Can Packaging Design Make You Feel Better About Eating Fast Food? McDonald’s Hopes So.

The fast food empire is putting its packaging graphics on a diet.


In 2015, McDonald’s President and Chief Executive Officer Steve Easterbrook made it his mission to whip the beleaguered burger company into shape. In addition to focusing on improving food and service, forging a “contemporary restaurant experience” was front and center. New packaging was a no brainer in the plan to refresh the brand. Beginning this month, McDonald’s is phasing in new bags, cups, and boxes that embody a less-is-more mantra. The company’s packaging may be going on a diet, but is that enough to convince customers that positive change is afoot?


The last time McDonald’s redesigned its global packaging was in 2013. It featured a frenetic collage of QR codes, slogans, illustrations, and symbols. Back then, the emphasis then was on storytelling using graphics. Now, it’s about using simplicity to convey the company’s new agenda of being modern and progressive. The Spartan concept riffs on what McDonald’s calls its core brand icons—its wordmark, golden arches, and menu items.

“The packaging is intended to create noticeable change for our customers and I’m hoping it makes them feel better about their choice of going to McDonald’s,” says Matt Biespiel, Senior Director of Global Brand Development at McDonald’s. “Unlike other [branding] categories, you receive packaging after you’ve already made the purchase. The thought for me is, this is about reinforcing the purchase decision—having people feel good about walking down the street holding our bag.”

Categorically speaking, fast food is highly processed and laden with sodium, sugar, calories, and artificial ingredients. For some, it’s a guilty pleasure for “cheat day” splurges (and for others it’s a beloved part of their daily routine). We know it’s unhealthy for us. We know a fresh salad is a better option. We rarely want to broadcast it to our peers. Yet with its new packaging, McDonald’s is betting on turning fast food consumption into a fashion statement of sorts.

McDonald’s doesn’t have an in-house design team, so it invited 15 designers from eight agencies located in the European Union, the Americas, Asia, and Australia to an office in London to work on the packaging. Plans to revamp the graphics began in January 2015, but the actual design time was limited to one week. The team came up with initial concepts, interviewed customers about the proposals, then refined the design. During the process, they experimented with a number of ideas, from illustration-heavy mock-ups to ideas that riffed on food photography and various logo-based treatments.

“As we went through the process and iterations and as we brought consumers into that process of co-creating the designs with us, more and more what we heard from consumers is be true, be bold, be McDonald’s,” Biespiel says. That led the designers to a type-based concept that uses the bespoke version of Helvetica that comprises the company’s wordmark.

After establishing the core idea, McDonald’s worked with the Chicago-based firm Boxer Brand Design to refine the design and apply it across all the packaging portfolio. Bags, cups, boxes, and their brethren are emblazoned with bright pink, acid greed, neon orange, red, and sky blue words central to the brand: McDonald’s (naturally), Big Mac, Chicken McNuggets, Fries, and so on. The bags feature exaggerated golden arches that wrap around the front and side. The colors were chosen to relay that McDonald’s is a “colorful brand,” Biespiel says. More pragmatically, the colors also work with the existing supply chain by playing nicely with the brown paper bags, which are part of McDonald’s plan to use 100-percent recycled fiber by 2020.


“The entire portfolio of new graphics are a celebration of what makes McDonald’s ‘McDonald’s’ for customers,” Biespiel says. “I’m hoping that our customers will see this as being true to who we are, being bold, and, to an extent, being fashionable. The bag and the cup act as mini billboards as people walk out of our restaurants, walk on the subways, walk down the streets, so we very intentionally designed these with a fashion mentality.”

Unlike some of the chain’s niche packaging concepts—like the bike-friendly box launched in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Medellin, and Tokyo—this design will be rolled out internationally in well-developed and emerging markets. This meant that the concept needed to be as effective and recognizable for a life-long customer as someone who’s only been to a McDonald’s a few times. By tapping into the 75 years of brand equity McDonald’s has built through its logo and menu, the designers created packaging that speaks to the billion-dollar corporation’s strongest legs.

McDonald’s calls this concept a “dynamic design” meaning, that it can evolve along with the rest of the brand as it recalibrates for the future. It works with the menu boards, self-serve ordering kiosks, and mobile app. Moreover, the simplicity ensures that the packaging can scale in just about any franchise, from the standard drive-through to the Create Your Taste “artisanal burger” spin-offs and slick Shake Shackified outposts.

Speaking of that other burger chain, Biespiel argues that McDonald’s new tack is more about a customer-comes-first philosophy than playing a me-too game. “I wouldn’t say that McDonald’s is trying to ‘reach up’ to fast casual,” Biespiel says. “McDonald’s is trying to be McDonald’s and what our customers are expecting from us today versus 15 years ago is changing.”

But can new packaging stand up to the bigger challenges McDonald’s and its peers are facing? Fast food companies have come under fire for paying employees meager wages; New York City recently lifted the minimum wage to $15 per hour, but that’s just one city. Fast-casual burger restaurants continue to gain momentum as more customers seek better quality food. Chains are experimenting with new value-combo promotions as they struggle to bring more foot traffic into their establishments. That said, as of October 2015, McDonald’s posted the first rise in sales in two years (a meager 0.9% in the US and 4% worldwide for same-store sales) and its stock value is on the uptick.

The new packaging design is modern, legible, and certainly more refined than its cacophonous predecessor. It will scale well with McDonald’s new initiatives. But it may be like putting lipstick on a pig.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.