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The Lucent Logo Legacy: Long Live the Big Red Donut

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.

  1. link to this comment by Henrik Olsen Wed May 10, 2006


    Thank you for your article, and especially your positive conclusion.
    (While working as a member of the Identity Design practice at Landor SF between '92 - '94, I am the designer who created the Lucent symbol.) Please feel free to contact me if you'd like to discuss more detailed intentions of the piece.
    -Henrik Olsen

  2. link to this comment by Richard Salcer Fri May 12, 2006


    A very cogent article. The elusive, dynamic quality of the Lucent logo is very evocative of the image Lucent has sought to convey: a company in pursuit of something that is sometimes hard to capture – the discovery and mastery of the new. What is new is ever-changing, its shape yet to be fully defined. The Lucent logo doesn't just sit there – it shimmers. Its redness speaks to the vibrancy of Lucent's quest. What symbol could be more appropriate to the inheritors of the fabled Bell Labs legacy of innovation?
    -Richard Salcer

  3. link to this comment by Eugene Randolph Young Sun May 14, 2006

    Innovative? Take a look at the Zachary's Pizza logo ( /). It's a bright red calligraphic circle. As a kid, I'd ask myself, "What does Chinese calligraphy have to do with pizza?" I only recently concluded that it represents the circular application of a ladle full of tomato sauce to raw dough... which means it took me over two decades and a BFA in graphic design to "get it." (yeah, I'm a little slow, but still...)

    Zachary's Pizza has been a legend in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1983, with two very popular and successful restaurants in Oakland and Albany. I'm not sure how long they've used the logo, but I'm sure it's predates the Lucent's Circle of Innovation.

    I agree that the article does an excellent job of telling the story of Lucent logo, but considering when and where the Lucent logo was created, and its resemblance to Zachary's logo, maybe the decision-makers at Zachary's Pizza deserve some acknowledgement as a "graphic trendsetters" as well.

    Food for thought.

  4. link to this comment by felix sockwell Sun May 14, 2006

    The lucent mark is an all time classic- one of my favorites. Nice work, Henrik. Also, there was an excellent article on this very subject in an old issue of Eye about 4 or 5 years ago.

    Also pertinent to this discussion is the logo for Avaya - Lucent's next foray into "Communication". I originally designed this mark to be blue, but the CEO changed it as well as some other important features- which was odd becuase testing had shown it to be widely acceptable/ readable. Seeing great work like the ring to fruition is indeed hard to come by these days. Hats off to Youngblood's old SF,Landor.

  5. link to this comment by dwatkins Mon May 15, 2006

    .... but a million dollars?
    Henrik, I hope you were compensated fairly.

  6. link to this comment by DesignMaven Fri May 19, 2006

    Dr. Bowie:

    Great Analysis and Commentary.


    A Milestone In Identity Accomplishment.

    I'd be interested in seeing your Creative Studies that led to the Lucent Technologies Identity Solution as well other Landor Team Effort Ideations.

    Anyone interested can Read Mark Fox Article in Communication Arts Design Annual 40, 1999.

    Feature Article Title, Logos = GOD.

    Observations on Logo Design and Sacred Cows at the Century Close, page 268 to 274.

    I initially touched base on this Lucent Technologies Logo on Speak Up under David Weinberger's Monday Variety April 29, 2004. In a Discussion with noted Designer Graham Wood.

    Link Below.

    The Lucent Identity was an Anomaly for it's time. Certainly Original and Stood out in the Crowd. Not necessarily Head and Shoulders above other Identities of its Generation in Aesthetics and IMPACT. Nevertheless, it was Memorable and Unique.
    Unfortunately, Design History has shown us every Successful, Original, Omnipotent, and Ubiquitous Identity soon fall Victim to Bastardization and a Plethora of Imitators.

    Such is the case with Bass' AT&T;, Rand's IBM, Glaser's, I Love NY.

    Carolyn Davidson's Nike Identity Spawned a whole Generation of Imitators. The Nike Swoosh in itself is a Bastardized Identity whom Roots owe a Debt to Whirlpool, Dixon & Parcels, Skilcraft Identity, Chermayeff & Geismar's, Screen Gems Identity. Saul Bass, Identities for Security Pacific Bank, United Airlines.

    Although I sighted Lucent Technologies Identity as the First Abstract Identity that Broke the Mold in America. It was the First for a Multinational Corporation.

