Restaurant Menu Design: A Comprehensive Guide

Visual communication has a profound impact on human thinking, behavior and most importantly, decision-making. In the hospitality sector, particularly within the restaurant business, consumer behavior and decision-making are the two most fundamental aspects concerning any food-related business. Both, essentially rely on the menu and the way it is designed.

More than just a list of things, a menu-card is a visual guide to the decision-making process our brain undergoes upon reading it! The merits of a well-crafted menu, are widely appreciated by both academics and practitioners owing to its impact on not only the consumer behavior but also restaurant operations.

How a human body reacts to a menu

The menu serves as a powerful tool for the restaurant operators to plan, promote, execute and control the operational process as well as the customer’s experience. So, it is commonly stressed that the menu directly impacts restaurant sales. From wine-appropriate music to authentic-sounding foreign names, restaurateurs have many ways to persuade diners into ordering high-profit meals. The Menu forms a centerpiece of that puzzle. 

The Language Of Graphics

As mentioned earlier, the entire culinary experience of a customer boils down to their decision-making. Visual graphics have proved to be a powerful motivator for customers’ ordering behavior. Research shows that creative illustrations and photographs of food items, ingredients, and cultural references draw prompt attention to the diner.  New-age restaurant makers focus heavily on the look and feel of physical menu-card. Despite the growing digital market, many would argue that a physical copy of the menu is as relevant as the competing mediums and platforms. There’s a reason for this. A menu-card is seen not only as a list of items but also as a brochure or a book introducing the diner to the restaurant.






A local restaurant in Ahmedabad by the name MIRCH MASALA serves North-indian and Mughlai delicacies with a bollywood themed menu-card. Notice how movie-centric graphics make a conversation with the diners as the glance through.

New-age restaurant makers focus heavily on the look and feel of physical menu-card. Despite the growing digital market, many would argue that a physical copy of the menu is as relevant as the competing mediums and platforms. There’s a reason for this. A menu-card is seen not only as a list of items but also as a brochure or a book introducing the diner to the restaurant. 

Mind Tricks

A majority of restaurants price their food items using numbers, alone. They avoid using the ‘unit of currency’. It is a very subtle yet effective means of bending the consumers’ perception of the food price. When the price of the food item has no currency symbol it normalizes the price for the buyer giving the impression that the cost is just a number.

The “Chef’s Special” is always something that costumers look out for. Promoting signature dishes is at the very core of any restaurant business module. This feature is particularly aimed at influencing first-time customers. Labeling such a term will highlight the food item, the restaurant is banking on. Thereby, creating a unique mark on the overall dining experience.

Use of italics to describe food items as well as giving ‘authentic-sounding names’ like Omelet Du Fromage increase the likeability of the dish. The market research also supports these findings by revealing that some words (organic, natural, fresh, etc.) on menu item labels may instigate a mouth-watering effect and can influence customers’ choices. Such word-play makes the dish appear very credible and appealing.

The China Kitchen located in the Gurgaon shows how Chef’s Recommendation symbol guides the diner to select his or her food. This menu uses mandarin characters in its design. It serves two purposes. For Chinese guests, it could add value to their experience and for the locals, it gives the restaurant an authentic feel.

Product Positioning

A reader has an identifiable pattern of gaze movements across any menu. Usually, people gaze from top to bottom when they are given a list of things. Research shows that across a menu-card display people can more accurately recall the first and last items seen or reviewed. Popular dishes like ‘the chef’s special’ are usually placed in the upper or lower corners of the page where the customers cast their initial and final glances.

Sometimes these items are also placed separately in a box to highlight it. As a result, menu hot spots emerge, and with strategic placement of menu items on these spots, it is possible to draw initial and repeated attention of customers to them in order to increase the possibility of their choice as well the restaurant sales.

The menu-card for Plan B in Bengaluru offers a perfect example of how placing your product affect the choice of the customer. As a reader when you see this image ‘Curd Memories’ stand out among all other dishes owing to its placement.

