Defunct Designs: The Bell System Logo
There are many great logos that, for some reason or another, are no longer in use. One of my favorite defunct designs is the logo for the Bell System. “Ma Bell”, as it was affectionately known, controlled the US phone system for a good chunk of the 20th century. Ma Bell’s breakup in 1984 may have been a good thing for the telecom industry, but it doomed the Bell System logo to the dustbin of history.
The old Bell System logo is one of the best ever designed, but it didn’t just pop into existence. For most of the twentieth century, AT&T’s Bell System controlled most of the telephone system in the US and Canada. Named for inventor and founder Alexander Graham Bell, “Ma Bell” was a conglomerate of national and local companies working together as a legally-sanctioned monopoly. As such, they were a pioneer in modern corporate identity. From the turn of the century up through 1967, they used an illustration of a bell, inside of a circle with the name “Bell System” as well as the name of the division or franchise in question. This was pretty innovative at the time, but by the Sixties rolled around it was quite dated.
Enter Saul Bass
Ma Bell wanted to change that, so they hired graphic design legend Saul Bass. Bass simplified the bell to a bare minimum, a nub at the top, two curves along the sides, and a line across the bottom. He removed all the words from the circle and rendered the design in a light blue color. This simple design could then represent all of the regional Bell companies, like Southwestern Bell or Bell Atlantic. But the logo’s success was also its downfall.
After the breakup of the Bell System in 1984, the intellectual property rights for the logo was shared amongst the “Baby Bells”, with Bass stepping in to design the “Death Star” logo for the newly independent AT&T. The Baby Bells continued to use the Bell name and design at first. But as these regional companies merged into national conglomerates, they rebranded with new, non-Bell identities. A few companies, like Bell Canada and Cincinnati Bell, still use the Bell name, but no one uses Saul Bass’ iconic design any more, at least not in day to day branding. Still, you’ll find the old Bell logo on manhole covers for years to come. Some designs just refuse to die.
What do you think of the Bell System logo? Let me know your thoughts in the comment section.