The Pregnant Moment


Saul Bass, who designed iconic logos for AT&T, United Airlines, and other prominent companies, once said that design "is thinking made visible."

Bass understood that some of the best branding relies on tension and a sense of anticipation--the creation of what one might call "the pregnant moment." When the audience senses that something big is in the works, they pay attention.

With that ethos in mind, Bass built the title sequences for a number of iconic films, including Hitchcock's Psycho, North by Northwest, and Vertigo. In contrast to the vast majority of such sequences at the time, which relied on static titles, Bass utilized kinetic typography; for example, Psycho's zooming lines that coalesce into the actors' names, hinting at the main character's fractured psychology and the film's tense mood.

These sequences tried "to reach for a simple, visual phrase that tells you what the picture is all about and evokes the essence of the story," in Bass's words. He wanted to put the audience a little off-balance, to re-render the familiar world in unfamiliar ways. (From a certain perspective, title sequences are yet another form of branding, building the viewer's expectations for the film to come.)

Bass was a seminal designer mining this thematic vein. In a recent talk, Kyle Cooper, the brilliant designer of motion graphics mentioned his teacher at Yale, Paul Rand (designer of IBM and other iconic logos) as another creator who focused on imbuing work with a sense of transformation and anticipation.

But how can a brand convey that sense of dynamic tension that makes you feel something is in the process of changing and you want to know more? It depends in large part on how one answers the following questions:

  • What experience are you trying to define?

  • What can you leave out? (Less is more)
  • How can you make the story, while still communicating a core message?
  • What happens next?
  • What questions will you leave to be answered by the viewer?
  • If you want an example of a brand that exemplifies anticipation, take a look at Rand's work with IBM (as illustrated in the logo) which imparts the sense of a company in the midst of transformation. Another is Absolut, with its long-running Vodka marketing campaign that centers on the iconic shape of its vodka bottles; each of the ads is distinctive and suggestive, often posing more questions than it answers.

    Creating the "pregnant moment" is often difficult because it relies on what the creator decides to leave out; it's like being asked to bake a donut by focusing on the hole. But if you can structure the right framework of clues, and leave the audience to draw their own conclusions, you can create brand campaigns with dynamic tension that linger in the mind for years after the initial viewing.

    Or as Saul Bass himself once put it: "Symbolize and summarize."

    But always leave a little to the imagination.

    Janet Odgis is the President and Creative Director of Odgis + Co, an award-winning certified woman-owned design firm based in New York City. For 30 years she has worked with some of the world's most prestigious corporations reinventing ways to define and express their brand. We Make Business Beautiful.