Cultural History Gem: Saul Bass’s Original Pitch for the Bell Systems Logo Redesign, 1969
The greatest graphic designer of all time traces the evolution of consumer culture via the telephone.
By Maria Popova
For many of us, Saul Bass endures as the greatest graphic designer of all time and an unmatched master of the film title sequence. But Bass was also a keen branding savant, who helped shape the identities of clients as diverse as Continental Airlines, The Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Minolta, Quaker Oats, Kleenex, and the J. Paul Getty Trust.
In 1969, Bass was tasked with reimagining the visual identity of the American Bell Telephone Company, commonly referred to as “Ma Bell,” in an effort to modernize the old-timey bell-and-circle logo by eliminating its datedness but preserving its comforting familiarity. This rare footage captures the full half-hour of Bass and his team’s original pitch to Bell, which envisioned an entire ecosystem of identity well beyond the logo — signage, print, outdoor, and even executive cufflinks. The pitch could well have been masterminded by Don Draper, itself a fascinating and layered piece of cultural history covering the evolution of consumerism through the story of the telephone and the larger context of changing social expectations.
We’re fighting a war. Making a peace. Integrating. Segregating. Getting richer. Getting poorer. It’s quite a time to be alive.
Business has its particular problems — young people refusing good jobs; investors are more influenced by publicity than performance; customers complaining about the finest products produced anywhere in the world….Many of us here today remember when it was quite different. The pursuit of happiness had ground to a halt. Survival was the goal — just to have a job, but to have a job with security: That was the prize in 1933. How long a product lasted was more important than how well it looked. Wall Street had forgotten blue sky and was now talking blue chip. Down-to-earth, safe — that was the place to be.
How a thing looks today is as important as how well it works. As never before, people are influenced by what they see.
In 1983, after the breakup of Bell Systems, Bass also designed the famous AT&T “globe” logo, which AT&T didn’t update until 2005. (And, many have said, never should have.)
For a glimpse of how logo design has changed since the age of Bass, see this fantastic recent PBS Off Book micro-documentary, featuring Brain Pickings favorites Kelli Anderson and Steven Heller, complete with a Curator’s Code mention:
[A logo] is informed and reinforced by the things we see every day, and it’s important to acknowledge that entire invisible vocabulary.” ~ Kelli Anderson
For the ultimate Bass gold, don’t miss the indispensable Saul Bass: A Life in Film and Design, one of the best art and design books of 2011 and quite possibly among the best of all time.
Published July 23, 2012