Jack, We Hardly Knew Ye

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.

Soon-to-be-deflated Jack.

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 systems.

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 blueberry-like balls.)

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, classic icon!

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.