Labeling and Layout

Studies suggest that a descriptive menu with a well-defined layout has a positive impact on the customer’s decision. While it might not be the case everywhere, evocative labels do have a substantial impact on customers’ food quality perceptions and their intentions to revisit. Apart from that, labels assimilate customers’ pre-consumption expectations (value, taste, and quality) as well as their post-consumption evaluation.

For instance, any special feature of the menu item with reference to its brand, geographic origins, sensory and affective (family or patriotic) attributes can be evocatively used in its name. Studies show that using iconic names for your dishes on menu item labels may instigate a mouth-watering effect and can influence customers’ choices. The use of local language and local references also boost the costumer’s interest in food items. For instance, replacing Chicken Butter Masala with Murgh Makhani.

Descriptions alone may not have a positive impact on the customer per se, but the layout of a menu primarily dictates the overall consumer behavior in terms of perceiving the food and the place. If the food items do not have enough space between one another it becomes confusing and rather tedious for the customer.

Visual crowding in a menu can have a negative impact on sales. Hence, using the right fonts with clear typography and engaging description of the food item could make all the difference! Apart from that, cautionary notes pertaining to food quality and allergies behoove the over-all image of the restaurant in the customer’s mind.

The Permit Room (Bangalore) menu is crafted using vernacular references, evocative labels and eye-catching graphics.

Speaking Through Colours

Colors can have a subconscious impact on our perceptions and this can be applied to menu design in restaurants. They form the basis of the visual language.

Color and food pairings can be especially powerful by leveraging the emotional connection to taste. Red and yellow are the chief food colors, evoking the tastebuds and stimulating the appetite. Both red and yellow are also effective at grabbing attention. The fast-food industry has claimed this combination for a good reason—because it is effective. In the gourmet food arena, you, of course, want to avoid a fast food connotation, however, these colors can still be very effective when used on their own and/or indifferent pairings.

Orange, a blend of red and yellow, naturally lends itself to food as another appetizing color. Orange has been a trendy color for some time now, so be aware of that when using it—its popularity could either work for or against your product depending on its context and intent.

Green connotes eco-friendliness, healthy (think veggies) but is careful as green can be also unappetizing. The eco side connection to green has been overdone, and it’s no longer expected that eco products will actually be colored green since eco has become more the norm and less the exception.

White connotes clean and pure, but it can also look stark, plain and sterile—so this is another color that needs to be exercised with care.

Similarly, a lot of Breweries and Bakeries are opting for tones of brown which is a color of trustworthiness.

The gradations of colors here clearly indicates the spice-level and ingredients

Materials

Restaurants and cafes design their menu-cards to suit the language of their cuisine. For instance, if a restaurant that serves pan-Asian cuisine would immensely benefit from using bamboo for their menu-cards. Restaurants are now using a variety of materials for their menu-cards to set with the theme of the restaurant and cuisine. Several eco-friendly cafes and eateries are opting for sustainable themes even with the material of their menus and furniture or interiors. Recycled cardboard, hand-made paper, and materials like hemp, even varieties of grass or wood are being used to create redolent menu-cards. With the existing CNC printing technology, it is also a very convenient option. Overall, there is a dire need to reduce non-renewable waste and therefore using sustainable materials is the way forward.

Artisanal paper and wood are trending as preferred menu-card materials in new-age cafes and lounges

Food for Thought

Being the first point of communication between the restaurant operators and customers, menus hold a grave value in the food industry. What needs to be understood in menu design is that visual language and understanding cognitive only promote high-profit items from the operator’s perspective but also to provide the customer with a seamless, hassle-free ordering experience. Visual communication is the most effective way to transfer information wing to the exceptional receptive qualities of the human mind.

Tools for Menu Design

Here are some DIY tools to design your very own menu. Take a test of your creativity!

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