Last week, Shake Shack went public in an IPO that ballooned to $1.6 billion—cementing the brand’s journey from a one-off boutique stand in New York’s Madison Square Park to a multinational burger titan with restaurants reaching Moscow, Istanbul, and Dubai.
In retrospect, a dream team of talent assembled to build Shake Shack. Founder Danny Meyer is the restaurateur behind many of New York's hottest restaurants. Pat LaFrieda butchers blended the umami-rich mix of brisket, chuck, skirt steak, and short rib in each burger. And architect James Wines developed the original shack structure in Madison Square Park. But what of the casually catchy Shake Shack branding that has spread so effortlessly to cultures across the globe? The logo, signage, bags, and uniforms were all designed by Pentagram in a project led by principal graphic designer Paula Scher.
"It was so accidental," Scher explains on a call, "because it was conceived for one specific location at that point in time. I don’t think anyone was thinking that this was going to be a chain."
Scher was already spearheading a pro bono redesign of Madison Square Park’s identity for the park's Conservancy. So when the Conservancy decided to build a permanent burger stand on the public premises, Scher was the logical choice to ensure the burger branding didn’t clash. (And she originally picked up the Shake Shack project for free, since it was an extension of the Conservancy project.)
Two different sources of inspiration informed Shake Shack's branding, which evolved over time. The first was the shack structure itself—a corrugated metal hut that would help earn James Wines a National Design Award for lifetime achievement in 2013. "The original idea was, the shack would be part of an urban landscape in parks. And that’s how the first one was designed," Scher explains. "So when I designed the logo for Shake Shack, it was really the architecture that drove the design."
The shack exuded a kind of approachable modernness, and Scher wanted a typeface to match. She chose Neutra. To this day, metallic, Neutra lettering spells out Shake Shack in front of all their global stores.
Scher introduced a second wave of branding some time after the store had opened for business. This time it would be paid work—"not well-paid, mind you, but they only had one outlet," Scher says. It tapped the core idea behind Shake Shack itself—a '50s burger joint reimagined for a modern context. So for the text on menus and bags, Pentagram turned to the curvaceous Galaxie Cassiopeia font, or what Scher lovingly calls "a phony neon script" that still felt modern enough to keep up with the logo. The typeface was paired with squiggly burger, shake, and fry icons that evoked classic signage. Even rendered in ink, you can almost see the 1950s neon shining through.
Though the branding was designed for the peculiarities of Shake Shack's original site, it has managed to scale to franchises placed in more typical storefront locations, and even airports. "I think the modernness of it is somehow perfect in keeping with the quality of the food. It’s a contemporary fast-food chain with a high-level product—as opposed to McDonald’s, which is also modeled after 1950s burger chains but serves downscale food," Scher says. "In retrospect, if you’d done a million years of focus testing and consumer studies, you wouldn’t do a better job. It shows you the charm of the happenstance."
When I ask Scher later if it felt a bit strange to see pro bono work now define the face of a $1.6 billion public company, she admits that it is "a bit."
"They offered me a stock purchase before the public offering," she writes in an email. "And in fairness, no one had an idea of how successful it would become."
Update: An earlier version of this story said that Scher had used Pemba rather than Galaxie Cassiopeia.