A brand is a restaurant’s calling card – and often the diner’s first impression of the eatery. Branding communicates a restaurant’s identity, which explains why some operations spend a year or more honing their logo, menus, signage and printed materials.

Standing out among a new generation of artistically-executed custom designs gets tougher each day, making it crucial for many restaurants to partner with artists and graphic designers.

Follow these guidelines to make the most of the artistic partnership.

Branding Firms vs. Independent Designers

If you’re lost when it comes to branding, working with a full-service firm will save time, but it may cost more because it’s doing the legwork. Branding agencies suss out a business’s brand and translate it to tangible assets. Often, once a logo is finalized, the agency creates ancillary pieces like menus, materials for advertising campaigns, business cards and postcards.

To find a reputable firm, get referrals from other restaurants whose design and brand you admire. Or cut to the chase by using a firm that has experience branding restaurants.

If you have a clear idea of your visual identity and just need it translated to print, go with an independent designer. Marc Rose and Med Abrous commissioned artist Claire Oswalt o create the logo for their latest Los Angeles venture, Winsome. Wild peacocks in the restaurant’s Echo Park area inspired Oswalt’s elegant black line drawing for the logo. 

Oswalt is versed in graphic design, so she also created marketing materials. However, not all artists have design training or software. If you’re set on using a particular artist or piece, you may have to hire a graphic designer as well.

Help Them Help You

Before starting, prepare. Articulating your restaurant’s food, demographic and philosophy will help the designer understand your concept. “Someone might say, ‘We want a modern feel,’ but when you really get into it, you see what they truly want isn’t modern at all,” says Jeff Moore, founding partner of Green Olive, an Atlanta-based agency. 

Play Nice

Ensure a successful, positive experience with your branding partner by establishing your expectations. Your ideas should be welcome – but expect them to be questioned, tweaked or even dismissed. Ask questions and push for examples, but overall, trust the agency’s judgment as the design professionals.

If you’re seeking more execution than collaboration, be clear at the outset. Chef-owner Richard DeShantz has worked with the same graphic designer for all five of his Pittsburgh restaurants, because the designer is familiar and comfortable with DeShantz’s strict vision. “I just need a designer to bring my specific logo to life,” he says.

Avoid never-ending revisions and projects. Most firms stipulate the number of revisions and the length of time their fees cover. Sticking to the contracted time frame usually limits extra costs, results in a better product and maintains a good working relationship.

The Fine Print

Expect to pay between $2,000 and $10,000 for an independent graphic designer. Because larger firms enlist more staff members and resources, their fees are considerably higher, ranging from $20,000 to $100,000. The lower range generally applies strictly to logo design, whereas the higher range includes a full array of branding services – including menu design, collateral materials, signage and website development.

Not every business can afford a premium branding package. Chances are, though, you’ll have to invest at least some cash into your restaurant’s brand. Visuals are a customer’s first connection to your restaurant, and successful visuals can live as long as the business.