Why Man Creates is a short documentary filmed by the singular graphic design titan Saul Bass and screenwriter Mayo Simon in 1968. It addresses creativity in a way I’ve never seen, by attempting to answer questions like where creativity comes from and why it exists, and lending the viewer very interesting perspectives along the way. The film is broken down into eight sections that are cleverly designed and, though the film seems inevitably dated at times, offer insightful lessons for designers and creatives to this day.
Saul Bass was a world renowned designer and filmmaker. I first learned about the man behind the screen my sophomore year of college in an Intro to Visual Design course. I immediately recognized much of his work. I recognized his title sequences from films like Vertigo, North by Northwest and Goodfellas, and his logo work is easily distinguishable to this day because it’s engrained in our commercial advertising culture. Much of his logo work for global brands like AT&T, United, Kleenex, NY and Dixie are taught in school as prime examples of timeless design.
With so much time having passed since the release of Why Man Creates, I re-watched the documentary short recently to see how well Saul Bass’s ideas stand up today. Spoiler alert: while the technical side of design may have evolved, the urges that inspire us and the principles that guide us are as timeless now as they were in 1968.
Here’s a breakdown of the eight sections from Why Man Creates, what I thought of them and how it got me thinking about the power of creativity.
Summary: The Edifice is a synopsis of characters who have used creativity to craft things throughout the timeline of humanity. It starts with animated cavemen experimenting with wall art and ends with the post-industrial world.
As a designer, I believe that the way The Edifice is animated works really well with the subject matter. When the story begins, the cavemen are doodles. As it progresses, the drawings become more elaborate and by the time we reach the industrial revolution, characters are etched out, men are rendered and the environment is sporadic, wild and abundant. I think it nails representing humankind and its creative achievements. It’s a good example of form following function.
Summary: Fooling Around is all about Bass having fun with random objects and special effects.
Even though this section feels the most dated because of all the special effects from the era and the ultra ’60s vibe that it’s got going on, as a designer I find a lot of value in it. It shows that creativity is and forever will be tied to having fun. When you don’t worry about the outcome of what you’re doing, whacky things come to fruition, which are often visually eye catching and enticing to your audience.
Summary: The Process is all about a man stumbling through a sculpture and failing, but eventually finding success through trial and error.
Design is a trial and error job, and a lot of the time I find myself relating to the sculpture artist depicted in this scene. A lot of the mistakes I make during a project end up inspiring me later on down the road in other works. I’ve grown to really appreciate my mistakes now.
Summary: A ping bong ball is discarded from the factory because it’s too bouncy. When it wanders off all sad and mopey to a park, it discovers that his bounciness is a wonderful spectacle for all of the balls at the park.
If your artwork isn’t appreciated with your usual crowd, try somewhere else. Art forms come in all shapes and sizes—and their admirers do, too. It’s just a matter of finding the right audience for what makes you unique. This is as true for individual works of art as it is for designers and brands (we just call it pivoting these days).
Summary: Here, the sculpture guy is pummeled with criticism for his sculpture by an odd crowd.
It goes to show that there will always be people eager to give their opinions, honest or not, negative or positive. I think that at the end of the day, the creator should decide whether he likes his artwork or not. His decision shouldn’t change because of the opinions of others. Of course, every agency designer out there knows this isn’t always possible, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stand up for your designs if you feel strongly that they deliver what the client is asking for.
“Have you ever thought that radical ideas threaten institutions, then become institutions, and in turn reject radical ideas which threaten institutions?” “No.” “Gee, for a minute I thought I had something.”
Summary: Trained scientists, doctors and engineers take on years-long commitments to make breakthroughs for their fields of work. They know very well that the challenges will take years, decades or even lifetimes to solve, but they stick with them anyway.
As creators, we will take on things that end up dragging on way longer than expected. Some works will never see the light of day, and we will lose interest in others that will remain unfinished. That’s ok! As designers, we grow to accept that some problems take years to solve, as long as we keep ourselves busy, good work will surface.
Summary: Why man creates.
Humans have used their creativity to solve problems and create works of art for ages, and Bass says that the reason why is to to be able to say “I am.” As creatives, we strive to represent ourselves in this world, and that is why we create—To leave our mark of existence in this world.
This appeals to me personally as an artist because I stopped painting a few months back. I didn’t know what to paint about. I had no subject of inspiration, but this documentary has inspired me to want to paint about my life and draw creativity from that.
I encourage every designer to watch Why Man Creates, to analyze it thoroughly and act on it! GO BE CREATIVE!
Have you seen Why Man Creates? If you have, what did you get from the film? We’d love to hear about it. And if you haven’t, we’ve embedded it here. It’s less than half an hour long, so watch it!