Extra Special Sauce—McDonald’s HQ Reimagined

Read Time: 7.5 minutes

When McDonald’s Corporation chose a new location for their headquarters in Chicago’s West Loop, they assembled a team that included IA Interior Architects, Studio O+A and Leviathan to create a physical space and digital interactives that send a powerful message about the company’s future direction.

Building MHQ
Sometimes, that extra special sauce makes all the difference; for the McDonald’s Corporation headquarters design, it came in the form of a renowned lineup of architects, designers and technologists. Gensler, IA Interior Architects, Studio O+A and Leviathan worked with McDonald’s Agency123 to create much more than an appealing workspace—the new, nine-story, 490,000-square-foot building in Chicago’s West Loop embodies the fast food giant’s goals for the future.

Over three years ago, McDonald’s teamed up with collaborator, IA Interior Architects, to help the company find and design a larger, more modern urban space. This tech-enhanced, collaborative workspace would replace a suburban cubicle-bedecked, multi-building complex—and more importantly, move the company forward by bringing together 2,000 local Chicago-area employees, providing areas designed to spark organic interpersonal exchanges like robust amenities, yet still accommodate traditional office needs, like quiet work areas.

The vision for the space was of an immersive experience that would take visitors and employees alike into the heart of an ambitious, globally-minded company—one grounded in steady commitments to educational, charitable and social causes, while working toward a sustainable future. Agency123 communicated a desire for simplicity, timelessness and brand consistency throughout the massive building that occupies an entire city block, complete with culinary lab, sound studios, UX and tech labs, kitchen, café, fitness center and global restaurant all built around a central staircase atrium. Each floor tells the story of part of the brand’s innovative success, from its flavors to its communities.

Navigating MHQ
Together with a number of partners, including Studio O+A, the IA team led by Principals Neil Schneider and Julie Maggos, advised on architectural modifications and designed the interiors in addition to leading the signage and wayfinding effort. The goals for the wayfinding system included: a streamlined system for workstation navigation, optimizing for employee interaction and taking advantage of street-level visibility. Part of the street-level signage effort centered on clearly defining the two main entry points—the HQ lobby for corporate visitors, and the “Hamburger University” lobby for owner/operator visitors.

“The building is itself a full city block and hosts many visitors daily, so it was crucial to map the user experience very explicitly,” writes Maggos. “[We] designed a plan to make circulation in this vertical campus simple but intentional; this driver serves the additional goal of aiding in those necessary, everyday moments of interpersonal interaction.” The size of the building necessitated the floorplans to be split into North, South, East and West quadrants with appropriate room numbering and directional signs at key decision points.

The straightforward system is consistent, minimal and clean, set in the McDonald’s typeface, Akzidenz Grotesque, with pops of the brand yellow only on the return edges of the plaques—indicating without adornment. Amenity Spaces like the Ray Kroc room in Hamburger University and Quiet Rooms are identified with large dimensional letters in a blackened steel finish that integrate with the architecture. The integrated simplicity has been well-received; Maggos reports that the Hamburger University sign located on busy Randolph Street is one of the most Instagrammed moments of the headquarters experience.

Discovering MHQ
Eight months before the headquarters opening, McDonald’s corporate and Agency123 sought out the help of a West Loop neighbor two blocks north—specialized creative agency Leviathan—to deliver rich digital experiences for the space. Company leaders came into the project prepared with numerous ideas that ranged from simple welcome boards to Ronald McDonald House donor profiles and in-depth promotional tools. “In collaboration with Agency123 and with their strategic insight and direction, we set out to design the digitally unexpected, to deliver innovative stories that resonate with visitors, placing humans at the forefront of technology,” says Leviathan’s Chief Creative Officer, Jason White.

Eight floors now house interactive walls, educational stations and personalized experiences for guests and employees alike—highlighting different aspects of the business, like Ronald McDonald House Charities and Hamburger University, their attributes and goals. “Although each of the experiences is housed within McDonald’s Headquarters, individual touchpoints feature content that is unique to specific business units within the organization, each having its own set of identity standards and messaging practices,” remarks Leviathan’s Executive Creative Director, Kyle Shoup. “We had to be careful to remain true to each of these identities aesthetically, while providing a consistent interaction experience throughout.”

