This article is more than 1 year old

So I’ve scripted a life-saving routine. Pah. What really matters is the icon I give it

J’appuie sur le starter et voici que je quitte la terre

Something for the Weekend, Sir? Mute the mic. Hide the webcam. Freeze the shared screen. Enable Delivery Mode!

I have been practising all week for this moment. Once the alarm sounds, the process need to be as slick as a Thunderbirds-are-go launch sequence. In fact, each time I run through the steps I find myself humming the uplifting theme music – by preference, the 1960s ending credits version performed by the Barry Gray Orchestra. Although this version doesn't include the incongruous sleazy sax halfway through, it features an epic brass James Bond-style sign-off.

Excuse the cliché but one might call it "iconic’".

Talking of icons, I have now scripted the above sequence into an automated routine launched from a shortcut on my Desktop. I just press the starter and I rocket away!

Hmm, but which Thunderbird icon shall I assign to it?

My choice of icon will be important. Thunderbird 4 was my favourite when I was a kid but it's not exactly a powerful visual trigger. Icons should work subliminally as well as, er, obviously, and that little 1960s yellow submarine tends to conjure visions of bubblebaths rather than online business meetings. Unless… could I host meetings from my jacuzzi…?

Now there's a first-world problem: one person's perfect icon is another person's embarrassing gaffe. Take, for example, the statue/monument/thing that was unveiled this week for the freshly renamed "Esplanade Johnny-Hallyday" in Paris, in honour of the late, "great" rock singer who was world-famous throughout France.

Please click on this link and scroll down to see a photo of the monument as you wouldn't believe me if I just described it in words.

Eschewing the convention of producing a wonky unlikeness of Jean-Philippe Smet's physiognomy, the designer who was commissioned to create the statue chose to mash up two very specific icons associated with the man whose voice was reminiscent of an Austin Morris starting up on a frosty morning: guitars and Harley Davidson motorbikes. Literally: the monument is a giant guitar neck with a Harley Davison screwed on top.

Just be thankful the designer of this monument was never asked to create one to commemorate the death of Princess Diana.

No, icons should do more than represent – they should suggest. Your brain duly makes the connections and whispers the answer inside your head. I saw a fine example of the art of iconic suggestion in a recent crime magazine article about Ron Jeremy’s indictment for sexual assault. To assist younger readers unfamiliar with the Jeremy oeuvre, the picture editor had obviously been asked to, er, come up with some movie stills, only to find they could not be published in their raw, hirsute form. Extreme blurring was then applied, which rendered the movie stills safe but unrecognisable and therefore pointless.

So they added icons to hint at the mystery behind the high-radius setting of Photoshop’s Gaussian Blur.

Blurred-out photos from a magazine with icons to suggest what they would depict

A wheelbarrow and a pipe? What on Earth could be going on in these pictures?

For my Delivery Mode script, I have settled upon an icon of a parcel with an anachronistic postage stamp.

Delivery Mode, by the way, is my solution to a very particular problem with video conferencing while working from home: how to accept a delivery from a courier at your front door while you’re supposed to be live on-screen?

Sure, there are plenty of ways to sneak out of an online meeting quietly for a few seconds to nip to the loo, let the cat out or yell STFU at your children. But the days of a knock at the door, sign a slip and say thank you are long gone. This is because I now live in one of those infuriating abodes that have an extra line in the address, and even in Year 2021 not a single courier company can handle such a thing.

Even the lines they are able to accommodate on the delivery label are randomly truncated, rendering my property invisible. I had a DHL package stuck in customs for a week because the label indicated that I lived at "14 avenue". Just that, nothing else.

This kind of nonsense means the courier – through no fault of his own – has to ring me up to ask where I live. I give him directions. He parks on the wrong street. I stand on my front doorstep, still on the phone, guiding him in like air traffic control in the Airport films, while looking out for passersby who are acting as if they might be lost and carrying a package.

Roll on aerial drone deliveries, I say.

Until then, I dread retailers such as Wilco going off half-cocked with the threat of gutter-bound drone road vehicles. In the unlikely event that a human courier in a van finds the entrance to my property, he will phone me to ask for the entrance code. What will this autonomous buggy do when it comes up against a keypad-operated barrier? Stretch out a telescopic finger to punch the keys, like in an episode of The Jetsons or a 1970s Judge Dredd?

Basically, every courier delivery has grown into an extended Groundhog Day-like repetitive drama played out over several minutes. I need a meeting escape method that buys me extra time.

Not just that, conventionally sneaking out only really works when you are a passive attendee rather than an active participant. Standard methods cannot be used when you are the person actually leading the meeting and have to remain visible on-screen throughout, such as when you're the main speaker on a webinar for customers. Maybe they even paid to watch you flounder, who knows? They certainly didn't pay to watch you chat with a disoriented delivery man.

What does seem to work is to feign a complete network dropout. The trick is making it look real.

For this, it must be sudden, inexplicable and slightly confusing. As soon as I notice my mobile phone buzzing, I continue talking until I can hit the mute button precisely mid-sentence. Webcam follows immediately afterwards. If I'm sharing a screen, this must be frozen but remain visible throughout the pause.

Done correctly, it can take attendees a good 20 seconds before they begin typing into the chat box along the lines of "Can anyone hear anything?" They will spend the next minute confirming this between each other. For a further minute, they will discuss among themselves what they think they should do next. The third minute will be occupied with idle chat about the weather affecting 4G signals and the paucity of broadband in deprived pockets of the inner city.

By the fourth minute, I am back on-screen, unmuted and talking through a completely different presentation slide. I take my time and, as the attendees clamour in the chat to tell me I had cut out for a while, I pause graciously while gently nudging my safely delivered parcel out of webcam shot.

"Oh, no problem," I croon in assured tones. "Allow me to run through that again."

Alistair Dabbs
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. If the city of Paris was going to erect a memorial to your life, which icons do you think the monument designer could clumsily cobble together to represent your achievements? A Nokia 3210 and a voltmeter? A cheeseburger and can of Relentless? A fistful of cable ties? Answers in the comments, please. More at Autosave is for Wimps and @alidabbs.

More about


Send us news

Other stories you might like