Clean and simple

BusinessWeek leads the cheerleading for the upcoming McDonald’s redesign: such words as “cool” and “funky” and “Starbucks” are deployed — and of course it’s compared to the iPod. What else? The design halo for a successful product is so strong as to be hegemonic; the word iPod is like a talisman that is expected to automatically evoke state-of-the-art user-friendly fun, even though there is no meaningful way a restaurant’s design can mimic that of a hand-held music player. We all know iPods are of the moment, the objective correlative of up-to-dateness; McDonald’s “promises to be a forever young brand”; hence McDonald’s will be like iPods. Like Apple design, the new McDonald’s will be “simple” and “clean” — I wonder if there has ever been a redesign that wasn’t hailed as simple and clean — like “realism”, simplicity and cleanliness are always relative terms, their hallmarks changing over time to reflect novelty and trends. In other words, there is no Platonic ideal of simplicity, what is “simple” is always relative to what sort of complications a redesign is supposed to remedy.

In the case of McDonald’s upgrade, the complications involve jettisoning the “heavy plastic” look (which has been deemed dated and incompatible with the corporation’s new emphasis on selling healthiness) and incorporating a “linger zone.” In the past McDonald’s embraced the high capitalist ethic of efficiency, and sought to leverage the principles of motion studies and time management to maximize the numbers of burgers produced and consumed. The assembly line approach was “clean and simple” back in the ’50s and ’60s — no hassles like waiters to deal with, in fact, no waiting in general. From the godlike viewpoint of design, employees and customers were treated much the same, two sides of the same coin. Just as employees were limited in what they could do and given very little information to process and virtually no decision-making responsibility, so customers were offered a limited menu and were expected to accept food manufactured to pre-ordained specifications. Just as the work areas were designed to expunge loafing and shirking and talking and economize the motions of workers so that they could flip 14 burgers in 3.74 seconds and assemble 17 filets-o-fish in under a minute or whatever, so were the customers’ eating areas purposely designed to be uncomfortable so as to maximize turnover and discourage loitering by any undesirable deadbeats, who might sit there and talk to each other instead of cram cheeseburgers down their gullet. Thus the hard plastic unmovable chairs, the unappealing clown colors, the harsh lighting. Ideally you wouldn’t get out of your car at all, and you’d use the drive-through. It was the restaurant equivalent of the gas station, another evolving icon of post-war American culture, and I’m sure it struck Americans as clean and simple — you zip right through and get your standardized product and you’re comfortable in the knowledge that your service was no different than anyone else’s. Democracy in action.

Now democracy in action seems to mean providing movable chairs “for families”, a WiFi connection, plasma TVs for isolated, lonely eaters “to keep them company” and a few couches so that customers can “feel comfortable hanging out.” The old color scheme will be muted, and olive and terra cotta — Starbucks hues — will be introduced into the palette. Rather than process customers in a one-size-fits-all manner, the new McD’s offers three distinct zones for families, loiterers, and people in a hurry. Rather than express their contempt for you openly, that is, now they will conceal it behind some technological gimcracks and some upholstered chairs. So having abetted the atomization of American society, undermining traditional rituals of eating that once fostered polite society and turning food into on-the-go fuel, McDonald’s now wants to present the simulacrum of what it helped destroy, an ambiotronic environment in which the semblance of civility is exhibited for maximum marketing appeal. It wants to cater to the illusion that people have time to hang out, that people enjoy being in public with strangers, that its own food is something to be savored rather than inhaled on the run. The corporation can subsidize a few people hogging the comfy chairs and watching the TVs in order to give its bread-and-butter customers — the harried single people in a hurry — a warm, fuzzy feeling about what they are about to eat, as if a Big Mac can give them access to the laid-back linger-zone life by proxy. But most people, McDonald’s knows, don’t really want to linger. Rest assured, regardless of the redesign, the heart of McDonald’s will remain as hard a plastic as ever.