The following is an excerpt from The Laws of Subtraction by Matthew May (McGraw-Hill).
My ten-year-old daughter points out the logo on a FedEx truck every time she sees one. She’s done that without fail ever since she learned to sound out letters. But she doesn’t do that with any other logo. What’s special about the FedEx logo isn’t the vibrant colors or the bold lettering. It’s the white arrow between the E and the x.
"There’s the white arrow that no one on my gymnastics team knows about," she’ll say.
The FedEx logo is legendary among designers. It has won over 40 design awards and was ranked as one of the eight best logos in the last 35 years in the 35th Anniversary American Icon issue of Rolling Stone magazine. Nearly every design school professor and graphic designer with a blog has at some point focused on the FedEx logo to discuss the use of negative space. I wanted to hear the full history of how it all went down, not to mention impressing my daughter, so I called on Lindon Leader, the designer who created the mark in 1994 while working as senior design director in the San Francisco office of Landor Associates, a global brand consultancy known for executing strategy through design. Lindon now runs his own shop in Park City, Utah, where he continues to work the white space in creating marks and logos for a wide array of organizations.
We spoke at length about visual impact, his creative process, and his story of the FedEx logo development. I began by telling him how my daughter points out FedEx trucks when she sees them.
"It’s those kinds of stories that are the most gratifying for me, most rewarding," he says. "I’m always asked what it’s like to see your work everywhere, and does it ever get old. It never does."
When Lindon graduated from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, his very first job was with Saul Bass, the iconic Los Angeles designer perhaps best known for creating the AT&T logo. Lindon remembers Bass telling a story much like mine toward the end of his career. Someone asked him in an interview whether after an illustrious 40-year career in design in which he won every award under the sun, he still got a thrill out of design. Bass answered the question by explaining how he’d been driving recently with his five-year-old daughter, who suddenly cried out, "Daddy, look, there goes one of your trucks!" Saul told the interviewer that seeing that truck on the road still made him proud.
I shared my interest in subtraction, specifically the use of negative space and emptiness, and asked Lindon to describe his design philosophy. "I strive for two things in design: simplicity and clarity," he explains. "Great design is born of those two things. I think that’s what we all want from design, and from business, from our work, even from our friendships."
According to Lindon, seeing the original Smith & Hawken catalogs in the 1980s made a significant impression on him and influenced much of his early approach to design. "It was an experience like taking this leisurely stroll through a garden, everything so clean, refreshing, uncluttered. You got this sense of the simple, healthy outdoors life. Simple and clear. It was my first aha into what design needs to be."
Lindon begins a design project in a fairly typical way, generating a long string of designs. "Those early sketches always have too much going on, too much to think about, and too much extraneous stuff," he says. He labors over the work until the simplicity and clarity he’s looking for begin to emerge. "I slowly begin to remove things. The more you pull out, the clearer it gets. Not everyone gets that; most people don’t. But it’s always the final one that’s far more simple and far more clear than the more elaborate ones I labored over at the beginning." It is inevitable, he says, that when he creates something composed of 30 to 40 percent whitespace, his clients ask why they can’t fill up the space and make use of it. Lindon’s invariable reply: "Understatement is much more effective, much more elegant."
Elaborating on the theme of understatement and how to craft a memorable experience through something as apparently limiting as graphic identity design, Lindon explains to me that what he’s after is what he calls "the punch line" and that he’s delighted when something isn’t what it appears to be at first glance: "You look at something, then you look at it again, and you say, ‘Hey, wait!’ and ‘Oh, I get it!’" Lindon is after what he refers to as "one plus one equals three." For Lindon, that addition is actually subtractive. "You’ve eliminated the third one and had not just the same impact but greater impact because of the surprise of the missing one. If your name is Global Air Supply, for example, the last thing you want is an airplane flying around an image of the globe. That’s one plus one equals two. The FedEx logo without the hidden arrow is just plain vanilla—one plus one equals two. With it, it’s one plus one equals three."
"If you look at the original Northwest Orient Airlines logo that Landor Associates did," Lindon continues, "it’s maybe the best logo I’ve ever seen. It’s one plus one equals three, maybe four or five." The logo he is referring to is shown on the next page. It is a circle with a clearly visible N. But if you look again, you see it’s also a W: part of the left leg of the W is removed. And it’s even more than that: the circle represents the compass, and the white space simultaneously creates a little tick, a pointer, pointing northwest.
"It’s pure genius," states Lindon. "The old Bank of America logo, too, is one of my favorites." That logo, shown on the next page, reveals that the B and the A are created with whitespace. That space, if you look at it, is in the shape of an American eagle. "Brilliant," he confirms. "Negative space, white space, it’s incredibly important. There’s a reason the Apple logo is now whitespace. It says plenty about the simple design and functionality of their products. But it’s even more than that; it says ‘our products speak for themselves.’ It’s bold, shows confidence. It’s not just a graphic element; it’s a fully realized identity."
