into common design practice in America, both its aesthetic and conceptual basis were significantly altered’ and that the process involved ‘the transference of the visual aesthetic as opposed to the ideological framework’. She concludes that where the European design was ‘theoretical and functional’ its American counterpart was ‘pragmatic and visual’. While it is true that American designers did not adopt the beliefs and aims of the European modernists wholesale, it is inaccurate to view the generation of practitioners working in the 1950s and 1960s as unideological. Many of the American graphic designers of this period took a consciously theoretical approach to their work and grasped opportunities to write about their ideas in magazines and discuss them at conferences. An editorial in Print magazine of 1960 believed it spoke for the American graphic designer when it crowed, ‘Articulate we have become, and the men and women who have raised their voices and given us the privilege of their talents are among the most respected in the world of creative effort’. The editorial went on to list these talented and forthright individuals, placing the most theoretical of European modernists (Laszlo Moholy Nagy and Herbert Bayer) alongside designers born and bred in the United States (Saul Bass) without comment. While not entailing an unquestioning espousal of the views of the European modernists, this juxtaposition implies a belief in a continuity between the voices of the Europeans and their own.


The conclusion that American modernism was merely ‘pragmatic and visual’ rests on the assumption that the pursuit of commercial ends is necessarily a non-ideological goal. However many post war American graphic designers did not see commerce in opposition to ideology but embraced it as part of their theoretical base. In general, the designers writing in Print and speaking at the International Design Conference in Aspen believed that commerce was the route by which their ideals would be best achieved. There was shared a commitment to the notion that good design would flourish in the free market:

If the salesmen didn’t understand modern art, they did discover that it nonetheless markets the product. This meant they had to turn to the person who understood this art: the Designer, the artist. Thus what began as coterie acceptance became mass acceptance.

The coterie referred to in this passage are likely to have been the securely professional readers of magazines like Fortune, a journal for businessmen, and Scope, the periodical of the pharmaceutical company Upjohn. These magazines were among the first to employ art directors who were committed to the formal ideals of modernism (fig.3.). Wilde argued that both periodicals ‘assumed a fairly sophisticated degree of visual awareness on the part of the reader’. But while the art directors working on these magazines might have admitted that their work was reaching only an elite, they believed that modernist design would eventually play a beneficial role at every level of society. Will Burtin (1908-72), a designer who trained at the Werkschule in Cologne and emigrated to America in 1938, worked as art director on both Scope and Fortune magazines in the 1950s. He argued,

To convey meaning, to facilitate understanding of reality and thereby help further progress, is a wonderful and challenging task for design. The writer, scientist, painter, philosopher and the designer of visual communication, in commerce are all partners in the task of inventing the dramatic and electrifying to a more comprehensive grasp of our time. The scope of this professional function goes beyond the aims proclaimed by the pioneers of the twenties.

Burtin, while undertaking to improve understanding through visual communication, the primary end of the European modernists, commits himself to the means of commerce.

This faith in market forces ran directly against the beliefs held by the European modernists from the Bauhaus. In his book Vision in Motion, published posthumously in Chicago in 1947, Moholy Nagy insisted that the artist ‘has to take sides and proclaim his stand’. He defined his ultimate aim: ‘To redirect the industrial world towards a balance between a biologically sound human existence and the present industrial society, and to create a planned cooperative, economy’. Moholy Nagy denied that pure commerce would lead to the best possible outcome, arguing that, ‘The silly myth the genius has to suffer is the sly excuse of a society which does not care for its productive members unless their work promises immediate technological or economic applications with calculable profit’. Obviously this stance is opposed to the free market ideology of most American designers in the post-war period. But Moholy Nagy spun the ideological thread that bound the American graphic designer to the European modernist more strongly than any other when he went on in his text to commit himself to the ideal of a modern universe in which technology would be fully employed in pursuit of appropriate ends.

