The legacy of the Golden Arches

As McDonald’s turns 80, Craig Burston, senior lecturer in graphic and media design at UAL’s London College of Communication, considers the impact of the brand’s iconic arches

On 15 May 1940, in San Bernardino, California, brothers Richard and Maurice McDonald opened a restaurant serving barbecue and burgers. Eighty years on, what started life as a modest brotherly venture is now one of the world’s most instantly recognisable brands.

A big part of the brand’s success – other than the inimitable taste of its hamburger, and its ‘speedee’ service, as it was originally known, before ‘fast food’ became a common expression – is its iconic branding.

The McDonald’s brand isn’t just visual, but physical. Its bold colour combination of yellow and red alludes to a playful, plastic universe of fun. One where energy and happiness is synonymous with easy eating, convenience and speed. And that world-famous ‘M’, so immediately identifiable, inspires an almost bizarre level of excitement in children in every country it’s seen.

Though those glowing, golden arches are now synonymous with the prospect of a Big Mac and fries, it wasn’t actually until 1961 that they were incorporated into the McDonald’s logo.

Instead, the brand had initially started with the slogan McDonald’s Famous Barbecue, before switching to McDonald’s Famous Hamburgers, and then McDonald’s: Coast to Coast, in various, much less iconic, graphic iterations.

A McDonald’s sign in Monrovia, California that has its historic architecture and logo. Image: David Tonelson /

It was Jim Schindler, the company’s head of construction and engineering, who birthed the first iteration of the mark based on two giant arches, yellow in colour, that appeared on restaurant buildings – totems to a future of convenience as luxury.