Ed Driscoll

The Station Is Ray-Shielded, So You'll Have To Use Proton Torpedoes

Found via Virginia Postrel, Michael Bierut looks at the last days of a corporate icon: legendary graphic designer Saul Bass’s “Death Star” logo for AT&T. Here are a couple of excerpts from Bierut’s great post:

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.

* * *

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.”

I have a friend who’s a veteran advertising consultant for some huge (Rollerball-sized, dude!) corporations; she’s the first person I heard call AT&T’s logo “The Death Star” years ago, and the name always stuck with me since.

Read the rest of Bierut’s post; for most people, the loss of the AT&T logo, as with AT&T itself will go relatively unnoticed, but it is a reminder that nothing is permanent–especially graphic design.