Redesigning an Icon: How Pearlfisher Gave McDonald’s Packaging a New Look

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All you really ever need to see are those golden arches, and you know what restaurant is right around the corner.

McDonald’s serves millions of people daily around the world in over 100 countries, and it’s an instantly recognizable fast-food brand. But a company that’s 65 years old inevitably has to evolve and change—so how do they do it without losing the heart of what people worldwide love about them?

“This packaging redesign is really an extension of the transformation that kicked off a few years ago with our updated brand positioning and visual identity, which are rooted in the idea that McDonald’s makes delicious feel-good moments easy for everyone,” said Barbara Yehling, Senior Director of Global Menu Strategy. “That theme has been reflected in our Experience of The Future (EOTF) restaurant designs and many other areas of the business over the years. Now we’re continuing that transformation to unify our branding and bring those delicious feel-good moments to life through bright, fun, simple designs.”

Pearlfisher, the agency behind the redesign, saw a much bigger opportunity, one where they could tell the brand experience. The packaging before was functional and featured the menu item names on the pack, but for the new design, they wanted to lean into that feeling of instant recognition.

“McDonald’s is one of the biggest icons in the world,” said Hamish Campbell, VP, Executive Creative Director at Pearlfisher. “They link back to a shorthand already. They have the golden arches and the M, which we all know symbolize McDonald’s. We have that simplicity to the point where you can even just see a crop of it, and you understand what it is. That led to us having this more iconic behavior on the packaging to communicate what the brand is and that experience for everyone.”

Emotions were behind this iconic design for an iconic brand. The new design needed to express one of the most significant things McDonald’s provides for its customers—joy. Pearlfisher needed people to feel this through the packaging, regardless of whether they walked into a McDonald’s in Tokyo, Johannesburg, or Los Angeles.

“We explored how simple we could get this when we know we’re going to have to work in multiple countries and languages,” Hamish said. “We aimed to bring forward almost an iconographic system that can communicate fun and joy, but it also works from a functional level since people need to identify what’s in their bag.”

The packaging features a bespoke font called Speedee Bold and a color palette inspired by the menu items themselves. The fries packaging—an already very recognizable pack from McDonald’s—got a shot of personality with an illustration of French fries in the back (they previously had yellow stripes there). The cups play with the iconic arches and can change to fit the mood or season, like by becoming flip-flops for summertime. The packaging acts as a canvas for these elements and adds a touch of surprise and delight for consumers.

“The Egg McMuffin packaging was my favorite because that’s when the lightbulb went off,” added Hamish. “It was just so simple. It’s not a perfect circle—it’s a little wobbly—which reflects the yolk. That design was the keystone to the whole system we built out of, which was amazing.”

Barbara Yehling, a director of global menu strategy at McDonald's, mentioned that the brand reaches upwards of 65 million customers every day, and packaging is a critical touchpoint for every single person who walks in the door. The redesign may appear simple, but Pearlfisher had to consider the finest of details. The egg yolk on the Egg McMuffin wrapper isn’t a perfect circle but has those charming imperfections that a real egg yolk would have. Lines of color represent the toppings on the hamburgers, but they considered each line's thickness. The packaging also got tested to ensure the system transcends languages and locations while communicating what they want.

“We wanted to make sure we could keep reinventing without feeling tired,” Hamish said. “We want it to feel fun and exciting and refreshing every time there’s a new piece of packaging.”

The new design communicates in the same way that those golden arches do, so much so that all you need to do is see one part of the packaging, and you just know. Yes, it’s iconic, and at the same time, it also delivers on the one simple feeling that Pearlfisher wanted to share from the beginning: pure, unadulterated joy.