Identity for AT&T, Saul Bass, 1984
From a press release
dated October 27, 2005:SBC Communications Inc. today announced it will adopt AT&T, Inc. as its name following completion of its acquisition of AT&T, which is expected in late 2005.The decision is a milestone in the history of telecommunications, extending the reign of a global icon. AT&T is inextricably linked to the birth and growth of the communications industry, delivering ground-breaking innovations that enabled modern computers and electronic devices, wireless phones and Voice over IP (VoIP). The brand also has represented quality service, integrity and reliability for more than 120 years.At close, the new company will unveil a fresh, new logo. After completion of the merger, the transition to the new brand will be heavily promoted with the largest multimedia advertising and marketing campaign in either company's history, as well as through other promotional initiatives.
So take a long, last look at Saul Bass's finest moment. AT&T will live on, but its logo is about to disappear.
American Telephone & Telegraph was founded in 1885
as a subsidiary of Alexander Graham Bell's Bell Telephone Company to create a long-distance network for Bell's local operating companies. In 1915, AT&T opened transcontinental telephone service essentially wiring the United States, and added service to Cuba in 1921, Great Britain in 1927, and Japan in 1934. Along the way
, AT&T acquired the assets of the Bell Company, became the parent of the operating companies of the Bell Telephone System, opened Bell Laboratories (birthplace of the transistor and UNIX), introduced the modem, launched the first commercial satellite and, with a near monopoly on American telecommunications, became largest corporation in the world.
From the start, there had been a perfect confluence between the inventor's name and the sound his product made. Best of all, unlike so many other brand names, it was a word that could be represented with a simple picture. The first Bell logo a realistic drawing of a bell with "Long Distance Service" written on it, created by Bell manager Angus Hibbard appeared in 1889. It would have this form for over 75 years
, with more writing around the bell ("American Telephone & Telegraph Co./Bell System/And Associated Companies") and on it ("Local and Long Distance Service"), all enclosed, after 1900, in a circle. Revisions were made periodically and many of the nearly two dozen operating companies came up with their own variations.
In 1968, Saul Bass
was hired to bring order to the system, and created a classic modern identity program
. In Nixon-era America, Bass's simplified bell-in-circle logo, rigorous Helvetica-based typographic system and ochre-and-process blue color scheme became as familiar as the Coca-Cola signature. It was the ideal graphic analog for a phone system that was hailed as the best in the world, a virtually indestructable monopoly posing as a public utility: Ma Bell, utterly reliable and as ubiquitous as air.
But nothing lasts forever, even notionally benevolent monopolies. So everything changed in 1982, when AT&T and the U.S. Justice Department agreed to settle an antitrust suit that had been filed against the company eight years before. AT&T agreed to divest itself of its local telephone operations, and seven independent "baby Bells"
came into place. This was a gold rush for identity designers. Gone were the Bell logo, the ochre-and-blue stripes, and familiar names like Ohio Bell and Wisconsin Telephone, names as sturdy and plainspoken as the telephones
that Henry Dreyfus
had designed for Bell since 1930. On New Year's Day, 1984, Americans awoke to a world in which their telephone service would be provided by newly-minted entities with fanciful monikers like Ameritech, USWest, and Pacific Telesis.
AT&T did not cease to exist. On the contrary, not only would it continue its traditional activities as a long-distance service provider, it was now at liberty to pursue business that had been off-limits in its quasi-monopolistic days. Saul Bass was called back to design the identity that would represent AT&T in this post-divestiture new world order.
And Bass was ready. I've heard from more than one person that Bass had tried without success to sell a striped globe logo to several previous clients (or even "every client that came along" as one insider told me). This may not be true, but there is no doubt that Bass liked round logos with horizontal stripes: witness Continental Airlines and Minolta, to name two. But with the new AT&T, he had at last the big client ready for the big idea. Their logo would be nothing but a sphere
, a circle crossed with lines modulated in width to create the illusion of dimensionality. And this client bought it, perhaps because like the bell, this new, seemingly abstract image had a reassuringly literal meaning; at AT&T's online brand center
, the logo is described as "a world circled by electronic communications." It's not just a logo, it's a picture of a globe girded by wires and cables. Some people saw even more: in some circles, the sphere was nicknamed the "The Death Star."
Despite Bass's logo, after 1984, nothing was stable again in the telecom business. I have some first hand experience with the early days of AT&T's divestiture, since my wife Dorothy's first job in New York in 1980 was working for AT&T. Or rather, she was hired by AT&T, but actually went to work for one of the corporation's operating units, New York Telephone. Without changing desks or jobs, in the next few years she worked for something called American Bell, which in turn had its name changed to AT&T Advanced Information Systems, and then finally NYNEX. (If she had saved some of her American Bell business cards, she might be making a pretty penny on eBay today: the company lasted only a few months before the Justice Department ruled that no AT&T entity could use the Bell name; this makes an American Bell card the corporate design equivalent of an Inverted Jenny postage stamp.
) After she left, NYNEX merged with Bell Atlantic to create Verizon, which some people say has the worst logo in the world.
And now, after 20 years of telecom chaos, SBC Communications, Inc.
, a descendent of Southwestern Bell, is taking over its former parent company: the child becomes the father to Ma, as it were. Their brand strategy lets them have their cake and eat it too. By retaining the AT&T name ("...an iconic name...amazing heritage...tremendous strength." - Alan Siegel, Siegel and Gale), they signal continuity. By replacing the Bass sphere with a "fresh, new logo," they signal vitality and change. Who's going to argue with that?
A moment of silence, please. On October 23, 1963, demolition began on New York City's Pennsylvania Station
. The controversy over the destruction of this McKim, Mead & White masterpiece effectively launched the historic preservation movement in this country. Today, the proposed demolition of buildings of even questionable architectural merit
Graphic design, unlike architecture
, leaves no footprint. When one of the best known logos in the world disappears overnight, the only hole created is in our collective consciousness. By New Year's Eve, Saul Bass's sphere will be no more. Will anyone mourn or protest its passing?