Sex in Branding: Louis Cheskin and the McDonald’s Logo

We’ve all seen this logo a million times, but have you ever seen a pair of breasts in it? Sounds absurd, I know – surely only Beavis and Butthead could see that. But here’s the story of how this theory once saved the ‘golden arches’ from getting tossed out with the trash entirely – and why it might not be so crazy.

In the late 1960’s, McDonald’s was demolishing its original buildings and replacing them with what would become the new frontier of American dining: the drive-through restaurant. The company hired design consultant and psychologist Louis Cheskin to help navigate this transition. When McDonald’s considered abandoning the golden arches that were distinctive architectural features of their restaurants, Cheskin objected. He argued that the golden arches should stay because they symbolized a pair of breasts: “mother McDonald’s breasts,” as he put it (source: Fast Food Nation). Not only did the arches stay, but they were integrated into the McDonald’s corporate logo, and with it, the American cultural landscape.

During this time period, the ripple effects of Freudian theory were continuing to reshape the world. Cheskin’s suggestion that the shape of the golden arches has a subconscious sexual meaning in the mind of the viewer is a deeply Freudian concept. Freud believed that most of our impulses are influenced by libido and early childhood experience. He also said that “We are effectively cognitive icebergs with most of our ‘thoughts’ occurring below the water line.”

Was it absurd for Louis Cheskin to imply sexual/reproductive/fertility symbolism in the shape of the golden arches – or was he correct that we perceive this sexual imagery somewhere ‘below the water line’ of our conscious thoughts? I doubt that many have ever looked at that logo and had that conscious Beavis and Butthead moment (“Huh-huh. Looks like boobs”). But the logo has become one of the world’s most iconic, and Cheskin-style ‘hidden persuasion’ branding has only increased in popularity. While there’s no way to measure the image’s subconscious resonance, I believe the symbolism is there on a subtle level.

Freud’s emphasis on the impact of early formative experiences applies to the McDonald’s brand, too. According to the BBC, “psychologists confirm a theory that (McDonald’s founder) Ray Kroc and Walt Disney traded upon, that ‘brand loyalty’ can be established by the age of two.” Much of McDonald’s business – the playgrounds, the clown, the happy meal – are aimed at children. And to what demographic would subconscious, pre-language symbolism of breasts be most potent? You don’t have to be Freud to figure that one out.

What Does the Nike Logo Mean?

Nike Swoosh Meaning

The Nike logo, known as the ‘Swoosh,’ is formed by two simple curved lines. It’s just about the simplest logo imaginable, and yet it carries with it billions of dollars worth of accumulated branding and marketing associations. So what does it mean?

At its most fundamental level, the Swoosh represents motion and speed. The shape depicts an arc of movement. The word ‘swoosh’ is onomatopoeia for the sound you’d hear as Lebron James or Michael Jordan zips past you en route to a spectacular dunk. In Greek mythology, Nike is the Winged Goddess of Victory. The mythological associations for the brand Nike are flight, victory, and speed. The goddess Nike had the power to fly – and so did Michael Jordan. His signature shoes included the Jordan Flight and the Air Jordans. His most famous Nike poster was known as the ‘Wings’ poster.

Swoosh Meaning Nike

The power of flight: Greek statuette of the winged goddess Nike (left), Nike megastar Michael Jordan in iconic mid-air dunk (right).

Origin of the Swoosh

The Swoosh was designed by a college student (!) named Carolyn Davidson for a mere $35 (!!!) in 1971. Davidson not only designed the Swoosh but also suggested the name Nike as an alternative to founder Phil Knight’s other idea for a brand name: ‘Dimension 6.’ She was subsequently employed by Nike and later compensated further with a gold Swoosh ring and Nike stock (see video). Whatever they gave her, I doubt it was enough given the immensity of her contribution.

“Brands, Not Products”

To say that the Nike Swoosh represents motion and speed is only to inspect the surface of the design. The logo now carries with it the connotations of long-term, multi-billion dollar branding efforts. It represents transcendence through sports. It carries with it decades worth of affiliated basketball herosim, urban hip-hop attitude, and more.

Naomi Klein’s book No Logo is essential reading for anyone interested in branding. In it, Klein describes Nike’s philosophy of brand over product: long ago, Nike shifted its focus almost entirely to branding and marketing, while outsourcing production to cheap foreign contractors. This way, they could sell something much bigger than a pair of shoes: a lifestyle. According to Nike founder Phil Knight, “There is no value in making things anymore. The value is added by careful research, by innovation and by marketing.”

No, It’s Not a ‘Check Mark’

I used to teach an art class for teens and I often liked to pick their brains about the logos they saw on their favorite products, their urban surroundings – and on their feet. The Nike logo was inevitably present in the room on someone’s kicks. I’d ask the group, “So what does the Nike logo mean?” The most common answer was, “it’s a checkmark.” Well, a checkmark has a hard angle between two straight lines (like the Verizon logo). The Swoosh is curved. Because it’s not a check mark.

Deceptive Simplicity

If graphic design has an equivalent of Michael Jordan, it’s my hero Paul Rand (designer of some of history’s most recognizable logos, including those of IBM and UPS). Rand once said, “Design is so simple, that’s why it is so complicated.” The Nike Swoosh derives its complexity from its simplicity. It’s the most basic form you can imagine – only two lines. It is precisely this simplicity which allows it to thrive in so many different contexts, to carry the brand on its own (with or without the accompanying word ‘NIKE’), and to absorb and reflect so much brand messaging.

The Face of Predictability

alibaba logo

Sometimes, a bad logo goes big time.

