The golden arches are as inextricably linked to Americana as the Nike swoosh or the Statue of Liberty. It is the shorthand for fast food across the country and is the symbol adorning everything from high school basketball’s All American Games to international games of Monopoly. But what makes McDonald’s iconic arches worthy of ubiquity? Obviously, people love the food. McDonald’s has nearly 37,000 franchises worldwide and serves 68 million customers each day. There is more at play here than just the food though. Here is what we think makes the McDonald’s arches so brilliant.
Keep It Simple, Stupid
The arches are an ingenious merger of architectural efficiency and eye-catching aesthetics. First appearing in 1953, the arches achieve this in several ways. Foremost, the tapered parabolic shape with its springy lines conveys movement and energy while the neon yellow coloring commands the attention of passersby. Not only is the design unique and memorable amongst fast food chains, but the arches are also emblematic of the company name. When the half-circle arches are adjoined, they form a sloping “M” for McDonald’s, the namesake of original founders Richard and Maurice McDonald. Some have even argued the interlocking of the golden arches has Freudian significance in the mind of consumers.
While the simplicity of the design distinguishes the arches from competing logos like Starbucks’ mermaid or Wendy’s portraiture, there are technical reasons that make it worthy of our attention. These are called Gestalt principles. Without going into a full-fledged art history lesson, Gestalt principles are a set of laws developed in the 1920s characterizing how humans see objects.
The principles are organized into five categories and typically have more of these elements lends itself to a more aesthetically pleasing image. The five categories are proximity, similarity, continuity, closure, and connectedness. The McDonald’s logo falls into four of these. Let’s start with similarity and connectedness. Elements that are connected by uniform visual properties are perceived as being more related than not. With each individual arch being a mirror image of its counterpart, this means our brain notices the similarities between the two and views them as related. This connection is made in part because of proximity. The closeness of the two arches makes us more likely to see them as one shape, which gives the design a sense of cohesiveness. Finally, there is continuity. Elements arranged on a line or curve are perceived to be more related than elements not on a line or curve. Because the arches combine to form an “M” shape, our eyes able to more easily flow across the design.
You do not have to love McDonald’s to appreciate the golden arches. The success of the arches is obviously tied to the success of the franchise itself, but the ingenuity of the design was hardly an accident. It is simple, distinctive, and easily repeatable making it an indelible token of global culture. Studies even show 88 percent of people across the world recognize the emblem. That said, what are some of your favorite company logos? Let us know in the comments below.