The compressed timeline—the bulk of the work was completed in a three-month span—large stakeholder group and number of digital experience deliverables meant the Leviathan team had to work and scale quickly; up to 20 team members worked on the project at any given time and partners at Envoy took on certain development tasks to assist in the effort. “Because of the number of interactives and the various business units within the organization, the content collection and approval processes were big endeavors,” added Leviathan’s Executive Producer Luvy Delgado. “Building all of the experiences to be able to scale in content and possibly to live in different locations presented even more daunting challenges.”

Despite the short development window, the corporate teams understood the need for prototyping. Leviathan made smaller scale mockups in the studio, bringing the client group in to provide feedback that, in turn allowed the team to make adjustments—often in real time. The Leviathan team used a suite that included software like TouchDesigner and web development tools in conjunction with hardware like Realsense cameras sensing for motion and proximity for experiences like the Hamburger University and Hall of Visionaries walls. The sensors allow for ambient modes to mimic movement, drawing visitors in and triggering a full presentation of interactive options.

The ample number of distinct considerations notwithstanding, Leviathan’s holistic solution is driven through a single, robust content management system. The custom CMS seamlessly facilitates the deployment of every type of content across all of the interactives, from corporate photos and videos to social media hashtag feeds and gives internal managers an intuitive way to keep things fresh.

“This is one of the single largest projects we’ve had to deliver assets for in our company’s history,” remarked Leviathan’s CEO Chad Hutson. “We came away learning how to operate more efficiently and having supported one of the most globally-recognized brands on this scale, we feel ready to tackle anything.”

“And to add to that: In short,” concludes White, “we’ve co-created a revolutionary visitor experience that inspires, empowers, and builds everlasting impressions. And, the adventure continues with McDonald’s leadership: We have just been invited by Agency123 to help create two exciting new MHQ interactives that will debut in the months ahead.”

Experiencing MHQ
A large LED screen in the HQ lobby—the first digital touchpoint for the public—provides compelling original content that evolves throughout the day and season to season. Ascending to the second floor, visitors encounter a digital installation which introduces them to RMHC and the charitable arm of the organization: an interactive educational kiosk defined by a large-scale mosaic presentation. The kiosk’s content is constantly updated to relate RMHC’s impact.

Also on the second floor, the largest of the interactive experiences offers a warm welcome to the week’s Hamburger University trainees. Responding to motion and touch and capable of accommodating dozens of concurrent interactions simultaneously, this powerful experience educates through interactive timelines and an expansive video archive, inviting users to engage directly with the brand’s far-reaching legacy.

Near the Hamburger University Interactive, a wall with over a hundred wooden-framed digital displays updates to show photos of each “university student” in current attendance, with the addition of fun personal facts. The unique setup requires multiple computers, but all work in harmony in “graduation takeover” mode which celebrates class completion.

On the third floor, RMHC donors are showcased in another interactive display, allowing sorting and further information discovery related to the charity’s contributors. Another installation on this floor brings the company’s quest for sustainability to life vibrantly; tapping the screen has the potential to launch a rich-media exploration into the ways McDonald’s is using its scale for the good of all.

The Hall of Visionaries installation makes its home among the executive offices on MHQ’s eighth floor. Activated by motion, any encounter with the experience conjures a kaleidoscopic and moving video tribute to prominent cultural figures who began their careers at McDonald’s.

Oh, and there’s a McDonald’s Global Restaurant at MHQ, too.


Project Name: McDonald’s Global Headquarters
Client: McDonald’s Corporation
Location: Chicago
Open Date: June 2018
Project Area: 490,000 sq ft
Architecture: IA Interior Architects, Studio O+A (interior architecture); Gensler (architect of record)
Interactive Experience Design: Leviathan
Wayfinding Design: IA Interior Architects
Fabrication: AVI-SPL (digital integration), Waveguide, LLC (A/V consulting), Moss (fabrication)
Collaborators: Agency123
Photography: McDonald’s Corporation, Garrett Rowland (photography); Leviathan (photography, videography)