lessons from fedex

May 12, 2010  |  lessons in learning

Two months ago I came upon an older post on the design of the Fedex logo via Kathleen Connally. The post was an interview with the designer of the Fedex logo you see everywhere. I have to admit that when I got to the fifth interview question I felt a bit stupid. You see I never realized that there was an arrow in the logo. Lindon Leader, the designer, spoke of how they saw a hint of an arrow and then refined earlier iterations to create the logo. Each of the fonts had their pluses and minuses and as he worked to focus on combining font size and lower and upper case letters, he found that a natural arrow emerged. He went on to talk about the power of the hidden arrow to support the entire Fedex brand and the unforgettable pull of the arrow once you do see it. Leader pointed out that to have made the arrow more visible would have essentially been a failure in design.

Photography is a kissing cousin to graphic design. They share many of the same elements of visual design and I believe there are lessons in what Leader had to say. First photography is an iterative process. As a snapshooter I could never understand why people would want to go back to the same location and photograph the same thing over and over again. Today I am one of those insane people who comes back time after time and spends hours photographing the same subject matter. David duChemin calls the images you create during these times, sketches. They are all works in progress, practice for the final image that emerges much like Leader’s natural arrow.

The second lesson is that seeing is a skill that comes easily to some but to many of us, we have to work at it. In the final phases of the logo development, the team presented five different colour combinations. For one of the designs they saturated the orange and change the hue of the purple to make it less blue. The result was that only one person in a room of twelve was able to see the arrow sealing its choice given the hidden power that it held. As photographers we need to work on our images to find ways to make them more engaging and compelling so that they will have a connection to viewers. Sometimes this is done while you are photographing and other times in post-production.

Speaking of the invisible arrow, photographs that have a subtle pull are, in my opinion, much more powerful than obvious images. It is something I am striving for in my own images. Over the past two weekends I completed a mini-project that combines these lessons from Fedex. I went to a place where I had never been before to photograph. I went there on three separate days and for the first two visits I used prime lenses and for the final visit I took a zoom lens but kept it at the widest focal length throughout my time there. The goal was to train myself to see in a new way each time, to see as if I were the lens myself. I have to tell you that this is one of the more challenging exercises I’ve done to date but it has been one of the best learning experiences as well.

The image above was taken on the first day at the Bloedel Conservatory. I restricted myself to my 50 mm f/1.8 lens and boy was it difficult. Normally I love this lens but everywhere I looked I wanted to use either my telephoto or my wide angle lens. The 50mm seemed either too short or not wide enough. In the end I looked up and saw something that made my heart beat a little faster. All these lines and nothing but shades of the colour green. It’s no Fedex arrow but it’s pointing me in the right direction.

Have you tried this exercise before? Did you find it as challenging as I did? I’d love to hear your opinion.

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7 Comments


  1. Walking with one lens has been a wonderful experience for me. I carry a 35mm f1.8 lens on my camera almost all the time. I like the contrast and sharpness as well as the small size. It does require me to look with different eyes, to step closer or backup to frame what I see. I hardly ever use my zoom anymore. I also like the fast lens because it allows me to play with DOF.

    Another well written post, one that will have me thinking throughout the day. I was one of those people who stayed away from artsy things with the belief I was not capable of creating art. I am one of those who does sketch the same scenes many times.

    • I’d love to have that lens, Monte not just for the DOF but as you say getting closer to the subject matter. You really do see things differently from another angle and I suppose that’s why I’m fond of my zoom lenses. But someone once told me to use “foot zoom” instead!

      And I’ve seen your work and would whole-heartedly disagree that you are not capable of creating art. You most certainly are and have :)

  2. I went and looked at the logo. I can’t see the arrow. I see a steam locomotive though. How weird is that?

    I have some time coming up, I should try the limiting to specific lenses trick to see what happens.

    • LOL Chris, I can’t see the steam locomotive. I need to see with your eyes for a while. It has me curious to know what you see in my image above.

      Let us know how you fare with limiting yourself to specific lenses.

  3. Subtle pull – interesting concept = how is it different than the obvious one? Where is that line? We struggle to send a message without it being blatant. How do we measure it? you have taken a photo which speaks to me because it is subtle yet interesting.

    How did you pick it out as a good example? I am sure yiu had a choice of several images.

    • To be honest Maureen, I was really struggling with the 50mm. When you come to visit I’ll take you there and you might be able to see why. I think if I had focused on photographing the people there, I would have had more success.

      So I picked this one because of the lines and colour. It was only after I selected it that I realized it has arrow-like qualities.

  4. It sounds like a good exercise – I’ll have to try it myself at some point.

    Mind you, I spent my first year of learning photography shooting on just a 50mm lens, on an old Pentax film camera. At that time I didn’t really think about other lenses, although I was rarely happy with my images. Can I blame that on the lens? :)

    I think it was a good grounding though, as taking that extra choice out of the learning curve meant that I focused entirely on understanding the relationship between aperture, shutter speed and exposure.

    These days, I rarely shoot using my 50mm – well, except for portraits – so I might hit the streets and see if I can end up with some images I’m happy with this time round.

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