Design: Saul Bass / G. Dean Smith (USA)
With the 1983 court-ordered divestiture of the Bell operating companies, AT&T required a new visual identity and returned to Saul Bass, who had designed the Bell System identity in 1969. For more than five decades, Saul Bass was the doyen of big American corporate identity schemes and the undisputed master of film title design.
Under the art-direction of Bass (then of Bass/Yager & Associates), designer G. Dean Smith created one of the most iconic trademarks of the 20th century. The AT&T symbol, a solid circle crossed with lines modulated in width to create the illusion of dimensionality, suggested a “world girdled by information” (a phrase that Bass acknowledged predated the phenomenon of the ‘Information Superhighway’ by ten years). The striated sphere signalled to AT&T customers, shareholders and employees that its new vision was international – a network spanning the world. Like much of Bass’s work, the symbol distills several complex ideas and associations into a beautifully simple, memorable and well-crafted piece of design. Over 20 years, the AT&T logo became as pervasive as the Coca-Cola signature, and was fondly nicknamed ‘The Death Star’, due to its similarity to the space station in Star Wars. In 1999, it was modified by Interbrand to include a subtle shadow and fewer modulated lines.
If judged by Bass’s own criteria, the AT&T Globe is one of his finest: “the ideal trademark is one that is pushed to its utmost limits in terms of abstraction and ambiguity, yet is still readable. Trademarks are usually metaphors of one kind or another. And are, in a certain sense, thinking made visible.”
In 2005, AT&T was acquired by SBC Communications. The merged company rebranded as AT&T Inc. and unveiled a stylistic update of the globe (once again devised by Interbrand). Sadly, the semiotic swagger of the press release (which claimed that the redesign signals vitality, change and transparency) cannot disguise the failings of the new logo, which is poorly executed and incoherent. Many in the designworld saw the retirement of Bass’s globe as ill-judged and a regressive step. In a touching eulogy, Michael Bierut (design luminary and critic) noted “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?”