I just saw an advert for “DirecTV” which AT&T bought a few years ago.
For those outside the U.S., DirecTV is a bit like “Sky,” but with 100% less Rupert Murdoch.
The logo bothers me:
There are a lot of problems here.
The most obvious is the typography (very similar to if not FF DIN), which is essentially illegible. It’s supposed to be pronounced “Direct TV,” but it looks like a roman numeral, “Direct Five.”
This was not the original logo of DirecTV. In fairness, they were in dire need of a rebrand because it’s hard to imagine how DirecTV’s logo could be any worse.
The only advantage is how the weight on “TV” is slightly heavier, so that at least we know how to pronounce it. The type is the same.
But, this otherwise is a dumpster fire: the bevels, the gradient, the swooshes, the fake glass sheen the weird void in the middle. It looks like a Tide Pod ripped in two.
It fails “Gestalt Psychology,” a fundamental of design. The two ‘halves’ dont seem to be “the same thing.” They seem like two different things placed side-by-side. And the visual relationship with the type is even unclearer.
IT also reminds, unpleasantly, of Comcast (the most hated company in America) stealing NBC’s classic “Peacock” logo after they merged.
It’s funny how they both have obvious scale problems.
AT&T was the former government-approved near monopoly telephone company. Unlike British Telecom, for instance, it was wholly private and incredibly profitable. Near its zenith, just after World War Two, AT&T might have been the largest corporation in modern history: controlling a vertically integrated monopoly owning everything from the switches to the wires to the actual phones on the customer’s wall in the vast majority of the US, as well as huge manufacturing operations (Western Electric) and R&D (Bell Labs) and controlling stakes in the telephone company in Canada and in Nippon Telephone and Telegraph, the monopoly telecom in Japan.
It was the only game in town and its status was parodied in this famous skit by Lilly Tomlin, on Saturday Night Live:
(if this video gets DMCA’ed : https://www.google.com/search?q=we don’t care, we don’t have to, we’re The Phone Company
AT&T was founded by Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of telephones (every advanced country has a story about a native person who is claimed by only that country to be the inventor of telephones. In the US, nobody has ever heard any competing claim.) And while the company became known as “American Telephone and Telegraph Corporation,” it was marketed as “Bell Telephone Company of <area>,” the “Bell System.”
This resulted in branding messes:
If you have ever seen the brilliant Hitchcock movies Psycho, Vertigo and North by Northwest, Otto Preminger’s The Man With the Golden Arm or Bill Wilder’s Seven Year Itch you will likely remember the title sequences at least as well as the movies themselves.
Given the sterling quality of the pictures, both Vertigo and Psycho are commonly cited as candidates for “The Greatest Film Ever Made,” that’s impressive.
This was even more electric in 1959 as—amazingly, in hind-sight—nobody had ever thought to make type move like that before! (It’s mostly ATF News Gothic by Morris Fuller Benton)
What you are looking at is the genius of Saul Bass.
Bass is best known today for his title sequences to movies, of which he also made a few himself. However, he was also one of the most influential designers of logos and corporate branding in history.
Fast-forward ten years and back to AT&T.
Bass rebranded AT&T twice. First, he swept away the crufty old bell and replaced it with a new, novel much superior bell.
There’s much to love about this. I could stare at it for days.
But, his vision went far beyond this. It’s a bit long, but this pitch video gives a sense of what he was doing:
It is also the most outrageously 1969 thing imaginable. I especially and not altogether unironically love the bit starting at about 20:00, set to a cheezy synth version of The Beach Boys preciously innocent yoof-anthem Wouldn’t it be Nice, where the ladies are imagined to covet a low-paid AT&T office job so they can have an excuse to wear uniforms designed by Oleg Cassini.
Disaster struck the Bell System in the form of the computer and a series of legal decisions.
Because AT&T was a regulated monopoly, the government vigilantly blocked its entry into nontelephone related businesses. Ironically, this gave us UNIX, the backbone operating system which AT&T was forced to give away because it was blocked from profiting on computing. Without this, there would have never been any such thing as the Open Source Software movement. Berkely would never have put out the NET/2 tape, AT&T would never have tried to claw back the rights to UNIX retroactively in the 90s (providing the impetus for an eccentric Finn to step in.) It’s impossible to imagine how different the world would have been.
But computers and telephones had a neat trick. If one computer was nice, ten computers were better. But whenever you have a team of ten you do seem to spend an awful lot of time on the phone
So did computers.
A lawsuit known as the “Carterphone Decision” laid the groundwork for modems by permitting interconnect without the permission of Bell, and the field exploded.
AT&T was locked right out. To make matters worse, the government had initiated a potentially catastrophic antitrust suit (United States v. AT&T) alleging that they were misusing the monopoly profits of one of their subsidiaries to subsidize network costs, which was illegal.
So, the company made an astonishing, fateful decision: they would surrender the monopoly to shake the regulations and permit them to directly enter the computer market.
In 1982, “AT&T Corporation” and the United States Government reached a “consent decree” known as The Bell System Divestiture, in which (this is a bit of a simplification) the local phone service empire would be divided in five and the company would relinquish the right to be the exclusive long-distance carrier.
This essentially meant the end of “The Bell System” and the birth of a new “AT&T”
So, in 1983 AT&T called the Master back for a second run.
Bass’s “bell” logo was a landmark, but it’s impossible to overstate the impact of his second effort.
In essence, the same logo is used today. It was slightly simplified, and the tone of blue changed in the 90s, and today there’s a wholly unnecessary fake wrap-around 3d effect, but it’s the same logo. (And odd though the wraparound be, it’s an improvement on the ghastly balloon one.)
But it just doesn’t belong with the word “DirecTV.”
The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that the issue is not the logo, the issue is the name.
AT&T missed the branding opportunity of the (admittedly, young) century when it bought out DirecTV.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise, they also missed the computer opportunity. The Bell system divestiture was a failure: AT&T could not compete in the computer market. So they bought NCR for a couple gazillion dollars, blew it and then sold it off a few years later.
Ironically, most of the companies formed by the divestiture have re-merged. The modern Verizon is a combination of Bell Atlantic, Nynex (FKA Bell Telephone Company of New York or NyTel) and the independent “GTE.” The modern “AT&T” is a product of the merger of the former spinoffs Southwestern Bell, Ameritech and the dreadfully named “Pacific Telesis” into “SBC Communications” which ultimately bought the former parent company in 2005 changed its name to “AT&T, Inc” bought BellSouth and took over Cingular, which itself was a spinoff of AT&T’s wireless divsion.
All that remains is for AT&T to buy Verizon, and Tomlin will have to come out of retirement.
So how should we address the DirecTV problem? What missed opportunity was there?
It’s so simple.