It was Moholy Nagy’s desire to exploit the latest technology that brought him to film making in the 1920s. He suggested that "Painting, photography, film and television are parts of one single problem although their techniques may be entirely different’, and engaged himself in exploring the ‘characteristic visual, perceptual elements’ that arose from the technical peculiarities of film. In Painting Photography Film, first published in German 1925, Moholy Nagy argued that ‘The camera has offered us amazing possibilities, which we are only just beginning exploit’ and continued, ‘It seems to me indispensable that we, the creators of our own time, should go to work with up-to-date means.’ Kepes shared this enthusiasm for working in a contemporary fashion with modern media. In the Language Of Vision he suggested that ‘The invention of the motion picture opened the way to a hitherto undreamed scope and flexibility of rhythmic organization’, but complained, ‘The new possibilities of the synchronization of the temporal and spatial structure of the vision are, however, still barely touched upon.’ Saul Bass (b.1920) had been taught by Kepes at Brooklyn College in the early 1940s and has suggested that The Language of Vision had an important as a influence upon him. In the light of his design education, Bass’s extension of his graphic work into the medium of film can be seen as a natural step.


Partly through his work in film, Bass became one of the most important graphic designers practising in America in the 1950s and 1960s. He was particularly prominent as one of the most articulate designers of his generation, and frequently wrote articles about his work in design journals, including Graphis and Print. At the ninth Aspen Conference held in 1959 Saul Bass, who was acting as a moderator, was described in literature about the conference as a ‘native New Yorker but firmly implanted on the West Coast... His schooling and preliminary work experience began in New York’. It is the mixture of East Coast ideas brought to West Coast practice that is most characteristic of Bass’s work. While Bass retained many of the beliefs that he would have learnt from the modernists whose influence was pre-eminent in the design schools on the East Coast and in Chicago, he unashamedly embraced elements of West Coast culture. Significantly he was enthusiastic about the Hollywood film, having no reservations about its non-modern narrative structure, a form which both Moholy Nagy and Kepes believed to be inappropriate to the medium. Bass might have been prepared for his work within film by what he had learnt from his modernist teachers, but he did not share their vision of its future. Bass formulated his own theories regarding the validity of his work within film. He has repeatedly stressed in interviews that his titles were intended to serve the movie. He believes that a picture’s content should be addressed in its opening sequence to establish emotional or historical context and to create a rapport with its audience. Bass has dismissed graphically adventurous title sequences that do not deal with the substance of the film as ‘irrelevant tap dances’. Bass's conviction that his work within film must properly fulfil a function was derived from a European modernist's faith in simple, effective and appropriate forms of communication brought to a native enthusiasm for the North American film.

In an article that began, ‘That much abused and greatly overused adjective, versatile, takes on a full dimension of meaning when applied to Saul Bass and his work’, Bass remarked, ‘I seem to enjoy working on a variety of problems. But actually one creative problem helps me solve another. The underlying ideas and emotions of one problem can validly be related to another’. Bass argues that his talents for working in both moving and static graphic media are not strictly related because film-making requires a distinctive temporal awareness. But while he has suggested that it is purely coincidental that he is so able in both fields, he does not deny that the they are connected in some ways. Talking about his work in designing corporate identities, Bass explained that, ‘The transition from the film metaphors to corporate identity was really quite logical because to the extent that the symbol for the film was a metaphor for the film the trademark for a company is a metaphor for a company’. After Bass became well known for his work in cinema, design critics became keen to spot the filmic elements throughout his work. A review of Henri's Walk to Paris, ‘a delightful new children's book written by Leonore Klein and designed by Saul Bass’, claimed that Bass ‘brought to it a certain cinematic flavor’ and expanded, ‘From page to page he seems to close in on the characters until suddenly he breaks the sequence with a long range shot’.

It is possible to argue that Bass's static graphic images relate to his filmic work without stretching the movie metaphor too far. An article in Print suggested that Bass took a ‘non-static approach’ to all areas of design. The implications of this remark are borne out by Bass's ability to establish visual rhythms in a static trademark (fig.4.) and create a sense of suspense in a single shot (fig.5.). The same article went on to remark that Bass drew on ‘a compendium of visual experiences’ to arrive at appropriate design solutions. Bass used certain elements from this compendium in both his static and mobile designs and so created a recognisable visual vocabulary that runs through his work in all media (fig.6.). To draw valid conclusions about the precise nature of the relationship between Bass's mobile and static graphic designs one must look in more detail at specific examples.