    However, Legendary and World Renowned Identity Consultants/Designers Chermayeff & Geismar actually created the first Abstract Identity in America which Broke the Mold. It was an Identity not for a Corporation but for a Government Agency. The Agency of note. The White House Conference on Children,1970 (brush stroke abstract).

    Please reference any of Chermayeff & Geismar's Capability Brochures or Publications on Identity.

    Most important, both Lucent Technologies and Alcatel Identities were Designed by Landor. Very Surprised this was not noted by Contributors Posting on this Forum.

    If you extract the Pyramid or Triangular Semiotic from Saul Bass' Identity for ALCOA. Separate the two (2) Triangular Shapes by one inch void Alcatel's typography and box enclosure.

    You simply have Saul Bass' INGENIOUS Identity for ALCOA minus the Stylized "A" and rounded box enclosure. /

    An Informed and Educated Observation. Not necessarily an Opinion.

    The Dismay initially felt in reference to the Lucent Identity, it was highly ridiculed because it was different and broke all the rules. Three Identity Consultancies invited to give Presentations to Secure the Lucent Identity Project were Anspach Grossman Portugal, Siegel & Gale and Landor.

    As the story was told. Neither, Anspach Grossman Portugal, or Siegel and Gale would have created an Abstract Identity for Lucent. Based on their market research i.e. Qualitative Analysis, Quantitative Analysis, and Focus Group Research Testing.
    Referencing Eugene Grossman and Alan Siegel as reported in EYE Magazine and other Design periodicals of the era. circa 1991 or 1993.

    Dr. Bowie, Steff Geissbuhler's Time Warner Identity Replaced Saul Bass Warner Communication Identity. Steff Geissbuhler's Time Warner Identity was Replaced by the Straight Typeface Identity Designed by Anspach Grossman Portugal.

    1. Warner Communication, Designer Saul Bass, 1974.

    2. Time Warner, Designer, Steff Geisbuhler for Chermayeff & Geismar, 1989.

    3. Time Warner, Redesigned Identity, Straight Logotype. Designer, Anspach Grossman Portugal circa early 1990s.

    Below Quote from Dr. Bowie:

    "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".
    In Defense of one of my Identity Heroes, Steff Geissbuhler.

    Allow me to Clarify. The Eye/Ear Symbol was not actually Dumped. It was Repositioned as a Brand Identity.

    World Renowned Identity Designer Roger van den Bergh and Personal Friend noted in his book Changing Identities for Changing Times page 35.

    "Warner Communication and Time Inc. Merged in 1989 to form the World's Largest Media Company. The Facade at the Office Building at Rockefella Plaza has since been changed twice. First to Express the New Name Time Warner. Second when the 'Eye/Ear' Symbol was shifted from a Corporate Identity use to a Product Brand Identity use (Time Warner Cable}. It was Replaced with a more Generic Logotype".

    Dr. Bowie, I'll have Mr. van den Bergh send you a copy of his Book.

    eh, TEXAS BAD ASS, Don't hold your Breath for any semblance of a copy. (laughs)

    Eugene Randolph Young:

    Good Catch on Zackary's Pizza. Truth is Stranger Than Fiction.
    Or in the words of Comedic Actor Robert Wuhl, in his HBO Show, 'Assume The Position'. "The Stories that made up America, The Stories that America made up.

    "When the Legend Becomes Fact. Print the Legend"!!!!!!!

    It may very well be True Zackery's Pizza Predate Lucent Technologies Identity. However, Zackery's Pizza was not Designed by a Noted Designer or Consultancy.

    It will never get the Notoriety or Publicity it Deserve.

    Robert Wulh noted, "History is a Myth Men Agree to Believe".

    Steve, Don't shoot the Messenger, admonish Robert Wuhl!!!

    FYI, I always thought the Lucent Technology Identity was Inspired by Paul Rand's 1957 Catalog Cover Museum of Modern Art, Portrait of Picasso.

    See Paul Rand, A Designer's Art, page 49.

    Famous Last Words.

    Just when I think I'm out, They Pull me back in!!!

    Michael Corleone

    Back to my Sabbactical.


  7. link to this comment by Ashley Kirk Sun May 28, 2006

    I see the resemblance between the Zachary's Pizza and LT, however they are quite different. First off, the tomato swirl logo is a literal representation of pizza making. The Lucent logo is more symbolic and metaphorical. Also, Zackery's pizza is not a corporation. For a large corporation like Lucent, the casual and gestural swirl was an uncommon approach.


