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Don Thompson, CEO &
Melody Roberts, senior director, experience design innovation

Dynamic Duos: Don Thompson and Melody Roberts Of McDonald's On Serving Billions

How a design approach to problem solving has led to some seriously good-looking, smartly evolving golden arches.

Don Thompson, CEO
Melody Roberts, senior director, experience design innovation

It’s an unlikely pairing: America’s most prestigious design museum collaborating with the world’s biggest burger-slinging chain. And yet, last year, New York’s Cooper-Hewitt tapped Melody Roberts, one of McDonald’s senior executives, to join its National Design Awards jury. The council of nine has included Jenna Lyons, Marissa Mayer, Yves Béhar, Martha Stewart, and Tim Gunn.

Reality-show reach aside, Roberts arguably has more influence in more households than any of the above. She’s one of the most important senior figures driving the reinvention--the renaissance, really--of McDonald’s in the last five years.

FLIP THE BURGER PARADIGM

That mission has been co-piloted by the cheery and refreshingly candid CEO Don Thompson. (His reported response when the company first headhunted him? “You got the wrong guy, because I’m not flipping hamburgers for anybody.”)

At first glance, Roberts, too, is an unlikely member of Ronald’s army: the Yale alumna was poached from elite design consultancy IDEO seven years ago. Now though, she leads teams at one of the most secretive, and important, programs at McDonald’s, its Innovation Center. This 250,000-square-foot bunker with three kitchens, 135 dedicated employees, and zero windows is in a nondescript suburb of Romeoville, south of Chicago. Its nickname, Switzerland, is a tip-off to its true identity: Here, any McDonald’s partner can come and try out new concepts in a completely neutral design environment. It was in this warehouse that the chain’s new interiors--softer lighting, comfier seating, and a more grown-up, hangout-friendly vibe--were originally workshopped.

“People eat with their eyes first. If you have a restaurant that is appealing, contemporary, and relevant from both the street and the interior, the food tastes better,” Thompson explained when he announced the company’s newfound focus on design three years ago. It was a $2.4 billion investment involving renovations to more than 2,000 sites and the construction of another 1,000.

DON'T BE FOOLED BY LOOKALIKES

Since that initiative began, McDonald’s has, quite simply, relaxed, embracing rather than squelching differences. Perhaps most astonishingly, the signature red background on its golden arches logo has been replaced by green at times in Europe. There’s no longer an identikit look for restaurants, according to Roberts. The emphasis is now on three core designs available to franchisees worldwide: a modernist 1950s-inspired version, a 1970s-style mansard roof café, and a sleek-lined, futuristic site.

Thompson has opened up all of this—well beyond menu or restaurant makeovers—to Roberts, acknowledging that her discipline shouldn’t operate as a standalone silo in any major corporation. “Using design thinking across the organization requires figuring out what the organization needs to build and grow broadly, versus focusing on a design team,” she’s said.

SPRINKLE, SHAKE, SCAN IT UP

Roberts has said that she structured McDonald’s innovation programs into 100-day “bursts,” with ample breaks for analysis and downtime between each, explaining that the pacing “just seems to fit our natural human and social rhythms.”

She and Thompson are casting around the firm’s global network for initiatives that might be worth instituting company-wide, like the Shaker Fries that debuted in Asia with a sprinkle-to-taste packet of seasoning or McDelivery, a Seamless-style web order system. Hopefully, though, they’re mulling importing an Australian advance, an app which allows customers to scan codes on packaging and determine the source of the food they’re eating, using GPS data linked with the real-time supply chain.

Whether or not we’re looking at a tech evolution where the Hamburglar eventually becomes a Hamhacker, Roberts has said that the larger design industry approach to problem solving and innovation “has been welcomed in big cross-functional teams with tight deadlines in a situation they have to resolve.”

Read more pairings from Fast Company's 10th Annual Innovation By Design issue:

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2 Comments

  • robert

    i do not like the idea of uber intelligent folks using design methodologies to produce cheap, unhealthy food and sell it to the public.