04 May 2010

[logo] AT&T: The Point of Inflection

2404.With the subjective lesson I learned in the last chapter still fresh in my mind, I turned to one of my favorites bit of history: the evolution of the AT&T logo.

Ah, for the days of Ma Bell. For many years, up to 1969, the Bell System logo was a dependable presence on the commercial scene. Since approximately 1921, the Bell logo looked more or less like this:

This was the 1968 version. Pretty uncomplicated compared to what had come before; the same bell, with words in the ribbon comprising the name of the associated company (Pacific Northwest Bell, in Oregon's case) and the words American Telephone & Telegraph. Dependable.

As the 1960s closed, however, AT&T presumably felt that even this simplified version was a bit too charming and rustic, so, employing on of the two Elder Gods of American Graphic Design, Saul Bass (the other being Paul Rand, of course), a spiffy, minimal, modern design emerged and was empire style until the 1984 AT&T Bell Breakup:

Suitably modern, with Helvetica type to accompany the look, this modern style fit right in with the wide lapels and ties of the day, but had that certain something that told you that it would well survive them.

I've often wondered how the hell Bass and Rand did it. You and me, we'd fret and wonder and try to include everything and thumbnail our fingers down to nubs but Bass, hell, it's like he'd just wake up with this stuff during breaks in composing type and titles for the then-latest 007-James Bond film (seriously, he did Bond titles!). Throw out a few lines and curves and ... dead brilliant.

Anyway, fast forward to 1984, and the Justice Department is breaking up the legedary AT&T monopoly, and they call upon Bass again because AT&T lost the right to call itself "Bell-anything". So he thinks and comes up with the design that's meant to depict the world encircled with electronic comms & and the famed "Death Star" is commissioned.

Dammit, but Bass was brilliant again. So powerfully solid was this design that, when SBC Communications (formerly a "Baby Bell" itself) bought AT&T a few years back, it saw the logic in retaining the old famous name (along with a the single-character stock-ticker symbol "T") and developed the Bass look further.

I mentioned something about inflection points. In math, that's a point along the line where a curve, a change in directions, truly begins. I think that, even though logos don't necessarily have to indicate anything more than this company is unique, they frequently do wind up signifying changes in direction and outlook.

Before: AT&T was the charming local phone co. After: AT&T is a modern communications titan, the dependable phone company you always knew & and so very much more.

The 70s-90s were AT&T's point of inflection, and whether or not Bass meant to, he aptly depicted AT&T's change of outlook in its logo design. In birthing a modern identity for a company more than a century old, Saul Bass turned out to be the midwife.

Read and Visit: a great record of the logo evolution of AT&T can be found here: http://www.porticus.org/bell/bell_logos.html

All logo designs remain the property of the respective copyright holders, of course.

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