  8. link to this comment by DesignMaven Tue May 30, 2006

    Dr. Bowie:

    For sake of Accuracy.

    The Latest Repositioning of TimeWarner was by Lippincott & Margulies 2003.
    Lippincott's Repositioning of TimeWarner replaced Anspach Grossman Portugal's 1993 Identity.

    See Identity Analysis and Commentary by Maestro
    Tony Spaeth Below.


    If you extract the Pyramid or Triangular Semiotics from
    Saul Bass' ALCOA Identity Developed and Designed early 1960s.

    Place ALCATEL within a Johnson Box. Substitute the "A" in ALCATEL with both ALCOA Triangular Shapes separated by a half inch. You now have Alcatel Designed by Landor 1980s.

    Devices, Essentially Derivative of Bass' ALCOA Identity in Origin. /

    Ashley Kirk:

    I think the Argument can be made Lucent could've been INSPIRED by Zackary's Pizza.

    Zackary's Pizza, Landor and the Designer of Lucent Technologies Identity, Henrik Olsen are all located in San Francisco.

    As Creatives its Mysterious were IDEAS come from and how they get embedded in our Memory and Later Recalled.

    Paul Rand wrote this Marvelous Article on Ideas about Ideas in Graphic Design. It discusses Origin of Inspiration for Creatives.

    Metaphor's in Identity are Created by Marketing to Persuade and Sell a Brand.

    Thus, the Innovation Ring for Lucent Technologies was Born by Landor's Marketing Team as BRANDING Speak.

    "Symbolizing a Continuous Cycle of Discovery and Knowledge, the circle' striking red color and hand drawn simplicity Evoke the Emotional, Human Appeal of Communication Enabled by the Systems, Products and Advances of Lucent Technologies".

    Quoted from Landor's Marketing and Communications Team.

    The Inspiration for Lucent Technologies Identity could've been a Coffee Stain, Chermayeff & Geismar's Red "O" for Mobil, Paul Rand's 1957 Catalog Cover for the Museum of Modern Art, Portrait of Picasso and/or Zackary's Pizza.

    Because of the Confidentiality of Process of Corporate Identity we're very likely never find out the Inspiration for Lucent Technologies Identity, unless Herik Olsen is willing to Reveal Process.

    Again, Truth is Stranger Than Fiction.

    Off Topic:

    Nevertheless Appropriate and ON POINT:

    Anyone else see PAUL RAND'S Ingenious Poster Design
    for the 1966 International Design Conference in Aspen for Wolf Olins Recent Identity for a Russian Cellular Company???

    Wolf Olins, Identity for MTC /

    Back Story

    See Paul Rand's Poster Design page 23, Paul Rand A Designer's Art.

    Subtract the Black Abstract brush dot Motif from Paul Rand's 1966 Aspen Poster and Crop. You have Wolf Olins Identity for MTS, Mobile Phone Service Designed in 2006.

    Call it what you want???!!!!

    Wolf Olins MTS Identity is Definitely Inspirationally Extracted from PAUL RAND'S GENIUS!!!!!!!!!

    Oy Vey!!!!!!

    Is there NOTHING Sacred Anymore???


  9. link to this comment by Larry Wed Sep 13, 2006

    What about Vodaphone's logo?

  10. link to this comment by Guy Mon Nov 20, 2006

    You could tie a symbol of a company (i.e. logo) with the fortune of the company, if you believe in fong shui.

    Essentially, LUCENT's logo looks like a Janapese flag with a whole in the middle of the Sun. In the technology front, Janap represents the highest quality in the world which translates into making money. If there's a whole in that symbolic representation (Janapese flag), it broke the spirits of the logo that makes Japanese's technologies so strong in the world.

    You can easily argue the nonsense of this theory, but fong shui is not something you can find a yes/no answer. It merely reflects what has presented us before and what violates the trend of that un-seen "rules".

    So, LUCENT was destinated to fade away by what so many businessman believing - the tide that against the company from the fond shui point of view. So unexplainable, yet so true.........

  11. link to this comment by Ravi Tue Nov 21, 2006

    It's in the stars!

  12. link to this comment by Andrey S Mon Oct 08, 2007

    It's gone. All we have left is memory and this weird logo -

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