Burger King rebrand by Jones Knowles Ritchie.

There’s a Burger King near my parent’s house in Newark, New Jersey with an oddly shaped drive-thru that positions cars at an inconvenient distance, say ten feet, from the squawk box and delivery window. To bridge this gap, a metal basket on a rod is used to shuttle food and change. A few years ago, the restaurant was renovated, but the lazy river pathway remained. In some ways, this Burger King is a metaphor for fast-food design as a whole: it’s limited by external conditions, by minute factors of geography and franchise culture that create decentralized interpretations of a brand’s values. The result is not always what’s best, but what works. 

Fast-food, or to use the industry parlance, quick service restaurant (QSR) design, a category known more for efficiency than innovation, has been oddly relevant as of late. The concurrent total rebrand at Burger King and packaging update at McDonald’s has led to inevitable comparisons between the two chains, whose rivalry stretches back decades. But with these designs, each company seems more interested in competing with restaurants that offer similar products at higher prices—so-called “fast casual”—than with each other. A modest burger sleeve looks sharper in the context of a high-end interior than it does in a McDonald’s. This has been the strategy of Shake Shack, founded by Michelin-star restaurateur Danny Meyer in 2004, with a brand identity by Pentagram. But the opposite is also true: attractive packaging makes a humdrum highway exit Burger King’s location feel a bit tonier. 

The recent updates at Burger King and McDonald’s add a dollop of 21st century design into 20th century spaces. The scale of fast-food restaurants—McDonald’s has nearly 40,000 locations, Burger King has about half that, both operate in over 100 countries—as well as the fact that the majority of them are franchised, doesn’t allow for the kind of consistent, flip the switch revamps smaller chains can implement. Instead, with companies so large, change needs to be deployable. It makes sense that packaging, which is increasingly important to QSRs as they rely more on delivery and mobile ordering, has become a focus of reinvention. 

If it looks good, could it really be so bad for you?

For Brendan Newell, design director at Momofuku, David Chang’s restaurant group, which includes chicken sandwich chain Fuku and Vegas burger joint, Moon Palace, packaging design is inseparable from space design. (Newell, it should be noted, is the sole designer at Momofuku, so his Gesamtkunstwerk approach is a matter of both principle and necessity.) Restaurants like Fuku and Moon Palace (along with Shake Shack, by CHLOE, and Bareburger) play on fast-food aesthetics rooted in the past, evoking a time when sustenance seemed more carefree. At the same time, today’s most affordable fast-food joints seem to be imitating more of the polished details—quippy copy, graphic illustrations, negative space—often seen at those higher-end QSRs. More and more, it seems, people want upscale places to feel unfussy and unfancy places to feel more special. And as many consumers have become more health-conscious—and as the idea of “watching what you eat” becomes less about dieting and more a matter of common sense—indulgent restaurants have figured out that consumers don’t come to them for healthy food. They come to them for food that satisfies a craving. In this setting, design is a framing device. If it looks good, could it really be so bad for you?

In the early days of fast-food restaurants, says Marcia Chatelain, a professor at Georgetown University who recently wrote a book about the cultural history of McDonald’s and the Black community, much of the design was oriented towards children. In the late 1960s, at around the same time McDonald’s realized that limiting locations to white suburbs was costing them market share, they came up with ideas to “have the food grow up.” In 1968, McDonald’s franchised a store to its first Black owner, added the Big Mac to the menu, and redesigned the logo, removing a line between the arches. Over time, the strategy became segmenting between the adult food and the kid food. Happy Meals, a riff on a concept first introduced by a now defunct competitor, were introduced in 1979. Today’s new QSRs have a different approach—Shake Shack doesn’t have a kid’s menu, and Chipotle’s children’s meal is simply smaller. Instead, the entire ethos of the brand, for both kids and really, for adults, is fun. This, too, seems to be trickling down to value-focused QSRs like McDonald’s and Burger King. 

In 2015, McDonalds’ then-CEO declared the brand’s ambition to become a “modern, progressive burger company.” That shift in strategy was packaging redesign by the agency Boxer in 2016. Barbara Yehling, McDonalds’ senior director of global menu strategy, describes this year’s packaging redesign by Pearlifsher as “an extension” of that earlier work, and says it’s aligned with the brand’s updated, chattier social media presence. Matt Sia, creative director at Pearlfisher New York, says that McDonalds’ goal with updating the global packaging design was to “elevate the experience” of interacting with the food, both for consumers and employees. Sia and his team created unique packaging for each product that drew on the “personality” of the menu item, adding playful elements like print underneath and inside containers. 

Lisa Smith, executive creative director at Jones Knowles Ritchie, who led Burger King’s rebrand, recognizes the role design can play in leveling consumer perceptions. Prior to joining JKR, Smith was at Chobani, where she helped lead that company’s much lauded rebrand. While Smith admits that Burger King is a guilty pleasure, she notes that people “feel a lot less guilty about eating a Shake Shack burger.” Her goal was to mitigate that guilt, to create a brand “as craveable as the food.” While the scope of the initial brief was much narrower than a full overhaul (“improve quality and taste perception through design”), Smith made the case that the brand would need to be revamped, top to bottom. The foundation, Smith says, was cracked—there were a number of different typefaces and colors, the Whopper had come to dominate Burger King’s visual identity, leaving room for little else. The existing logo, introduced in 1999, was a reflection of its time, and not of Burger King’s own personality. But parent company Restaurant Brands International held off on doing an overhaul until they had a new global design lead, which eventually came in the form of Rapha Abreu, who worked with Smith on the project. The company was also waiting for a time when it could make significant changes around ingredients and sustainability to match the values implied by a food-forward design. 

The new logo, which is a take on the original Burger King sign, Smith insists, was “never meant to be an homage.” The design as a whole, which has been characterized as a throwback, is actually quite modern. Take the favicon, an elegant bun-shaped icon to rival the Golden Arches, and a nod to the growing role of digital in QSRs. When it came to typography, “it was hard not to look back and see that they’d used Cooper Black,” says Smith, “but then we took it to the next level.” The team was drawn to “crazy” psychedelic-style fonts like Hobo, with indents that “felt squishy and moveable.” Mouthwatering, juicy, movement, craveability—those elements led the team to create a custom, “hybrid of many eras” typeface, Flame, with variable weights that can be stretched and pulled across formats, while staying proportional.  

Burger King and McDonald’s are both taking design cues from more upscale QSRs, which themselves draw on a mix of nostalgia and novelty to differentiate one sack of french fries from another. But the logistics of applying a cohesive visual identity across thousands of locations, many of which were built decades ago, are tricky. Eye-catching packaging, even more than LED order screens or an affable social media presence, are beginning to look like the sound investment. When it came to Burger King’s physical assets—cups, bags, wrappers—the company’s newfound commitment to sustainability created a set of limitations that led to innovations. For Smith, the challenge became: “How can you be iconic and do the bare minimum?” The warm palette was inspired by flame-grilling, and kraft paper reduced the need for ink coverage. (The pigmented illustrations by Cachete Jack, which will appear on tray liners, seem to be an exception.) The consolidated, color-coded wrappers are grouped by categories: orange (chicken and fish), red (bacon and burgers), yellow (everything breakfast). The wrappers are flexible, designed to be folded in different ways depending on the contents, with icons on the back that employees circle. “We didn’t make individual packaging, like some of the competitors have made, for every single product,” says Smith. “We tried to create multi-uses for each one.” Maybe that rivalry isn’t dead after all.