Ask most Americans to start listing all the fast-food chains they could think of, and Taco Bell would probably be in the first five. According to the Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report conducted by Technomic, it is currently the fourth-largest fast-food chain in the country.
It’s impossible to think of Taco Bell without calling to mind the brand’s distinctive logo. However, the Mission-style bell that makes your mouth start to water at the thought of Mexican-inspired fast food wasn’t introduced until more than 30 years after the company was initially founded.
So what did the Taco Bell logo originally look like? And why and how did it change? Learn more about the evolution of Taco Bell’s logo below.
History of Taco Bell
Nowadays, most of us are aware that crispy taco shells with mildly spiced beef, bright yellow shredded cheddar cheese, and iceberg lettuce are not “authentic” Mexican food. In fact, if you called anything on Taco Bell’s menu “Mexican food,” most food snobs would probably recommend a place where you could get real Mexican food. However, back in the 50s and 60s, Taco Bell was as close to Mexican food as most Americans—especially white, suburban Americans—ever got.
Fast food joints in America, especially those serving hamburgers, took off after the Second World War. It was 1948 when Glen Bell opened Bell’s Drive-In, a hamburger and hot dog stand across the street from Mitla Café in San Bernadino, California. Bell’s Drive-In did reasonably well, but Mitla Café had lines out the door for their tacos. Then another restaurant called “McDonalds” opened up just down the street and started to corner the local market for hamburgers.
Bell befriended the owners of Mitla Café and convinced them to teach him how to make their taco recipe. Most Mexican eateries served tacos on traditional soft corn tortillas. However, to make it easier for their customers to eat on the go, Mitla Café started frying their taco shells to make them crispy and easy to carry. Glen Bell followed suit. He added tacos to the Drive-In’s menu, and they quickly became a hit with his mostly white customer base. Over the next decade or so, Bell opened a number of quick-serve joints specializing in tacos. He went through a few different names, including Taco Tai and El Taco, before the first official Taco Bell opened in Downey, California, in 1962.
The first Taco Bell franchise was purchased by Kermit Becky, a retired LAPD officer, in 1964. Becky opened his Taco Bell location in Torrence, CA. By 1967 there were 100 Taco Bells, and by the next year, the chain opened its first chain east of the Mississippi in Springfield, Ohio. When Taco Bell went public in 1970, it was 325 locations strong.
Taco Bell Logo Through the Years
Today, there are Taco Bells in all 50 states and several countries around the world. As the brand has grown, it has adapted its logo to stay relevant and appealing. Taco Bell’s logo is notable for the drastic changes it has undergone since its early days. Everything about the original Taco Bell logo—from the color scheme to the font to the conspicuously missing bell—is totally different from what we see driving along our highways and in our food courts today.
The first Taco Bell logo was relatively simple but bright and colorful. It featured 8 colored blocks printed with white sans-serif capitals spelling “TACO BELL.” The blocks are set at jaunty angles and slightly overlap, creating a bounce effect. It also calls to mind papel picado, a type of Mexican folk art: sheets of brightly-colored tissue paper are cut with intricate designs and then strung in banners to decorate feasts, festivals, and other celebrations. By the mid-1900s, papel picado banners had become popular throughout Mexico and would have been recognizable in the American Southwest, where Taco Bell was born.
The initial Taco Bell logo used four colors in a repeating pattern: a dark red, a deep forest green, orange, and yellow. These colors correlate to the variety of ingredients Taco Bell offers. Red calls to mind spiced ground beef. Green represented lettuce. The orange is a similar color to shredded cheddar cheese. Yellow represents hot oil and the tortilla shell.
The original Taco Bell logo was used for the first decade of the company’s existence before undergoing a redesign in 1972. This time, Taco Bell chose a much simpler logo: a monochrome wordmark in dark brown. For the 1972 logo, the company designed a custom typeface: bold with elongated lines, angular diagonal cuts, and small, sharp serifs. The new logo reflected certain design principles specific to the 1970s while still emphasizing the company’s identity as a Mexican-inspired eatery.
Like the United States, Mexico is a relatively large country composed of several smaller regions. These regions all have unique topographies, ecologies, and cultural nuances. The northern regions of Mexico that border the US along the Rio Grande share many things in common with the American Southwest, including a similar environment and a significant level of cultural exchange. For the average Middle American in the 1970s, many emblems that evoked the American west—cacti, cowboys, open desert ranges—would also have been associated with the type of cuisine Taco Bell serves. The typeface chosen for the new Taco Bell logo contained elements often used in stylized “Western” fonts, including bold lines and sharp serifs. While the 70s is often associated with psychedelic color schemes, there was also a strong preference for earth tones, especially in interior design. The same design trends that spawned nearly ubiquitous wood paneling in American homes also influenced the new Taco Bell logo.
The second iteration of the Taco Bell logo was used for 13 years, making it the runner-up for Taco Bell’s longest-running logo. In 1985, the company introduced the third version of its logo. Inspired by the 80’s preference for saturated colors and jewel tones, they reintroduced the yellows, reds, and greens of their original logo. These were meant to represent the ingredients used in their food: spiced meat, lettuce, cheese, hot oil, and crispy corn tortillas. In addition, the 1985 logo introduced the now-iconic bell. Taco Bell also designed a new custom typeface, similar to the previous wordmark but with a few differences. It still featured bold capitals, sharp serifs, and angular cuts. However, instead of elongated vertical lines, the new wordmark featured elongated horizontal rails on the first letter of each word.
