The Saul Bass AT&T Logo Design, 1969

AT&T was one of the largest companies of the 20th century and put considerable effort into documenting its own history and accomplishments. In recent years, the films created as part of that effort have been released through the AT&T Archives, and we at The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit will be taking a look at them, with a particular focus on the mid-century styles that you’ve come to expect here.

To kick off our series digging through the archives, let’s look at the introduction of the Bell System logo of 1969.


AT&T / Bell System Logo (1939 - 1964)
AT&T / Bell System Logo (1939 – 1964)

If you’re anything like me, you tend to vacation in places that trade on nostalgia — ones that tend to have “Cape” or “Towne” in their names. Inevitably, there will be a store in the town, usually themed as a hardware store, that sells enameled metal advertising signs. Ads for Moxie and Lionel trains seem to be the bulk of the designs, but old Bell System signs like the one on the left are pretty common, too.

I’ve never seen a similar sign featuring the 1969 redesign of the AT&T logo, even though this version was phased out as a result of the breakup of the Bell System in the early ’80s. This is a shame, since this version of the logo by Saul Bass (yes, that Saul Bass) is a real gem of modern design. It was still unmistakably the logo of the Bell System, but simplified to remove all of the ornament and detail to make it clear and modern.

This film was created to introduce the new logo across the company, as part of a major re-branding campaign. In the days before PowerPoint and WebEx a lot of preparation was needed for this effort, and it clearly shows. There are no slides of bullet points written in conflicting grammatical styles, no stock clip art — although the Terry Gilliam-style photo animation at 1:15 may count as unique clip art — and no slides that are meaningless to anyone not already familiar with them.

The first 4 minutes set the tone with allusions to current events and a lesson in recent history blending in the Bell System’s role and corporate image at the time. Through the next five minutes, the film shows us how other companies are updating their image to look like a company made to succeed in the electronic age.

Amazingly, around 9:00, the narrator goes into a short lesson in branding and logo design, and how it was used on the Bell System logo. This is something I’ve never seen in the PowerPoint age.

For me, the highlight of the film is the employee uniform presentation. Something I didn’t know before seeing this film was that prior to this effort, installers and linemen did not have company uniforms. I had always supposed that uniforms were more common before the 1960s, and became less common as society became more casual.

The women’s uniforms by Oleg Cassini look straight out of an airport lounge scene in Mad Men, which is not surprising considering that Saul Bass performed similar branding efforts for United and Eastern Airlines. I’ve since learned that those uniforms were never worn by employees. Somewhere, there are boxes of the test runs that could net me a fortune selling them to Hollywood costume departments or Brooklyn hipsters. Maybe I can exchange some for those awesome Bell System cuff links.

I know there’s at least one van still on the road with the design introduced here. 2600 Magazine bought one at auction and drives it to events. Which makes sense, since they can definitely tell you as much about your phone as anyone from the phone company.

The Saul Bass bell logo is gone now, replaced by the Saul Bass-designed 1983 globe logo (often called the Death Star by AT&T employees). Even though the mid-century design is now as rare as the prior logos, it has never made it into the same strata of nostalgia. I doubt I’ll ever see those enameled metal signs with the 1969 or 1983 logos.

As for the signs themselves, I’d always assumed that people hung them on the wall above their phones like a pay phone sign, but with house phones becoming as rare as pay phones, I’m not sure what people do with them.

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