Serving up Success: tips for effective menu design

Effective menu design is crucial for attracting business, whether you’re offering a quick burger, a spread of authentic tapas, or a three-course meal. We tuck into menu design, and how it influences diners and your success as a restaurateur.

Studio Noel has enjoyed serving up menu designs, rebrands, and campaigns for all kinds of brands within hospitality, from high street mainstay Bill’s and Tapas Revolution, to seafood experts Wright Brothers, Swan at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and classic British eatery The Falcon.

It’s common to think that the most important part of a good meal out is the dish in front of you. But the companion helping you choose between the comforts of a famous favourite and the curious plate of rare delicacies is the ever-essential menu, and it plays a bigger part in the overall dining experience than you’d expect. There’s a complex mix of menu strategy, psychology, and design expertise that goes into cooking up the perfect menu design.

With the lure of home delivery growing faster than the eating-out market as a whole, keeping diners at restaurant tables is becoming harder than ever, so the menu has an important part to play. We’ve broken down the inner workings of the menu to demonstrate just how important effective menu design is in attracting customers and increasing profitability.


Value your brand, tell your story
A good menu isn’t only as good as the food it lists. A good menu communicates your brands values and helps it stand out from its competitors next door. The menu’s design is a reflection of the restaurant itself. Your tone of voice should come through every element of the menu, right down to the descriptions of the food itself. While Bill’s like to show that the seasons help curate their menus, Carluccio’s love to tell the story of their food starting from the Italian families that supply them.


Throw away or here to stay?

The type of restaurant influences how your final menu will look. For instance, a burger chain with quick table turnover may opt for a more practical option such as a throwaway menu that the plates are set on top of. At the other end of the scale, screwing up a menu and dunking it into the recycling after the plates have been cleared wouldn’t suit a high-end restaurant.

How much space and time your diners have to peruse the menu are also points to consider when choosing how to present your menu. Consider customers who will rush through a restaurant on a lunch break at tightly packed tables. Generally, they won’t want to spend their time flicking through a lengthy menu before they can eat.

Allow your brand and your values to come through every element of the design, as how a menu is presented is as important as how the menu itself looks.

Menu designs for The Falcon restaurant

Layout and hierarchy

A menu’s layout curates the dining experience in a subtle but very effective way. After being seated, diners will probably spend more time with the menu than with most waiters, and therein lies its power over profitability.

Here is where the tasty science of menu psychology comes into play. Research has shown that people will spend a very tight 109 seconds scanning through a menu, so keeping it simple and easy to navigate is key.

Consider listing best-seller dishes first, as diners often spend more time looking at the first and last options in a vertical list. Organising your items in a logical hierarchy also helps customers make choices easily and confidently. Clearly label each section of the menu, and make sure descriptions are easy to read.

Removing the pound sign and placing dish prices alongside the description of the food itself sways diners into making decisions based on their appetite rather than the price of the dish. It’s a tiny change that can have big impacts on your sales.


Highlighting key dishes

You can also draw the eye to your popular dishes through carefully crafted design that considers both where you’d like diners to look, and how they naturally read through a menu. The upper right hand corner of a menu is a sweet spot in this respect, and bold typography, boxes, or a pop of colour all work to highlight top-selling dishes in this area.

Menus for Attendant, the specialty coffee roaster with cafes across central London

Lights, camera, illustration

However beautiful a dish may be, including photographs of the food itself may not be the most appetising approach to showing off your range of cuisine. It may even end up making your esteemed restaurant look like a takeaway on paper. You can show the story of your menu through photography that emphasises the values that underpin your restaurant as a whole. For instance, our menu design for Bill’s range of cocktails had a sumptuous mix of seasonal fruit with fresh, spring flowers.

Spring cocktail menus for casual dining chain Bill’s restaurants

Along with glimmers of gold foil, an expressive typeface, and soft colours, we allowed the experience of sipping Bill’s beautiful spring or summer cocktails to come through, making for a far richer reading experience than scanning photographs of little umbrellas and slices of lemon.

If you find a hand-drawn approach more appealing, illustration opens up different avenues of creativity and is a great way of communicating a restaurant’s personality too. It can be used as a main design element or for smaller details that help to break up sections of your menu, like using icons to help diners easily navigate through a cocktail menu for Tapas Revolution and showing the difference between a long and a short drink, for instance.

Tapas Revolution drinks menus

Bespoke icons designs for Tapas Revolutions drinks menus

Read all about it!

Creating awareness is the next step to making sure everyone knows about your new menu and dishes. You could run a campaign using window vinyls, printed marketing, or create a 360 campaign that includes digital, print, and social media material.

Bill’s breakfast menu campaign saw us designing Bill’s Chronicles, a newspaper that highlighted their breakfast range. The paper included recipes, stories from their suppliers, and news from behind the scenes at Bill’s.

Tabloid newspaper designed for Bill’s restaurants breakfast campaign

Christmas with the Wright Brothers needed fun and engaging postcards to lure in hungry Christmas parties to enjoy their festive menus.

Postcards designed to highlight the new Christmas set menus for Wright Brothers

We highlighted the Swan, Shakespeares Globe Theatre’s beautiful riverfront location by designing Christmas menu packs to promote their individual dishes and range of set menus.

Christmas menu packs designed for Swan, Shakespeares Globe Theatre

All change

Some restaurants follow the seasons and update their menu four times a year, while some just opt for a menu update twice a year. Every time a menu changes, it’s worthwhile considering how well it has been performing while diners flick through it both at the restaurant table and on their laptops and phones before they arrive to see if it’s time for a design refresh.

Just like perfecting a slow roast or sun-blushing those tomatoes, redesigning a menu can’t be rushed. An entire range of menus can include menus for breakfast, lunch, dinner, drinks, desserts, and even private dining and set menus. But that’s not all. If a restaurant is spread across several sites, there may even be a different version of the menu for each one, showing variations in prices and the types of dish available. So, it’s important to plan ahead and pick the right time to undertake a menu refresh.

Take Bill’s, for example. They pride themselves on creating their dishes from fresh, seasonal ingredients, and as such, we highlighted this in the design for their campaign that supported the new menu, advertising to loyal customers and new faces alike that with the new season came new and exciting food at Bill’s.

Spring campaign to highlight the new menu for Bill’s restaurants

On table flyers for Bill’s restaurants spring campaign

Looking to refresh your menus?

If you need help designing your menus, or you have a new season of dishes you’d like to promote, get in touch to discuss how we can help.

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