The third Taco Bell logo only lasted 7 years before being replaced in 1992 with the precursor to the modern Taco Bell logo we know and love today. The bell was enlarged and made the main focal point of the logo. The background behind the bell had a rough, almost hand-painted appearance. While the typeface remained the same, the wordmark now featured each word on its own line instead of having both words on the same line. The biggest change, however, was the color palette used for the logo. Other fast-food chains commonly use red, brown, and yellow; think of McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, Arby’s, KFC, and Chick-il-A, to name a few. To distinguish itself from the competition, Taco Bell chose a radically different tack.
The 90s were known for noisy jewel tones and techno-inspired neon hues. These design trends inspired Taco Bell to adopt bright purple and hot pink as their main colors. Not only did these colors portray youthful energy and excitement, but they would also stand out among the other restaurant signs as you drove down the highway looking for a place to eat.
The Taco Bell logo underwent another redesign in 1994 that kept many of the elements of the 1992 logo and just refined them. Taco Bell would go on to use this logo for 22 years, the longest it has used any logo to date. The bell was recolored to a brighter shade of pink and set against a solid purple arch block instead of the streaked-paint background of the 1992 logo. Taco Bell also redesigned its typeface. They removed the elongated rails and small serifs and went with a blocky, sans-serif font with diagonal letter cuts.
After sporting their bright pink bell for over two decades, Taco Bell’s internal design group partnered with the global creative consultancy Lippincott to design a new streamlined logo that was more in line with the 2010’s minimalist design sensibilities than its 90s-inspired predecessor. The first thing most people will notice is the much simpler color palette. While purple remains the dominant color, the hot pink and bright yellow accents have been exchanged for black and white. Even the two shades of purple—a lighter hue and a darker one—are less saturated than the earlier iteration. In addition, the typeface has been simplified even further to a slimmer sans-serif font with no ornamentation.
Like previous Taco Bell logos, the latest Taco Bell logo is a product of its time and relevant design trends. In the 2010s, minimalism became the design fad. Minimalistic designs include only that which is essential for functionality. They usually focus on a single dominant visual and limited color palettes with high contrast. As social media and smart devices took off, it was easy for consumers to become overwhelmed by a constant stream of marketing and other stimuli. Minimalist designs help people focus on the content in front of them and process messages at a quicker speed. They are also easier to render on various displays and platforms. Trends change fast in the current age. Minimalist designs are timeless, meaning they won’t look dated within days or weeks.
Major Design Elements and Changes
Today’s Taco Bell logo is very different from the signage Glen Bell used on his original restaurant in 1962. Let’s take a quick look at the elements that have helped establish Taco Bell’s visual brand identity over the last 60 years.
The bell is the central focal shape in the Taco Bell logo. The bell has a two-fold meaning. First, it is a visual representation of the brand’s name, which in turn pays homage to the founder Glen Bell. But the bell also has connections to Mexico, whose cuisine inspired Taco Bell’s menu, and California, where the brand was born. Spanish settlers initially colonized Mexico, California, and other areas of the American Southwest. Spain is a majority Catholic country, and many of the first Mexican and Californian colonists from Europe were missionaries intent on converting indigenous populations. Missionaries would build missions where they could perform outreach and minister to local populations, complete with churches. Most churches had bells to announce daily prayer times, and these mission bells became a symbol of Spanish America.
Initially, Taco Bell’s color palette used reds, greens, and yellows to suggest their food’s fresh, flavorful ingredients. However, this quickly became popular for many fast-food chains. Taco Bell could easily blend in with dozens of other signs if you were driving down the highway looking for a place to stop and grab a quick bite. The transition to bright pinks and purples was initially made to help keep Taco Bell visually distinct from its competitors. Even though the company has transitioned to a more subdued color palette recently, the brand’s signature purple still stands out from other fast-food chains.
The element of Taco Bell’s logo that has changed the most over the past 60 years is the typeface used for the wordmark. Generally, Taco Bell has favored bold fonts and all-capital letters. This is one thing the current logo has in common with the first Taco Bell logo: a simple, blocky, sans-serif typeface. Most other versions of the logo favored angular diagonal cuts, which were replaced by more streamlined straight lines during the 2016 redesign. For a while, the brand also relied on elongated lines and sharp serifs to give the font a more stylized look. However, the 21st century has seen a movement away from stylized elements in almost all areas of design, as clean lines and other minimalist sensibilities have become the dominant aesthetic.
Lessons from the Taco Bell Logo
What can designers learn from the many iterations of the Taco Bell logo?
In its many variations, Taco Bell’s logo has always conveyed its identity as a Mexican-inspired eatery. It does exactly what a logo is supposed to do– it gives consumers an understanding of the kind of products and experiences the brand offers in a single glance. However, as design trends have changed over the decades, Taco Bell has been able to integrate trending design elements with its visual identity to stay relevant.
Taco Bell’s logo has undergone some radical design changes since the earliest version. Generally, we want visual branding to be consistent to help establish trust and recognition with customers. However, sometimes it’s a smart idea to opt for a total redesign to find a logo that really works for the brand instead of trying to tweak a less effective design. The decision to choose a radically different color palette for Taco Bell’s logo helped the brand distinguish itself from its competition and maintain its position as one of America’s most popular food chains.