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8 Menu Design Tips From the Pros

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Dec 4, 2020

Tripleseat News

Dec 4, 2020

8 Menu Design Tips From the Pros

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A menu may not be the first thing customers see at your restaurant, but it is one of the most powerful communication tools in your business. A menu is a thesis of sorts — it should reflect the overall vision of your business while setting expectations for your guests early in their dining experience.

We wanted to know what it takes to create the perfect menu design — one that conveys your brand, impresses guests, and (most importantly) helps them decide what to order. So, we turned to the experts.

Staci Janik owns her own visual design and art direction company — she’s worked with restaurants like Kimball House in Atlanta. Ryan Lee is a designer and creative director who has worked with restaurants like Mister Jiu’s in San Francisco. Brett Andrew Miotti is a graphic designer who has worked with restaurants like The Lawrence, in Atlanta.

We chatted with them about the main elements that make up a well-designed menu, what to avoid during the process, and how to best work with a designer for your desired result.

1. Content first, design second

Restaurants are full of creative types. A chef’s art is food, a bartender’s is potable concoctions, and a sommelier creates wine pairings to complete a guest’s experience. As you may know, part of being an artist is never feeling like your masterpiece is complete.

In restaurants, this need for creativity can translate into last-minute changes in menu items, and sometimes scrapping entire dishes. As difficult as it can be to get your team on the same page, you must do all your tasting, testing, and editing before you send the menu in to be designed. After all, less back-and-forth is better for both your designer and your own bottom line.

A menu from The Lawrence designed by Miotti.

2. Typography can have a huge impact

When it comes to the main elements that make up a great menu design, “typography is always going to be my first answer,” said Miotti. “But what really brings it home is the production of it.” He adds that the design should really reflect the experience of the restaurant as a whole.

Janik agrees: “Typography seems to be the most important element of good menu design. I also think a clear hierarchy is necessary so people can clearly tell the difference between the options and prices.” It’s a plus, she adds, if a menu has this as well as an interesting layout or added elements like an illustration or a tactile texture.

Typography can be a tool for conveying your brand aesthetic in a clear, direct way. And while we’re focusing on type, don’t forget to keep font size in mind. When the font is too small, it can polarize the guest. Many designers love negative space, but restaurants are often dark, and no one wants to take out their glasses or cell phone just to read the menu.

3. Speaking of copy, make sure it’s thoughtful

Do your dishes need a short explanation? Are your special items getting the attention they deserve? This is also a good time to think about the number of dishes you offer. Most people don’t actually want endless options. When faced with too many, they can experience “analysis paralysis,” which can make guests feel anxious about what they should order.

By offering a menu that’s not too exhaustive to read, you can make your restaurant a hospitable environment for your guest. “Visual pacing and organizational layout are really important, Lee said, “so that you can make sure people can comfortably read through the menu in a narrative that makes sense without becoming too overwhelmed with choices.”

4. Align the menu with your restaurant’s character

This may seem like a no-brainer, but this advice goes beyond making sure your restaurant’s brand is front and center on the menu. Consider leaving your logo off the menu entirely, since your guest has already made the choice to walk in your door.

Instead, focus on secondary branding (like your color scheme) or other fun details that will make your menu memorable. It’s also important to spell out your serving style. If your dishes are family-style, say so. If your menu is a three-course tasting, mention that, even if it’s a visual effect.

A menu from Kimball House designed by Janik. Photo: Whitney Ott

5. Keep your customer in mind

Lee said it’s also crucial to understand the value that design plays in the customer experience.

“The menu is an important piece of the overall dining experience that can affect things like how many beverages people are ordering, how much time it takes for people to order, which could also affect how much time and attention is required from the servers to make sure the customers understand everything,” he said.

6. Don’t go overboard

A menu must be readable, and while personality is all about the details, don’t let them distract from the food. After all, a guest should see food — not a menu. “The job of a menu is to communicate the offerings to people,” said Lee, “so it needs to deliver on functionality while also communicating a sense of the brand experience that you’re trying to create.”

At the end of the day, he says the menu can have a direct impact on the business, so making sure that the menus are easy to use and legible in the environment — factoring in elements like tablespace — is crucial.

7. Be clear about what you’re looking for from a designer

When it comes to creating or revamping a menu, setting aside a budget will help you and your designer work together with aligned expectations. “It’s a pretty big expense, and there are creative ways to cut costs when making decisions about the menu design, whether it is paper used, the style of printing, or how much it gets updated,” Janik said. “These are things that really have to be discussed before even beginning a menu design.”

Miotti adds that it’s wise to be open to a designer creating something memorable and unique for you. “Be upfront about any concerns regarding budget or the need to print updated menus in-house — a good designer can come up with some creative solutions.”

A menu from Mister Jiu’s designed by Lee.

8. Think outside the menu itself

If you think your menu needs a little pick-me-up, take a step back, and think about your restaurant branding as a whole. It’s important that the look and feel of your brand is fluid throughout the entire experience, from walking into the restaurant to picking up the check.

“On the conceptual side, for Mister Jiu’s, one of the brand goals was providing nice moments of surprise throughout the customer experience,” said Lee. “One way this manifested in the experience was when the check was brought to the table. We added the ultimate mahjong hand in gold on the check presenter … only mahjong players would get it, but it aligned with the brand experience we were looking to create.”

Menus are a crucial component, but they don’t stand alone. When you consider design elements in your restaurant, make sure it touches everything to deliver the ultimate guest experience.

More marketing resources

Need help with visual marketing beyond your menu? We’ve got several blog posts that have the tips you need to get your marketing noticed:

Editor’s Note: This is an updated blog post originally written by Morganne Lee that first appeared on the Gather blog.