Design Lessons from McDonald’s

Still from “The Founder”

John Lee Hancock’s “The Founder” is not a great movie, but after watching it on a plane a few weeks ago, I can’t seem to stop thinking about it. It tells the genuinely interesting story of how entrepreneur Ray Kroc, entertainingly if unexceptionally portrayed by Michael Keaton, transforms Mac and Dick McDonald’s innovative one-location burger stand into the defining brand in fast food. Hancock’s direction is unfortunately unabashed about the script’s painfully expository dialogue and rarely digs particularly deeply into any of the film’s characters. Nevertheless, there are some interesting ideas at work here, particularly for designers.

The most apparent is a first act sequence in which the McDonald brothers recount how they essentially invented fast food. Frustrated with the inefficiency and commoditized nature of their traditionally operated drive-in restaurant, the brothers decided to drastically narrow the breadth of their menu offering.

To that end they also drastically overhauled the way those items were prepared so that customers’ orders could be fulfilled in a mere thirty seconds. Dragging their kitchen employees along to an empty tennis court, they used chalk to map out possible arrangements for the restaurant’s various cooking appliances and prep stations, essentially user testing their way to the most efficient layout and an accompanying “assembly line” approach to food preparation. You can get a preview of how Hancock recreates this process in this short “Anatomy of a Scene” video from The New York Times:

The brothers may not have immediately recognized that their innovation would change the way the world thinks about food (for better or worse) but they at least understood its value enough to brand their unique workflow as “the Speedee Service System,” and then to christen their first mascot, a burger-headed cartoon figure also named Speedee, after it. That method is also what drew the interest of Ray Kroc who partnered with the brothers and undertook the franchising of the McDonald’s brand and its revolutionary approach, effectively turning it from a local restaurant into a global phenomenon.

Therein lies the controversy implied in the film’s title. Late in the movie, Kroc introduces himself to another character as “The Founder” in a moment loaded with dramatic irony. As viewers we of course know that the McDonalds brothers were the “real” founders of their burger restaurant. The moment is meant to crystallize Kroc’s betrayal of the brothers’ legacy and it symbolizes the point at which Kroc usurps the company, essentially snatching it away from his two business partners.

As viewers, we’re meant to ask, “How could Kroc even think of himself as the founder when he wasn’t there in the beginning and he didn’t invent anything?” Hancock is unambiguous in crediting the McDonald brothers with the traditionally understood traits of founders as genius inventors or a preternatural innovators. Kroc, by contrast, is portrayed much less sympathetically, as a businessman who has low regard for the brothers’ founding vision. In some ways, the movie also implies that Kroc would not have been successful without McDonald’s. Before encountering the Speedee system, it shows him working as a traveling salesman, chasing elusive entrepreneurial dreams with middling success.

Yet there’s another, less idealistic interpretation of these events that’s worth examining. Kroc may not have been the originator of everything that became McDonald’s, but it’s clear that he saw its larger potential and that he undertook the work that was necessary to turn it into a huge corporation. The McDonald brothers had in fact tried to franchise their restaurant, but failed miserably. It was Kroc who turned the concept into a real, thriving business—a Herculean task of its own. It may have been the brothers who started that burger stand, but there’s a reasonable argument that it was Ray Kroc’s own hard work and sacrifices that truly “made” the company. The McDonald brothers founded a restaurant called McDonald’s. Ray Kroc founded the McDonald’s empire.

To Hancock’s credit, he does allow for this reading; he shows us that Kroc’s mantra is persistence, that he believes an unwillingness to give up is the key element in succeeding in business as an entrepreneur. We see Kroc listening to motivational recordings extolling the values of persistence early on, as a traveling salesman in a cheap motel room, without much in the way of success to show for his efforts. And then we see it again at the very end of the film, as Kroc stands in front of a mirror in an expensive tuxedo, rehearsing a triumphant address he’s about to deliver to an audience. The text of his speech echoes the recordings he listened to early on. It’s a key moment that demonstrates the importance of that concept in the realization of his ambitions.

As a designer myself, I’m naturally drawn to tales of brilliant insights and breakthrough designs, and it was fascinating to learn that the origin of McDonald’s was in part the story of inventive design. And, given the way the McDonald’s brand has changed over the years and become a signifier of questionable quality on a mass scale, it’s tempting to look upon Kroc’s achievements as a betrayal of a pure notion of design.

But setting aside the movie’s bias towards the brothers and what we know about the company today, what’s clear from watching “The Founder” is that the work of building a business has a value of its own. For me, this is the most interesting idea from this movie: that there’s always a tension between creation and business, and that ideas, for all their power, sometimes—often—realize their potential only through persistence.