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Clever for CLEVER’s sake

I’ve always loved the FedEx logo.

I know to ‘normal’ people that’s a bit of an odd thing to say. You really have to have worked in or near design to love a logo.

I’m not even a FedEx customer. Maybe once a year at most. So it’s not like I have any great connection with the brand.

But I still love the logo. The reason is I can remember the time when I didn’t get it. I just saw the five letters. I knew it was Federal Express because everyone called it ‘FedEx’. People even used it as a verb.

I must have noticed it first. Maybe there was something about the bold colours, the purple and orange. Or the typeface, the mix of upper and lower case. Or the way the letters all pushed up against each other, like they’re rushing along. But I didn’t get it.

Then one day I did. The genius of what happens when that upper case ‘E’ is pushed up against that lower case ‘x’. The negative space that creates the idea.

The arrow.

Now when I look at the logo it’s the only thing I see. I’ve pointed it out to people and, as happened with me, it often takes them a while before they can see it. But then there’s that satisfying moment when the penny drops.

It’s like those lateral thinking puzzles:

A man is lying dead in a field. Next to him is an unopened package. There is no other creature in the field. How did he die?

You feel stupid not being able to work it out and then smug when you do. And especially smug when you set other people the puzzle and answer their questions deliberately obtusely. (Sorry, it’s a parachute).

It also reminds me of when I worked in advertising and you went to see a creative team to be shown their ideas. Of course you hoped it would be something amazing and you kept your fingers crossed it would be on brief.

But the other nerve-wracking part was whether you’d actually get it. Puns were easy enough but what about visual metaphors? Or cultural references? Or film homages? Or simply the joke?

A lot of advertising used to be like that. Clever ads written by clever people. One of the best examples was The Economist poster campaign. The white keyhole on a red background. Or the headline ‘I never read The Economist.’ with the sub-head ‘Management trainee. Aged 42.’.

That advertising always made sense to me because it flattered the intelligence of the person looking at the poster. It made them want to be an Economist reader.

But it took me a long time to learn that, in general, you need your normal shoes on when you look at creative ideas, not your clever clogs.

So back to FedEx, is that famous logo actually good or just famous?

Well, it’s an arrow.

For a courier company.

To me, that says ‘this way’. That’s OK. Best if the parcel knows where it’s going. But completely generic.

Beyond that, maybe it says speed. Or precision. Or moving forward. Or a sense of purpose. But which? What was the brief? What does FedEx promise?

But all of that is secondary. Mainly it’s about the arrow being hidden.

Lindon Leader, who designed the logo in the San Francisco office of Landor in 1994, described it as a punchline. As a designer he preferred understatement. He wanted the solution to be elegant.

So he loved surprising people. He even tells the story of presenting the idea to the FedEx team, of course with no mention of the hidden arrow. And “once everyone saw it, once they got the punchline, they loved it.”

Maybe in the end that’s the point. It was all about being recognised and remembered. Communication was not the objective.

But the danger is always that your need to be clever gets in the way of your need to be clear.

So all those hidden meaning remains hidden because ‘normal’ people are just not that interested in looking for them.

And remember, nobody likes a smart arse.

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