On Friday, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba was the subject of a mammoth IPO frenzy. The explosively successful site garners comparisons to cultural monoliths like Amazon and Google – and yet its low budget, predictable logo looks like it was designed by an intern in an hour. The logo embeds the face of a satisfied customer in a lowercase ‘a,’ which feels like it was the designer’s first idea and first sketch. Sure, your first idea can sometimes be your best – but in logo design, it’s often the most predictable and the most dull. It pays to proceed beyond the immediate choices in order to differentiate your brand with a concept that has character or that customers don’t expect. This, however, is the kind of logo design I’d expect to emerge from a crowdfunding site where thousands of designers phone it in with the hopes of making $5.

The brand name is rendered in Univers, which again seems like a default choice in this context. Might as well just fire up Illustrator and leave the Type tool set to Myriad. Visually, the one thing the brand has done right is to choose a memorable color and stick to it.

Alibaba Chairman Jack Ma celebrated such an enormous milestone last week. Each time I saw his logo on a NYSE screen behind him, I thought he deserved better. But this is a company that started in a small apartment on a shoestring budget. Maybe now that Jack Ma has taken it to the top, it’s time to hire a pro to design a proper brand identity. Keep the orange and scrap the rest.

The ‘Unknown Known’ in Branding

Here’s something you might not know about your logo or brand identity: the point of designing a logo for your business is not to choose one that you like. The goal is to design a logo that communicates to your audience. Ideally, you can achieve both – but communication is the only goal that really matters.

Sometimes I see a certain type of poorly designed logo, and I think, I bet the business owner really loves that. Take, for example, the independent gym that uses the really cute mascot for their logo. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with cuteness, but it’s probably not going to motivate anyone to jog or whale on their pecs. Using any style just because you’re personally enamored with it might be a costly mistake. Then there’s the jazz musician I encountered who used a baffling nonsensical symbol as his logo. “What does it mean?” I asked. “Oh nothing, I’ve just love it because I’ve been using it forever.” Wrong answer.

The Errol Morris documentary The Unknown Known is about Donald Rumsfeld and the confounding smokescreens he used to justify war. The title refers to Rumsfeld’s definition of the things we think we know but don’t really know. The unknown known of your business may be the impression your brand creates on your audience. If you are confusing how much you like it with how it is perceived, then you are likely unaware of the impression you are creating.

What’s the solution? It can be helpful to ask customers what they think your logo means. Don’t ask them if they like it – they’ll likely flatter you – ask them what it means. You can also do A/B testing or polling.

But most importantly, make sure you work with a branding professional instead of hiring Cousin Steve to design your logo. Doesn’t have to be this branding professional – just someone who will make their first priority the most important one: to design a logo that communicates.

“Everything that we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see.” –Martin Luther King, Jr.

Review: Climate Change Logo by Milton Glaser


Legendary designer Milton Glaser created the above logo to accompany a climate change initiative called It’s Not Warming It’s Dying. The logo is also used in several other formats: in an animated version seen on, and on the buttons sold there.

But what is it? The logo is meant to represent a dying Earth, where green is overwhelmed by a creeping black Death. However, when seen on its own without any accompanying text (as it appears on the buttons – the campaign’s primary element), the logo is merely an abstract colored shape. Simply put, the logo fails to communicate on its own. When Brian Lehrer pressed the designer on this issue, Mr. Glaser responded, “The relationship between dark and light is always something people implicitly know.” Kind of a quizzical response that fails to answer the core problem: if you saw a friend wearing this button, you’d have no idea what it was meant to represent. In fact, it looks message-free. You might not notice it at all.

The work on the slogan messaging is more successful. ‘It’s Not Warming It’s Dying’ is a powerful phrase that takes aim at the innocuous language often used around this subject, attempting to replace it with more dire and urgent words. Perhaps this slogan should have been central to the identity.

Milton Glaser designed the ‘I♥NY’ logo – one of the most recognizable and communicative logos on Earth. That logo speaks with such boldness and clarity, it has become truly iconic – an image synonymous with the thing it represents. Based on the knowledge that Mr. Glaser is capable of using design to define a message so thoroughly and permanently, his ‘It’s Not Warming’ logo is extra disappointing.

“There is no more significant issue on earth than its survival,” Glaser told Dezeen Magazine. I couldn’t agree more, and working to advance the conversation about climate change is a noble cause. This subject deserves to be embodied by compelling design that will spur great action – but I don’t think this is it.

An Experiment in Subliminal Branding

One of the most read posts on my blog, from 2010, is about subconscious meaning in logo design. In the past twenty years or so, dynamic brand identity has largely been favored over static logo design. Everything moves now, from fluid responsive website designs to animated brand identity. Subtle meaning or visual presence is no longer limited to the shapes in a static form. How, I wondered, might subliminal or subconscious imagery be used in the era of motion branding?

Here, as an experiment, I inserted the logo of a famous rock star into the wonderful BFI identity by Johnson Banks. Can you spot it? What is the effect of seeing a mark for a fraction of a second – does it make a subtle impression on the mind, even if you don’t consciously acknowledge it? No copyright infringement is intended here; it’s an experiment created out of curiosity.

BFI Subliminal

The idea of subliminal branding is insidious. No one wants Coca Cola brainwashing them. But ever since I learned about William Friedkin’s use of subliminal messages (through the use of very brief images in a moving picture) in The Exorcist and Cruising, I have been fascinated by these techniques. What do you think?

Punk’s Not Dead

Update: the shirt went to print! Thanks to all who supported this project.

My new t-shirt design, “Punk’s Not Dead,” is available for a limited time at Cotton Bureau! I need to sell at least 12 shirts in order for them to print it. Please support the shirt by buying one today! It’s a limited chance to wear this awesome design – my first since everyone’s favorite, The Party Werewolf. Thank you!

Punk's Not Dead Shirt