Delivery

Logo big or go home: How FedEx’s secret arrow was created accidentally

First, it shortened Federal Express. Then, it designed an icon.
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· 4 min read

These logos are imprinted in our minds. This is a new feature about where they came from and why they work.

Brand: FedEx

Designer: Lindon Leader, Landor Associates (now Landor & Fitch)

Year: 1994

Get shorty: Not long after Federal Express began operations in 1973, the company really took off, befitting a company selling the then-novel service of overnight delivery by plane. Within a decade, it had made its first billion.

In 1994, as Federal Express was expanding its international service, it hired Landor Associates (now Landor & Fitch) to rebrand it.

“The word ‘federal’ especially was a bit of a noose around the brand’s neck because it kind of connotated bureaucratic, slow federal government,” Mary Zalla, global president of consumer brands at Landor & Fitch, told us.

Consumers at the time “had started to use it as a verb anyway: ‘fed ex it,’” Zalla said. So before the firm even started to design the logo, it persuaded the company to drop nine of its 14 letters.

Whoa, an arrow: It started as an accident.

Lindon Leader, senior design director at Landor at the time, told The Sneeze in 2004 that the team working on the FedEx logo had already mocked up more than 200 designs, and had refined them to six, when he first noticed it.

“If you put a lower-case ‘x’ to the right of a capital ‘E’ (Ex), you can begin to see a hint of an arrow, though it is clumsy and extremely abstract,” Leader said in the interview. “If I could develop this concept of an arrow, it could be promoted as a symbol for speed and precision, both FedEx communicative attributes.”

Leader was gravitating to two typefaces—Univers 67 (Bold Condensed) and Futura Bold—but “neither was particularly suited to forcing an arrow into its assigned parking place without torturing the beautifully crafted letterforms of the respective faces,” he said.

So he designed his own letters, borrowing elements of both typefaces. He heightened and refined the “x” until its left half formed an arrow with the bottom half of the “E.”

Because the arrow occupies the white space between letters—negative space, in design parlance—many never notice it. It would be more noticeable if it were another color, but the fact it’s hiding in plain sight is a feature, not a flaw.

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“The power of the hidden arrow is simply that it is a ‘hidden bonus.’” Leader said. “Either you see it or you don’t.”

Why it works: David Heasty, a partner and co-founder of New York’s Triboro Design, which has designed logos for brands including Vox Media and BLK DNM, told us that even he hadn’t noticed the arrow inside the FedEx logo until someone pointed it out.

“If no one had ever told me, maybe I would have never seen it.” he said. “And I do this for a living.”

The arrow imbues a logo that otherwise seems so simple and clean with a bit of mystery and intrigue, he noted.

“It gets the logo in discussion and every generation gets to talk about it again,” Heasty said. “So there’s something actually super smart about doing that because it just allows for this level of engagement.”
CNN chose “20 designs that defined the modern world,” among them the Coke bottle, iPhone, and Mini car. And the FedEx logo.

It “is one of the happiest accidents in the history of graphic design,” Stephen Bayley wrote on CNN.com. “It will probably never be replaced. Certainly, it will never be bettered.”

Reverse logistics: The Arabic version also has an arrow, but like the language, it goes from right to left.

Purple reign: As it has since 1994, the FedEx logo has always had a purple “Fed” and an orange “Ex.” But in the late 1990s, it began varying the color of the “Ex” to signify different divisions, with orange remaining for FedEx Express, but using green for FedEx Ground, red for FedEx Freight, yellow for FedEx Trade Networks, and blue for FedEx Office.

Then, in 2016, it announced that it was ending the practice, and all of its divisions would again pair orange with purple.

One casualty, apparently, was the FedEx Ground mascot, a puppy bounding along with a FedEx package in its mouth, which was a playful touch alongside the logo on delivery trucks.

For the nostalgic, there’s a plush version on eBay, the Droste effect in action: a puppy carrying a FedEx package with a logo of a puppy carrying a FedEx package.

But if it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight, purchasers are out of luck: It ships USPS First Class.

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