A good menu is more than just a list of food and beverage options. It’s a key part of any restaurant’s brand, setting the tone for the rest of the dining experience. 970 Design is a boutique design and marketing agency based out of Vail, Colorado, with clients across the United States. Here, graphic designer Britt Felton shares some food for thought on menu design.
“I can’t tell you how many restaurants my husband has endured my complaining about how bad the menu is, and how I could have done it in a more beautiful and clear way.”
When graphic designer Britt Felton dines out, she’s not just looking for a good meal. She’s looking for good design.
“I think menus are often overlooked in the world of design as tools,” she explains. “When a menu is clever, good looking, and functional, that is a huge success—plus, a huge benefit to the restaurant.”
The importance of making a menu that’s not only beautiful but informative is something that’s often muddled in the restaurant and design industries. That’s why when Felton and the 970 Design team are hired to create a menu, they take a considered look at every piece of the project they are presented with. Simply churning out a canned menu design and washing their hands of it is not an option.
Consider the context
“We never say ‘Oh, well, they need a menu, so let’s just slap their brand on a pre-designed menu,’” Felton says. “We really enjoy looking at things like how bright the restaurant will be, how big are the tables, how much room is there for menus, will the menus be stationed on tables or brought by wait staff, who is the target demographic for the restaurant, etc.”
It’s this sort of attention to detail that has garnered numerous industry accolades for 970 Design, including an Awwwards Honorable Mention, and features on Best Designs and The Art of the Menu.
At the forefront of the team is Britt Felton. She’s been a designer for ten years, winning the American Graphic Design Award for Identity Design in 2013. One thing she loves about design is how it combines problem solving with pleasing visuals. “I couldn’t believe that this was what some people go to do for a living.”
When asked specifically about menu design, Felton lights up with excitement.
“I think menus are some of the more interesting things to design, because they are a tool.”
“If people can’t read it or don’t know how to navigate it, they won’t eat which will affect the restaurant’s success. So, I love the problem-solving aspect of it.”
Designing beautiful graphics to be tools
It's also important to consider how customers will interact with the menus after they receive them. Will they scan for a list of food items and just pick one? Or will you take them through a dining experience and lead them to the best items for them? Utilizing an easy-to-follow flow to the menu will allow the restaurant to highlight their food in a way that will increase sales and encourage return customers.
“One of the menus we designed was for the restaurant Root & Flower,” Felton says. “Their space was very narrow and small, since they only had about four tables and a bar. Their space had a very city and urban feel, in terms of scale and size, as well as style.”
Felton says it was one of her favorite design projects. “We created two options for them, as well as a custom wine aroma wheel. One solution was a large menu with everything on one piece of paper—this would have been the easiest to execute, and the budget conscious option.
“However, we felt that the field guide direction was much more on brand for them, plus, it fit the space. As soon as our clients saw this second option, they were sold. It felt like their brand, their vibe, and it fit their space. The success of that menu undoubtedly came from the care and time we took to understand their restaurant, space, and brand.”
Working with the client to capture their vision and yours
The most important part of any design project isn’t the graphic you create, but the relationship you foster with your client. “It’s paramount to us that we maintain a good relationship with our clients, and we keep their best interests in mind,” Felton says.
“We really listen to our clients, which helps us serve them better. We go in not having all the answers, because we are asking more questions, and sitting back listening, learning, and digesting so that we can come back to our clients with a design that suites their unique needs.”
So, how do you capture that unique vision the client has and make sure you’re staying true to your own design style? “I personally find that clients often dream small. I think most people don’t realize how much you can do with a menu, and how fun they can be,” Felton says. As a designer, this is the perfect opportunity to introduce your own ideas and give clients something they love—but more!
However, the designer’s personal preferences still need to stay on target with the client’s needs.
“You don’t want to pitch a high end, jackets menu to a restaurant that has grab and go—really understanding the type and vibe of the restaurant is helpful.”
That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to add in a personal flair, though. There’s always going to be an answer that will make both the restaurant and the designer happy. Felton advises, “Think about intent and usage as much as layout. A creative solution is out there if you really dive in.”
“We love to know exactly how the customer experience is going to be, so we can design a menu that interacts with the space and customer appropriately,” Felton states. She goes on to describe two projects that she’s worked on recently. “For instance, our Root & Flower menus came out of a need to have a ton of information on small tables. We designed the menus to be small pieces that all work together or individually so that they table wasn’t overwhelmed, but all their offerings were nicely displayed.”
“Another restaurant, Leyenda, had menus that were also interesting. We wanted to do a different take on a typical food and drink menu, so we created a gate fold with the food on one side, and drinks on the other. This client did not have a ton of information, but we still wanted to display it in a creative way.”
It’s also important to think about client retention when trying to capture the client’s visions. Simply put, if the client isn’t happy, they’re not coming back and they’re not referring their friends. “We have found that being good to our clients is the best thing we can do to gain more clients. They refer us, or people see the work we’ve done and seek us out,” Felton states proudly. “Work begets work and being good to people attracts good people to you.”
A design company’s marketing comes from their portfolio. Potential customers see their work out in the community and, ideally, want that skill set applied to their own design needs. Felton definitely agrees with this mindset, “Our company is really lucky that a lot of our leads come for our clients. We try to become champions of our client’s brands and be as passionate about it as they are. That feels good to our clients and they pass our name on.”
Staying on brand
A designer wants to make the client happy and make the menu an easy-to-follow tool. But it’s also important to match the style of the menu to the vibe and style of the restaurant. A high-end, embossed design might fit well in a fine dining French restaurant, but it would look ridiculous and out of place in a pub-style bar.
“If you have a huge menu on small tables, that would be a fail,” Felton explains. “It’s also important to incorporate the brand into menus. For Root & Flower, their brand was very much to educate patrons about wine and spirits. For a cocktail bar in Brooklyn that serves Latin American spirits, Leyenda, their brand was sassy and cheeky, but they wanted it to be subtle. So, we designed small illustrations that felt like traditional religious illustrations, but instead they were holding tacos and wine glasses.”
“Making mistakes with your type choices can also really mess with an otherwise great design,” Felton advises. “I see young designers who don’t have a good understanding of type then struggle with designs, which could be fixed with some tracking and a better font choice.”
Something as simple as font can be key to an effective design and make all the difference in the final product. The following two menus have completely different fonts and styles, yet each works with their own unique look in a way that brings the entire design together.
Ultimately, good design comes down to practice—and a little bit of trial and error. “When I look back at my old designs, I am amazed at how far I have come,” Felton admits. “Each design is a sign of my growth. I hope in another ten years I will look back on what I am working on now and see even more growth.”