Saul Bass and Clarity of Purpose

Yesterday I read a post by that referenced three key questions to answer before initiating a new project or taking on new work, questions the answers for which can focus us on the work we should be doing. The questions are from Jim Coudal, and I had come across them myself just a few weeks ago via Jim Coudal’s interview on , and felt compelled to point them out. The three questions are:

  1. Will we make money from this.
  2. Will we be proud of our work.
  3. Will we learn something new along the way.

So, Paul’s post got me thinking about this again, about the importance of focusing ourselves on work that matters, work that creates value not just for our clients, but also for ourselves. I started digging around and came across a series of interviews with , whose work I hugely admire, from 1986. In these interviews Saul cuts right to the heart of the matter:

“I want to make beautiful things, even if nobody cares, as opposed to ugly things. That’s my intent.”

Saul Bass (1920-1996)

And that intent sometimes means that we have to invest in our work to create the opportunity we require, to create the value that we need to get out of it to make an endeavor “worthwhile”. As Saul points out, the client may never understand this, and that’s ok as this is the tax we must pay for working in creative enterprise. To not pay this tax is to limit yourself and your ability to create opportunity that extends beyond yourself to your team, and to your clients. Below is an excerpt from the interview where I pulled the quote above:

2 Responses to “Saul Bass and Clarity of Purpose”

  1. Says:

    I love Saul Bass. And the quote is inspiring. Frank Lloyd Wright fought the same battles. Neither had to reckon with the needs of the users – both were artists. Artists, by default, cannot become enslaved to their users. Designers of experiences, maybe should be engaged in the idea of interactivity, the idea that drives the network age, which is that we all continuously create the experiences that are let into the world by designers. One way messages are old. Another great quote – by Wright – occurred when a real human was actually living in one of his artworks. A client complained of a leak in the roof above a table, to which Wright replied simply “move the table.”

    I’m a fan of both Bass and Wright, don’t get me wrong. But the enterprise in which we are involved is designing experiences for humans, who will not return to the experience unless it is meaningful and useful. Substitute “beautiful things” with “useful things” and “ugly things” with “unusable things” and I’m all ears.

  2. John Schneider Says:

    Great comment. I’m not sure I can totally agree with you, though I definitely see your point. In the example of Frank Lloyd Wright, his architecture was very much about a holistic UX, and one that in most cases was also incredibly functional. He wasn’t perfect, and neither were all of his designs, but in terms of user needs he was way, way ahead of his time. His approach to occupancy quality (lighting, daylighting, view, privacy, air quality) was something we have yet to see imbued into building culture even today. That he did this while also doing the work that he wanted to do, and being quite successful at that, is remarkable. I agree that Wright was an artist, but he was also very much a designer, and an excellent marketer. Was he hard to work with? Legendarily so. Does his work remain relevant and do people continue to value it? Yes, at a deep level, and the quality of the experiences created by his work, especially so.

    The point about the Saul Bass quote isn’t that the work be solely about beauty, it was that we have a responsibility to invest in our work such that it is of value to us. Beautiful? Pleasing? Useful? Absolutely. Sometimes the work we do to make something of value is not realized or appreciated by the client or the user, and yet we do these things because, as a result of our best judgment, we know it is the right thing to do. This may manifest in aesthetics, or it might be the quality of UX, or how the two intertwine. I suppose the inspiration from Saul is that we do these things as much for ourselves as we do for our clients, or the ultimate audience for our work. When this is no longer the case is when work loses its allure and appeal and ceases to be fun.

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