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What McDonald’s can teach us about the business case for design

Posted on December 19, 2013 by Charles Marks

It’s up to you whether you think it’s good or bad news that the huge slide in profits and positive public perception experienced by McDonald’s restaurants during the first decade of the Millennium seems to have been halted. However, this reversal in fortune has less to do with its menu alterations than you might assume. Despite the salad-mongering hastened by the negative publicity garnered during the ‘McLibel’ case, or the release of the film ‘Supersize Me’ – according to McDonald’sUK, more burgers and Big Macs are being sold in their restaurants than ever before and that June of this year saw their best sales day ever.

But if the changes aren’t down to organic milk, fresh coffee and carrot sticks, what has pulled the McPunters back through the golden arches? It would seem that the chain has invested heavily in some re-branding over the past few years, particularly of its numerous premises around the country, with some startling results. Gone are the naff garish signs, fluorescent lights and plastic seats, replaced by sofas, communal benching and free wi-fi. Some would say that this new approach to its interior design is just a direct assault on the Starbucks share of the market, but in actual fact, it simply represents an acknowledgement of what businesses all over the world are increasingly aware of; that the look or ‘feel’ of their premises can affect not only their perceived image, but also their profits.

This has always been something that companies – particularly larger ones – have been aware of intuitively. It plain makes sense, no other argument is needed. It’s particularly evident in front offices, the face of the firm, where expensive materials, commissioned artwork and shorthand designer touches such as the ubiquitous Barcelona chair convey unmistakeable and instant ideas of success, style and refinement in the minds of even lay visitors.

In any case, we’ve all got much better at designing ways of getting the right image across through an interior. Ostentatious displays of corporate ID, the fabled logo in the carpet, are out for most firms. Instead subtlety is all, modest displays of corporate values, from ethics to financial solidity, creative verve to power and influence, all flecked with the corporate palette of colour.

There’s no need to go overboard with iconic furniture either. Often something as simple as the use of a subtle planting scheme or altering the level or type of light available in a workplace interior can alter its mood and its feel. This is an important consideration in office buildings, but arguably even more so in an environment where a business’ commodity is sold on the premises. Here the surroundings can be every bit as influential for customers as the product for sale. McDonald’s has clearly found this to be the case, but these values can translate to any contemporary work environment, especially those where flexibility and multi-use are deemed of high importance.

While first impressions undoubtedly count for a lot, smart businesses realise that there’s no point simply creating an attractive reception area if the rest of the building is static, dated and uninspiring. What goes for the front office must be apparent in the back, especially if you want your employees to be on-message.

This is about more than helping employees to create the right impression for the organisation, but also helps them feel part of things, helping them feel better about the place they work. It’s an approach that is demonstrably effective in improving the experience of those on the premises – just look at any bookshop with a coffee shop on one of the floors, or McDonald’s with its new sofa and internet access.

It used to be the case that McDonald’s wanted people to eat and then go somewhere elseso somebody else could spend money with them. Hard chairs, cold colours, air-conditioning too high, all designed to get you to stuff your burger and fries down then free the seat for somebody who was spending some money, not just sitting there.

What is apparent in McDonald’s is apparent in offices. In the space of just a few years breakout spaces have become so integral a part of today’s work environment they are scarcely commented on any more. Their value is universally acknowledged. Apart from the obvious welcome alternative to desk-bound work, they also demonstrate an acknowledgement of the value that the company places on its employees. They offer space to think, or to exchange ideas and act as a stimulant for the motivation of staff. Firms aren’t just doing this out of altruism, of course. A happy worker is a productive worker, so in exchange for an interior design that focuses on people, a business can get the most out of them.

Given the relative costs of interior design and employees, this is serious leverage, to put it in blunt business terms, but it must demonstrate joined up thinking to work. Product, culture, image and design must be inextricably and logically linked. Ronald McDonald has found this out, and many other company bosses are following suit.