December 6, 2002

Deconstructing an Icon

We live in a culture suffused with icons we seldom consciously analyze. I realized this the other day when I was expecting a delivery from Federal Express that I had missed the day before. Since it is often difficult to hear someone at the door from my second-floor office, I decided to print a sign to post on the front door to assure the courier that I was indeed at home. I thought I would include the familiar “FedEx” logo to make the sign more attention getting, but neither scanning my missed-delivery notice nor downloading a graphic from the Federal Express Web site yielded an image that was crisp at an attention-getting size.

No problem, I thought. All I need to do is combine a few letters to produce a do-it-yourself logo indistinguishable from the genuine article. No boldface, sans-serif typeface on my computer quite did the trick, however. The x-heights of Arial, Helvetica, and all the other fonts I examined were higher than the top of the middle arm of the uppercase “E.” The FedEx logo, however, has these two heights the same. The logo, I suddenly realized, probably employs a designed-for-purpose font of exactly five characters. The uppercase “E” and lowercase “x” are juxtaposed to the point of contact, thereby outlining a right-pointing white arrow, no doubt intended to suggest the role of an express company in getting parcels from here to there. A classic negative-space trick!

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, look at the Federal Express Web site. Take a close look at the logo and see what I mean.

And my door sign? I finally just used the scan of my missed-delivery notice as a background for the sign and abandoned my logo counterfeiting as too complicated.

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