Don't Let Bad Menu Design Muddle Your Message

Menu design can make or break your restaurant.

Long before food hits the table, customers have likely read something about your restaurant that could be damaging. No, it’s not another Yelp review—it’s your menu. More specifically: its design.

Considering all the attention restaurateurs pay to ensuring a solid dining experience, menu design is often neglected.

“From the moment the menu is placed in your hands—how it feels, how much it weighs, how easy it is to read or not—it starts to influence your perception about the food,” says Armin Vit, principal at UnderConsideration and editor of Art of the Menu, a blog dedicated to highlighting and reviewing printed restaurant menus around the world. To ensure your menu isn’t dragging you down, three designers share tips on putting your best menu face forward.  

1. Ditch the Lamination

“When you arrive at a nice place and they give you a laminated menu that feels cheap, the expectations have already been set low,” Vit says. Instead, invest in custom clipboards. “It’s a cool-looking device that gives an air of industrialness, and to boot, it holds menu pages in place. We also see a lot of wood planks, some with the logo burned or etched on it.”

2. Get More Bang for Your Buck

As a rule of thumb, it’s better to buy in bulk. “The biggest breaks in pricing come from quantity,” says Bryant Ross, a Boston-based designer and creative director. “Many restaurants look toward modularity as a solution—one example is running larger quantities of a pre-printed shell with base branding and graphics that can then be laser-imprinted with menu content in small batches.”

3. Size Matters

“Font legibility should always be considered—especially in restaurants with lowered lighting,” Ross says. He suggests larger fonts or wider, open letterforms that work better at a smaller size. Tiny, light fonts are not ideal for low lighting situations either, Vit says, adding that aligning information in a streamlined, vertical manner is more important than the type choice, as it allows customers to see all the prices in the same visual space.  

4. Weighty Matters

Wear and tear is a major reason to invest in stronger paper. “Text-weight paper stock is typically more cost effective, but you need to consider the full investment in your menu,” Ross says. “Text-weight paper would require a backer or sleeve for protection and stability. Cover-weight stocks, although seemingly more expensive at first, could ultimately be more affordable as they do not necessarily require a holder.”

Sean Wilkinson, principal at Might & Main, a design firm, printed the cocktail menu at Eventide Oyster Co. in Portland, Maine, on a PVC-based paper with an aqueous coating, bound with a Chicago screw. “If that menu gets dirty, you can dunk the whole thing in a sink and wipe it dry,” he says.

5. Don’t Pull Out All the Bells and Whistles

“One of the more pervasive trends is to use five or seven different fonts of very different styles all screaming different things: Salads! Steak! Beer!” Vit says. “Restaurateurs see menus like a plate where you can put these seemingly varied ingredients to make a cohesive dish. Sometimes it works; sometimes it’s confusing.”

Wilkinson recommends short, punchy headlines and item titles with interesting display fonts. “Item descriptions and longer entries benefit from the inherent readability of serif typefaces—nothing with too much distracting character,” he says.

“Some of our favorites around here have been Clarendon, Trade Gothic and Gotham—traditional hardworking typefaces with humility and personality.”

6. Consult An Expert

Just because you can change the font size in an email doesn’t mean you should design your own menus. “A menu is a complex presentation of information and aesthetic decisions,” Wilkinson says. “If you’re not familiar with typographic info design, consult a professional. Even if you’re happy with your establishment’s current branding and design, a well-trained eye can lend a new dimension to your menu. If you must go it alone, chose one or two easy-to-read fonts, consider visual hierarchy and keep it clean.” 

When Extra Credit Is Worth the Effort 

These restaurants did their homework to make unforgettable menus.

Paper Matters
Chef-owner Curtis Duffy spends 90 cents per sheet of embossed paper for menus at his 64-seat restaurant, Grace, in Chicago, totaling nearly $300 per week.

The Personal Touch
At Sixteen, also in Chicago, the staff dreamed up a 24-page, hand-sketched guidebook for its fall 2013 menu, producing 50 copies in-house.

Hand It In
Cocktail bar Noble Experiment in San Diego taps a calligrapher to handwrite its seasonal menus, which are then scanned, printed and ripped by hand to create a unique torn-edge look.

Digital Exclusive

Break It Down
Chalkboard menus are common, but a butchery diagram menu is a point of differentiation. At Urban Farmer, a steakhouse in Portland, Oregon, a large chalkboard menu breaks down the different cuts to make the menu. It educates diners on where the meat comes from and also tracks which cuts are available.