The Lucent Logo Legacy: Long Live the Big Red Donut

Filed Under: Inspiration , Article , branding , Voice

The impending acquisition of Lucent Technologies by the French firm Alcatel makes the future of Lucent’s “Innovation Ring” logo uncertain, just weeks after the ten-year anniversary of the symbol’s unveiling. This is not the first time the logo has faced uncertain prospects, however. In the months following its debut, it looked as though the Innovation Ring might not last a year, let alone a decade. The logo, a striking red circle rendered in a single bold brushstroke, initially inspired unprecedented popular derision. Its survival and eventual emergence as a graphic trendsetter is testament to Lucent’s willingness to establish and stand by a unique corporate identity in the face of countless naysayers, wise guys and armchair design critics.

Lucent, created in the 1995 breakup of AT&T, was determined to establish a distinctive identity for itself, to move outside the long shadow of its predecessor. Its name alone, developed by Landor Associates, was quite a departure from the typical telecommunications company moniker. And the debut of the Innovation Ring logo, another Landor creation, really raised eyebrows. While the logos of most high-technology firms were hard-edged, conservative and impersonal, Lucent’s was warm, vibrant and organic. But its unusual character so confounded the expectations of many observers that they could only react with ridicule.

The media was quick to mock the new symbol, calling it “a big red zero,” “a flaming goose egg,” and “a red, splotchy circle.” One popular line of criticism likened the logo to an imprint left by a cup of coffee. It was dubbed “the million-dollar coffee stain” and some wags in the press speculated that “perhaps AT&T’s caffeine-crazed designers were inspired by their coffee-cup rings.” The comic strip Dilbert followed suit, depicting its Dogbert character as an overpaid consultant creating a logo with his coffee cup and christening it “the Brown Ring of Quality.”

Even within the company, the logo met with disapproval. Some Lucent employees thought it looked like “a red doughnut drawn by a small child, or worse, an advertisement for a paint company.” A Lucent senior vice president said, “I hated the logo because it looks like an ink smudge and it’s hard to duplicate.” One worker wrote that “everyone hated the Lucent logo at first ... going to a trade show as a Lucent employee meant subjecting yourself to incessant ridicule.”

Logos that follow established design norms rely on the viewer’s familiarity with graphic conventions to convey a sense of legitimacy in the organization the trademark represents. Unusual marks, such as Lucent’s, present the viewer with an unfamiliar image, one that requires interpretation or decoding. In attempting to differentiate itself by using a unique logo, an organization runs the risk of becoming saddled with unintended, undesirable meanings.

Besides the initial coffee stain and goose egg comparisons, a variety of interpretations of the Lucent logo emerged. Graphic designer Mark Fox saw a resemblance between the Innovation Ring and the mythic ouroboros, the snake that eats its own tail. “You can make out the lower jaw of the snake in the Lucent logo on the upper left of the inside ring,” he pointed out. One website protested that Lucent had misappropriated the Zen Buddhist enso symbol, and cited an internal Landor memo that seemed to acknowledge the similarity between the two. Some saw darker things in the Lucent logo, in much the same way that conspiracy theorists had attributed satanic characteristics to Procter and Gamble’s “Man in the Moon” symbol. One writer noted that, “to occultists, the circle represents their satanic deity, the great and fearsome Solar Serpent. The fiery, red sun, or circle, is his image ... How interesting that the logo for Lucent Technologies is a red circle.”

Not all the attention the Innovation Ring received was negative. Corporate identity guru Tony Spaeth praised Lucent for having “the guts to pick ... a new symbol so casual and informal as to be unlike any corporate mark seen before” and called the company’s unusual image campaign “a deliberate celebration of freedom and self-determination.” Branding expert Chuck Pettis said, “It’s a logo that works symbolically .... It took a lot of bravery for a big company to go forward with that much humanism.” But other unusual logos had also received such praise, only to be quickly abandoned. For instance, Steff Geissbuhler’s acclaimed 1990 “eye/ear” symbol for Time Warner had been too unconventional to last at the media giant, and was dumped for a sober wordmark in 1993.

But Lucent stuck with its unusual mark despite the widespread criticism it received. Eventually, through use of the mark in company identification and promotion, Lucent was able to overcome the interpretations of the logo made by others and imbue the Innovation Ring with meaning on its own terms. Once established in use, the logo slowly gained acceptance and developed into a distinctive and memorable corporate symbol. The surest sign of its success came in the form of its dozens of imitators. In 2003, graphic designer Bill Gardner’s annual report on logo design noted a trend toward “natural spirals” that seemed to owe a debt to Lucent’s mark. The next year, Gardner identified “cave rings” as another logo style that could be traced back to Lucent. And many logos, such as those of Chinadotcom and Cialis, borrowed Lucent’s brushstroke design element. The oddball had become a trendsetter.

When it comes to designing logos, business rhetoric is full of exhortations to avoid the commonplace and choose a unique symbol that truly expresses the organization’s individuality. But more often than not, corporate logos fall back on graphic clichés that allow the company to fit in, rather than to stand out. For many organizations, this conservative strategy makes perfect sense, as their need to be perceived as legitimate overrides other concerns. And given the rabid reaction to Lucent’s logo, it’s hard to blame them for not wanting to take chances with an unusual mark. But in a case such as Lucent’s, where a new company seeks to immediately establish a distinctive image, a truly fresh, creative logo design is called for. Lucent’s willingness to adopt such a design and weather the scorn that followed is commendable. Here’s hoping the Innovation Ring can live on.

About the Author: James Bowie, a research specialist at Northern Arizona University's Social Research Laboratory, holds a Ph.D in sociology from the University of Arizona. His dissertation research examined patterns and trends in trademark design over time and across industries.