What’s wrong with this picture? When I first saw this photo, taken Monday, of United and Continental’s CEOs cementing their just-announced merger, I didn’t notice it. When I clicked over to the press release announcing the new mega-airline, I still didn’t notice it. It was only when I was reading the branding and identity site Brand New this morning, when I saw their side-by-side comparisons, that I noticed it. The extremely puzzling United-Continental “mashup.”
I had looked at United’s “new” logo several times but each time my eyes had scanned the familiar forms and registered it in my brain as “Continental.” And that’s a big problem. Unless, of course, the merger agreement included a clause that insisted United would be stripped of every last bit of its brand equity.
United’s identity has had an interesting history. Early wordmarks for plane’s tails were designed by famed industrial designer Raymond Loewy. But the logo that everyone has associated with United for over 30 years is the distinctive U designed by legend Saul Bass in 1973.
The logo received an update to its text in 1992, by CKS Partners, and again in 1997 by Pentagram (above). But they always kept the U.
That elegant, understated U. Can we all pause for a moment of silence for that beautiful U?
But here’s the kicker. Remember Saul Bass, the designer of this beautiful U, shown here holding that U-adorned United plane in his hand? Look to the right, just behind him.
In an ironic twist, Bass also designed an early logo for Continental, in 1968.
Of course, they abandoned it soon enough for the blue, boring whiffle ball that now belongs to United. Monday’s merger was landmark in more than one way: Two airlines with fantastically rich design legacies chose to sever a shared history with one of the world’s greatest designers and go forward with blah.
Now that I’ve noticed it, I can’t believe my eyes. In that meeting, did they really decide that this was truly the best way to acknowledge both parties? Are there any other brands that have merged and essentially swapped identities? Or did they not want to pay a designer to come up with something new? Is this really happening? It feels like some kind of alternate-universe bad design dream.
Saul Bass photo by AIGA