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Nobody distilled brands like Saul Bass.

He designed iconic identities for Bell, AT&T, United Airlines, Minolta, Quaker, Kleenex. Look at any of these logos, and you’ll recognize them immediately, as you would a familiar face — even the ones that haven’t been in use for decades. Bass was also the genius behind Hitchcock’s groundbreaking title sequences, like the openings of Psycho and North by Northwest.

Bass died in 1996; last year, his daughter Jennifer Bass and the design historian Pat Kirkham published a monograph of his career, Saul Bass: A Life in Film and Design. It includes a description, written by Bass himself, of the process he used when working on corporate branding projects.

Bass started using this process nearly 60 years ago. Yet it — and the way it frames design thinking as part of a strategic process — still seems ahead of its time.

We’ve developed a way of approaching the task that makes what we do more comprehensible to non-designers. It’s a straightforward problem-solving technique that has come to be used by many design consultants these days.

It starts with a study and analysis phase, during which we arrive at the critical strategic decisions that will guide our efforts. There’s nothing mysterious about what we do. We start by learning the client’s business as thoroughly as we can. Products or services: we learn their history, their unique characteristics, their strengths, their weaknesses. We analyze competitors. Who is doing well or poorly and why.

We collect and analyze all the client’s communication materials, everything that carries the corporation’s identity. If market research exists, we enlist it. If it doesn’t, we might recommend that it be undertaken, and though we don’t do the research ourselves, we participate in creating the design of the research to make sure that our questions are answered.

These days, the first phase of a branding project – whether it’s called an “audit,” “discovery,” or simply “research” – is often seen as a necessary evil. But Bass saw it in its true form: as a hunt for knowledge, a quest for the deepest possible understanding of a business.

By far the most important element of our study is the interviews with key company officers and personnel. In some companies we talk to the chief officers, the head of marketing and a few division heads. But in others it might be more important to talk to an outside member of the board, an assistant to the president or a key scientist. The point is that every company is different and must be approached as such.

The interviews themselves are the key to our study. Typically they occur after we have done our other homework. We meet with only one executive at a time. We promise confidentiality. We work from a questionnaire but not rigidly. The interview is planned to last forty-five minutes but usually spills over because there is always more to say than time will allow. It’s among the most interesting aspects of my work. I get to ask powerful and often interesting people about their work and their lives. It is in their heads that the real blueprint for the future exists or is being formed.

Today, branding projects often start in team workshops and off-site leadership meetings. But Bass instead chose deep one-on-one conversations with executives. Equally important, he didn’t confine himself to the Marketing silo. The roots of competitive advantage can lie in Operations, in HR, in Distribution – anywhere.

Okay, by now we have the whole picture. Well maybe not everything, but a great deal. Only at this point are we prepared to devise a set of objectives for our design project. These objectives are the true road map of the work that will proceed from this point on. They tell us what is most important to communicate, and what’s next most important, and so on.

These objectives are vital to us for two reasons: first because our ‘canvas’ is very small, and we will likely have to make hard choices about what to go for. Equally important is that we must have some rational basis for evaluating the work that will emerge. It’s essential that we move away from the dreaded I like that, or I don’t like that, syndrome.

Conventional wisdom holds that setting objectives should be the very first thing you do in a project. But Bass didn’t think so. He defined objectives AFTER research had been completed. After all: it was only at that point that he knew what problem he was trying to solve. For him, objectives were criteria for success: they were the bells that a solution needed to ring to be judged successful.

At that point, having been intellectually rigorous, you can begin the process of design that cannot be rigorous in the same way. You go to work and the process becomes an odd amalgam of objective awareness and intuitive expression. But it’s a process that we share with the client. We expose everything we’ve done – good, bad, or indifferent. We usually drop true dopiness. But it does occur. It’s in the nature of the beast.

In presenting the work I might say we tried this, but it was too frivolous (or too didactic). And we tried that, which was rather promising. So we developed that further, but then it went over the edge and the notion became incomprehensible. Finally, there will be two or three designs that I think are really viable and worth considering seriously. We then review the original objectives to see how what we’ve done measures up.

Brand distillation is a highly iterative craft. Bass shared his iterations, taking clients along on the journey. There’s a lesson here for all creative professionals and how they share work with clients.

But then I may point out that there’s a place I go where they, the executives, can’t follow. It has to do with my intuitive feeling about whether it’s really going to fly. And that’s a judgment that comes from inside me and results from my many years of thinking and worrying about these things. I might then make an assertion that I’m convinced that this will work. Or do a good job. Or become an outstanding trademark, if I really believe that.

Bass knew when to make the case – and he also knew when to ask clients to make the leap. And they did. He earned their trust. He understood their business. He struck the innermost chord, and he could hear in his head how it would reverberate in the world. And he was, time and again and again, right. 

In corporate identification, you’re looking for the essence – the metaphor for the company’s activity. But there are certain general things that any identity must achieve. It has to have an impact, a presence, yet also be timeless rather than particular to a moment in time. Because of the long-range nature of corporate identity—a company doesn’t go through an identification program more than once or maybe twice in its lifetime—you must be very careful not to do something that will prompt people five years later to say, “Oh, yes. That’s what they used to do five years ago.”

What’s missing from this process? The “customer,” of course – in fact, that word doesn’t appear in Bass’ process at all. In the decades after Paul Rand and then Saul Bass shepherded in a golden age of branding, the customer revolution took hold. Businesses came to recognize that customers held ever-increasing power, and customer-centricity became the mantra of the post-industrial age. But the pendulum swung too far, until brands came to be seen as existing solely in the heads, hearts, and hands of customers. The deep wisdom of executives and employees, and their role in brand-building, was lost.

It’s time for branding to arrive at its higher, more balanced, middle ground: a more authentic and nuanced place where brands live not just in customers’ heads, but deep within companies – and where employees are as fundamental to their conception as customer needs are.


This post features an excerpt from Saul Bass: A Life in Film and Design by Jennifer Bass & Pat Kirkham (Laurence King, 2011; pp. 284–285).