Capturing Strategy and Culture Through Design

Saul Bass: A Life in Film & Design

I subscribe to the concept that the structure, strategy, practices, and cultural values of an organization is immensely improved when approached as an act of design and architecture, requiring left brain and right brain techniques.

Saul Bass was best known for his design of some of the most striking film posters and title sequences ever seen. Some of his film design credits includes Goodfellas, Casino, West Side Story, Psycho (where also, uncredited, designed and filmed the famous “shower sequence”), North By Northwest, Vertigo and many others.

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He also designed corporate identity programs and it is this aspect of his work that is most relevent for the topic of organizational strategy and culture because he had a specific and rigorous process of analysis that is a perfect illustration of how one must blend the left and right brains in organizational development and strategy work.
In his own words he described the process as follows:
We’ve developed a way of approaching the task that makes what we do 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. 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…
…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.
In corporate identification, you’re looking for the essence — the metaphor for the company’s activity.”
In his work, Bass did not just create doodles that became logos. He worked to understand the culture both current and desired as well as the essence and objective of its competitive strategy and its brands. In many cases, such as after a merger or takeover, the new corporate identity was an opportunity to establish a new sense of shared identity that might lessen or avoid political in-fighting or lack of direction.
I think that organizations that just think of corporate identity as a logo that goes on letterhead, the sides of trucks, on product packaging and on uniforms and stickers is entirely missing the point, or more accurately, missing an opportunity to rigorously analyze and think about what the company stands for and what it needs to mean to employees and customers.