Menu Design – A Visual Optimization Guide
Once you’ve engineered your menu item by item, it’s time to consider how it will all look. In most cases, your physical menu will be the first interaction customers have directly with your products, brand and content. It’s no secret that menu design influences buying customer decisions, but you needn’t be a professional designer to put these principles to work for you! Here’s our quick and easy checklist for visually optimizing your menu!
Know your Identity (Pre-Planning)
If you don’t know your restaurant’s identity, you’ll struggle to make stylistic decisions on your menu. This isn’t to say that your creative decisions can’t change once you get rolling, but without a solid branding idea to work off of, you’ll find yourself haplessly tossing ideas into a hat, hoping for magic. Realistically, your brand should be the identity upon which all other aesthetics of your restaurant swing.
Determining your brand identity is certainly easier said than done, but it’s crucial to the pre-planning process. It may help to develop specific “buyer personas” wherein you identify your customers, their personalities, interests, and buying habits (for example: “Bill the student. He uses technology in his dining decisions and values efficiency and convenience”) and then cater directly to these specific personas. Do NOT skip this step and assume you’ll wing it later though. Trust us.
Presentation, Placement, and Layout
Once you’ve got a strong brand identity in place, it’s time to consider the visual components of your menu. First things first, determine your menu’s physical size and format. Your menu content will ultimately depend on how much space it has to frame it, so remember that an overly large menu can cause content to look sparse and a small menu can make your content look cramped. You want to leave ample room for your offerings along with appropriate space for photos and illustrations (see next section). Furthermore, decide if you want a traditional pamphlet style menu, a bi-fold, or a simple one-sheet printed front and back. There’s no right or wrong decision here, just ensure you’re not only considering content but the way in which it’s presented.
As such, your menu should be divided into thematically appropriate sections. This may seem like a no-brainer, but remember you want your customers to be able to locate a menu item quickly and easily. Consider using visual dividers and boxes to break up walls of text, or putting certain items in their appropriate thematic category (ex. The alcohol menu). Furthermore, whitespace is not a bad thing. Savvy designers use it to delineate between sections where appropriate.
Finally, follow traditional eye scanning patterns when organizing your menu. In western cultures, reading habits dictate left to right, top to bottom. In this regard, formulate your menu to match this with appetizers at the “beginning” of the menu and desserts at the end.
Use photos sparingly when it comes to menu design! Despite what Instagram culture may tell you, food photography is a legitimate art, replete with industry-specific tricks engineered to render food visually delicious, but technically inedible. It’s extremely technical and keep in mind that menus which feature a photograph accompanying each menu item are often associated with “Fast food” marketing. If it’s essential, choose photos that emphasize textures, individual ingredients or a “prestige” menu item. Don’t feel obligated to use photos though. Many successful menus don’t! Just remember that if you can’t arrange for a professional grade food photograph, an iPhone snapshot will not be a satisfactory replacement.
On the other hand, illustrations lend a trendy panache to your menu, and can also be engineered to further your brand. They have the added benefit of being fairly “timeless,” maintaining evergreen visual identities between rebrands and help ideas “pop off the page.” There are varying degrees of illustrations you can use, with some restaurants fully illustrating their entire menu and text, with others working small tasteful designs within the content.
Fonts are extremely important and can often take as long to decide upon as the actual menu content. Any designer will tell you: choose fonts that are easy to read and go easy on the super-stylized stuff. Sleek, san serif fonts are good for menu content, while you may opt for something a little more “scripted” for the food title. Ultimately, the strategy here is brand unity and readability…you don’t want a beautiful menu that no one can read!
Use colors that are thematic and appropriate to your restaurant (remember, if you know your brand ahead of time this won’t be difficult!). Make use of “emphasis colors” to draw attention to prestige menu items and don’t use too many colors or ones that clash. When printing, always request a hard copy proof. This may cost a bit extra but is worth its weight in gold. We’ve heard far too many horror stories of restaurant owners approving a PDF copy of a menu they receive via email, only to get them shipped and realize the colors are off. There’s no substitute for a tangible proof in your hands!
Don’t try and write the great American novel here. Keep your item descriptions short enough to grab the customer’s attention, but long enough to cover the subject appropriately (like a Tweet!), and remember you don’t NEED to be flowery and poetic if it doesn’t match your brand. A simple list of ingredients will often go a long way with customers trying to make a decision!
Many menu design authorities suggest removing the currency symbols for your menu. This is up to you, but many suggest it has a psychological effect on the customer with increased buying patterns on items without specific currency symbols.
Keep your verbiage on brand too. While it may be appropriate to adopt slang or stylistic dialect (for example a restaurant serving southern home cooking) but don’t get so slangy and esoteric that a new customer will feel lost. Remeber, they may be parsing it for problematic ingredients, so don’t make this harder than it needs to be. If your dishes necessitate any kind of jargon or industry-specific terminology, you might provide a key on the menu so they can decode it!
Use sensory language in any descriptions you provide. This is food you’re talking about, food you expect customers to put into their mouths! If you’re going to use narrative style descriptions, use words that relate to their senses and the experiences they’ll have eating it.
There’s more to great design than a snappy logo, so don’t hesitate to consult other resources to help! Outsourcing for a design is a great way to get professional level work and a visually distinctive presentation. If you utilize a local artist, you can build even more credibility with the community.
For those trying to make a go at it themselves, you can implement free design software (like Canva) which gives you access to a vector and font library and a drag n’ drop UI for menu layouts.
The internet is awash with “menu design inspo” blogs too, for those who’ve hit a creative wall and need to caffeinate their senses!
While Menu Design is a multifaceted affair, establishing a strong brand idea off the top, then following through this checklist, will help you come across polished, unique and buzzworthy.
Subscribe to the blog for more interesting restaurant content!
About the Author
Dylan Chadwick is a Content Marketing Specialist at QSR Automations. He graduated from Brigham Young University with an English degree and journalism focus and loves to write about technology. When left to his own devices, he enjoys loud music, adorable dogs and documentaries about the aforementioned.