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The little orange symbol on the shell of my cell phone has
almost entirely worn off, thanks to years of jostling around in my
pocket with loose change and keys. That abrasion is an apt symbol
for the end of Jack, the Cingular Wireless logo. The brand still
feels new—seems like just last week that they put up the orange
Cingular signs in place of the old AT&T Wireless ones at the
phone store near my home. They even inflated a 3-D Jack in front of
the building, a former fast-food outlet.
In fact, Cingular and Jack are only six years old. The company
was created in 2000, and it was only in 2004 that Cingular took
over AT&T Wireless, my previous carrier, which pretty much
forced me to get a new phone.
Now Cingular is vanishing into AT&T—I mean at&t, in
lowercase, please. “Cingular is now the new 'at&t,'” they tell
us. Go figure.
Only now that he is about to go away have I realized how much
I've grown to like Jack. At first I called him Asterisk Man, but
when the promotional, balloon versions appeared, his
pumpkin-colored body began to more closely resemble the jack of the
children's game of yore, especially when juxtaposed with the
AT&T globe, or rubber ball. In black-and-white Jack reminded me
of the outline of an old-fashioned, four-pronged bathtub faucet
handle. Study him some more and he begins to come alive, waving at
you as if to say, “Stop, traffic!” Or, with his extended limbs, a
parody of Leonardo's iconic Vitruvian Man. He's fresh as an ink
splotch and silly as a smiley—an asterisk from which someone has
plucked petals like a lover would a daisy. As a piece of design he
is quite shrewd: he is “scalable,” in that he can be employed on
the four-point interface of a cell phone controller or blown up to
parade float-scale to suggest corporate character. He balances the
graphic and the anthropomorphic quite nicely.
But say goodbye to Jack. In mid-January the process of his
demise began with that boastful declaration heralding “the new
'at&t.'” Thanks to the merger of Bell South and AT&T, it's
time for Jack to hit the road. The first ads mutating Jack to the
new AT&T logo began during the NFL playoffs, while just a few
digital channels away, Cingular was still touting itself old-style
on college basketball. The first print ads appeared at the same
time—then a billboard popped up a couple of days later.
Jack has to go to save money. Integrating brands is more
efficient and will cut advertising costs, AT&T says. Some 20
percent of the projected savings of the merger will come from
reduction in ad budgets. The tortured sequence of mergers that led
Cingular to replace AT&T, and then AT&T to replace
Cingular, is traced in a corporate timeline [see Fig. 1], as well
as in an amusing TV report by Stephen Colbert.
Cingular's original logo was developed in just two months by
corporate branding firm VSA Partners, and they did a very good job.
They lent a younger, more personal image to an outfit previously
associated with a cold, corporate giant. When I spoke to Jamie
Koval, Cingular's creative director and principal at VSA in
Chicago, he was surprisingly calm about Jack's end. “I tend not to
get too attached, ” he said. “We did it all in two months. In just
60 days, they had widespread brand awareness. ” As a result, VSA
got a lot of attention for the success of the program, and the
Cingular brand took off.
Jack and the Cingular brand identity contrasted with other phone
brands. According to Koval, its competitors “were about all about
[airtime] minutes and sound quality. We made it about linking and
communication and self-expression. We wanted a human symbol and
made it a character.” When Jack arrived, mobile phone logos “were
stiff and bold and italicized, red and blue. We took a totally
different approach—soft and lowercase and orange. ” Jack's
replacement is the blue marble, the kinder, gentler AT&T globe
logo introduced in 2005. The maker of the marble, which replaced
the previous, two-decade-old AT&T logo, is the firm Interbrand,
whose parent company wears the sinister Hollywood moniker Omnicom.
That original orb, by Saul Bass, was nicknamed the “Death Star” as
soon as it arrived on the scene in 1985. But that was because
AT&T was already seen as an empire, not the lethal weapon
menacing Princess Leia's republic. AT&T is an old-line company,
with roots in the 19th century—a company, after all, that still has
the word “telegraph” embedded somewhere behind its initials.
Saul Bass' Death Star logo
The fate of Jack—and the relatively short life span of the Saul
Bass globe itself—suggests that we are now throwing away logos as
rapidly and wastefully as we throw away our mobile phones.
In one sense, the short life span of cell phone logos might seem
to be good news for graphic designers. More logos and branding
campaigns mean more work. But as a customer, I wish more of the
companies' energies would go into improving the quality of sound
and service on my phone and less on mergers and brand buffing.
Cingular claims to have the best system—“the fewest dropped calls,”
“raising the bar”—and consumer surveys support the statement, but
the sound is often still dreadful on my phone, and I often
encounter gaps in service, as is typical of all American wireless
My phone, like most cell phones, also has functionally and
aesthetically hideous interfaces, with entangled and ambiguous
menus, and tasteless screen images. (I can only choose to display a
clock on my Samsung if I also chose an idiotic graphic of bouncing
By sad irony, Jack's end came just as he was poised for a big
role—appearing on stage with the Apple logo, as part of Cingular's
deal with Steve Jobs for the iPhone. What a break for a young logo
that would have been—to get to work with such an established,
But if I were Steve Jobs, I would worry about tying the fate of
the iPhone to Cingular or any existing phone network. How
successful would the iPod have been if the sound it generated
resembled 1930s radio, as the sound of my cell phone does?
Now, the Apple logo will pair with the globe, we can assume.
So, what happens to Jack? What does one do with a still new,
barely worn logo? A slightly used corporate identity can't be sold
like a low-mileage secondhand car. Will Jack go off to the land of
lost logos, to languish beside NeXT and Enron, beside EO (the still
born AT&T/Motorola PDA phone startup), the Pan Am globe and the
Eastern Airlines wings? (There are many more, please submit your
favorites in comments.)
How many logos outlive the companies they identify?
There are procedures for dealing with old obsolete cell phones,
but none for recycling logos. Do we need to worry about this? No,
the logos do not contain mercury, cadmium or other worrisome
chemicals we should keep out of landfills. Can we donate the old
logos to charities, the way we donate old cell phones to, say,
shelters for victims of domestic violence?
But old logos have their fans. Perhaps all those Jack-branded
phones and other items will become collectible, like vintage Pan Am
and Braniff gear.
Old logos have value. Pan Am's appeared on nostalgic products
long after its planes ceased to fly. Bugatti's wonderful logo
earned money for its owners even during the decades when no Bugatti
automobiles were produced. News accounts of the financial travails
of the Ford Motor Company report that the company has secured loans
with its capital—its factories, its inventories, even its “blue
oval” logo, too. Some banker must have attached a number to the
value of that Ford emblem before the papers were signed.
Could another company materialize behind the Cingular logo?
Could the company hope for revival, like AT&T?
For me, Jack will live on, safe inside the clamshell of my
Samsung, at least until AT&T persuades me that I need a new
phone. He will be our little secret. I've come to like how the
phone's exterior has acquired a nice patina of wear, a rough and
tumble surface with a few bits of paint clinging to it. With every
day the phone spends jangling with my pocket change, the faint
orange memory of the logo will grow thinner, leaving a mere ghost
of Jack, literally nickel-and-dimed to death.
Can a logo still be considered good if what it stands for is not? Heller looks at a few well-intentioned brands whose identities have soured.
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Section: Why Design -
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Benjamin Dauer is a Senior Product Designer at National Public Radio in Washington, D.C. and was recently the Lead Product Designer at SoundCloud in Berlin, Germany. AIGA Baltimore took a field trip to interview Benjamin about designing in-house for NPR.
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