It was that kind of artistry that Lindon was after in developing the FedEx logo. "Back then, the company was still officially Federal Express," he recalls. "The logo was a purple and orange wordmark that simply spelled out the name. By the way, people in focus groups thought it was blue and red, but it wasn’t. It had this incredible customer-created brand. Everyone said ‘FedEx’ and used it as a verb." Although there was enormous cachet around the term, a global research study revealed that customers were unaware of Federal Express’s global scope and full-service logistics capabilities.
"People thought they shipped only overnight and only within the U.S.," Lindon explains. "So the goal was to communicate the breadth of its services and to leverage one of its most valuable assets—the FedEx brand." Lindon remembers that FedEx’s CEO, Fred Smith, placed high value on design and had an intuitive marketing sense: "Any designer worth a lick will tell you great clients make for great design. He said okay to a brand name change and authorized a new graphic treatment. He said do whatever we wanted, under two conditions. One was that whatever we did, we had to justify it: ‘You can make them pink and green for all I care; just give me a good reason why,’ he said. The second one was about visibility. ‘My trucks are moving billboards,’ he said. ‘I better be able to see a FedEx truck loud and clear from five blocks away.’ That was it! So off we went."
I asked Lindon to take me through the design process in as much step-by-step detail as he could remember. "We had two or three teams working on it," he begins. "We developed about 200 design concepts, everything from evolutionary to revolutionary. It was a full spectrum. We knew we had to respect the brand cachet but extract the real value, make key decisions on what to keep, what to delete, what was usable, and what wasn’t. For example, we knew we wanted to keep the orange and purple—it was recognizable, so we wanted to exploit that—but make the orange less red and the purple less blue."
At the time, Lindon was "in love with two bold fonts" known as Univers 67, which is a condensed bold type, and Futura Bold. He takes me through how he started playing with the two typefaces and the letter spacing, from extremely wide to locked together, uppercase and lowercase, mixing and tinkering. One iteration had a capital E and a lowercase x: "I started squeezing the letter spacing, I saw a white arrow start to appear between the E and the x. I thought, ‘There’s something there.’ I tried both fonts, but I didn’t like how much I had to distort either typeface to make the arrow look good. I thought, ‘Would it be possible to blend the best features of both?’ I took the high x of Univers and mixed it with the stroke of Futura Bold. The x rose to the crossbar of a lowered E. I kept tweaking, and eventually not only did the arrow look natural and unforced, but I ended up with a whole new letterform."
A handful of the other designs contained arrows, but none were hidden. "I thought, ‘Okay, there’s nothing really compelling about an arrow,’" Lindon remembers. "It’s overused and rather mundane. But I thought we could build a story around it." The arrow could connote forward direction, speed, and precision, and if it remained hidden, there might be an element of surprise, that aha moment. "I didn’t overplay it, didn’t mention it. And you know, most of our own designers didn’t see it! But when I previewed the mark along with a few others with the global brand manager, she asked, ‘Is there an arrow in there?’ She saw it, and it was game on!"
I wanted to know more about that aha moment when people got the punch line. I could hear the smile in his voice: "I remember it like it was yesterday." On April 23, 1994, the Landor team presented their design ideas at FedEx headquarters in Memphis, Tennessee. The hidden arrow mark was one of five presented to a fairly large group of senior executives. "We had built prototypes of planes, vans, and trucks. We would never just show designs on paper unless that was the only application. You need the context. We presented the whole of our work with no mention of the hidden arrow. Our goal was to not reveal it, to see if it got discovered. The global brand manager knew, of course, but kept the secret. Amazingly, Fred Smith was the only one to see the arrow right away. It’s probably why it won. Once everyone saw it, once they got the punch line, they loved it."
According to Lindon, there’s always a temptation and tendency to go overboard and start adding and complicating matters, which indeed happened with FedEx. "People aren’t good at restraint," he says. "They don’t get that not adding is really a form of subtracting. All of a sudden there was this rush to tell the world the secret. Sort of defeats the purpose, don’t you think? FedEx’s PR firm immediately wanted to supersize it. They wanted to make it obvious, fill it in with another color. They wanted to feature the arrow in other brand communications. They didn’t get it. It wasn’t about the arrow. An arrow isn’t even interesting to look at. It’s only because of the subtlety that it’s intriguing. And not seeing the arrow doesn’t in any way detract from the power of the mark. The arrow’s just an added, novel bonus. We said no way. I tell people this all the time. Henny Youngman, the comedian, had this whole signature to his act around ‘Take my wife. Please.’ What the PR folks wanted to do was the equivalent of changing his shtick to ‘Please, take my wife.’ If you have to call attention to your punch line, to explain it, it’s no longer a punch line. It doesn’t work, it isn’t funny, and no one will remember it."
Lindon Leader’s design is considered by many to be one of the most creative logos ever designed. Not because of what’s there but because of what isn’t.
Buy The Laws of Subtraction for $15 here.