Designer Meal

Neither a culture-jamming, entirely subversive set of proposed designs, nor a celebration of the McDonald’s fast-food empire, the McDonald’s Project exhibit at the Design Exchange in Toronto offers viewers the chance to look at the hamburger chain with perspectives that most of us never adopt.

With a series of proposals that run the gamut from new marketing ideas for pseudo-products to physical media and paraphernalia associated with the restaurant chain, the ReleaseI design collective asks what the culture will tolerate in its permissiveness of unchecked business growth. In this regard, some proposals are remarkable as political critiques, while others parody marketing schemes or offer creative and probable new ones.

In Green (2003), for instance, designers Ben Beck and Stephanie Howard suggest through model photographs a “home-grown” organic menu, green-coloured arches on the outside of the franchise and a mix of familiar chain restaurant architecture with greenhouses or a farm adjacent to each outlet. Regionally-inspired menus would promote local businesses and increase awareness of the environment. Garth Roberts’ hilariously titled Bib of Liability (2003) reflects the litigious angle of client-business relationships: the scheme requires patrons to don suits that are modified (parts are removed) to ensure personal safety during meal consumption. A glove is removed from the suit to drink hot coffee, signalling an awareness on the part of the consumer of the potential to burn oneself while consuming the coffee and providing a waiver of liability for the business.

In M, by Ryan McManus and Charlotte McManus, a silver M with a new font than that of the current McDonald’s brand logo takes its cue from the re-branding trends that are so ubiquitous in marketing culture today. The new metaphor in the form of the brand, Release1 suggests, includes a re-design of the cuisine and the aesthetics. A high-end version of the familiar face is put forward in a branding exercise of empire-building. Similarly, the Nappy Meal (2003) by Ron Ruiz builds a brand by combining the packaging of the food with the familiarity of trademark faux red hair for instant recognition. The industry can create brand loyalty, the scheme suggests, even through the seemingly revolting marriage of the red hair to the food package. The Gateway Arches (2003) by Eric M. Johnson is a proposed monument in the spirit of frontiersmen and settlers but in the case of this large M, the corporation is the frontiersman at the helm of capitalist expansion. Notions of nation-building are transferred to corporate take-over and unbridled profit seeking in one of the more political statements of the exhibit.

Finally, though Release1 tells us it chose McDonald’s as its canvas for redesigns because of the chain’s “enormous infrastructure, vast cultural impact and international presence,” the collective claims the McDonald’s Project is not a culture-jamming effort but “a bittersweet version of what our culture could become.” It comes as no surprise, then, that the first piece the curators chose to display in the room is Empire, (2003) by Kevin Askling. The text under these maps of the world states, “what the world would look like if having a McDonald’s were the litmus test for existing in the world economy. All countries with a McDonald’s would be represented, others are erased.”

It turns out McDonald’s are located in 121 out of approximately 190 countries worldwide.

The McDonald’s Project by Release1 runs to the end of November at Toronto’s Design Exchange. Release1 is a group of seven Canadian and American designers. Visit