Menu design is a delicate art form. Like a soufflé, it’s easy to get wrong, and like all cooking, it requires the balance of perfect seasoning—in this case a careful combination of typography, size, and material. As many cuisines are associated with a particular visual language, it’s difficult to be both innovative and evocative when it comes to designing a menu. Here to make sense of it all and to share the best of what’s tucked away in hostess stands, is the Art of the Menu blog, an all-you-can-eat buffet of menu design
The email inbox of Under Consideration’s Armin Vit is inundated daily with menus for restaurants, noodle bars, diners, brasseries, breweries, cafés, and canteens from around the world. For Vit, there are three primary elements that he looks for when deciding what to put up on the blog:
- A menu must be easy to digest. “At the very minimum, a menu has to be easy to read and understand. As you look at it, can you quickly grasp the options, the order, the prices? The menu can be designed beautifully, but if you can’t figure it out, then it doesn’t matter.”
- It has to taste right. “The branding aspect is vital. A successful menu must act as segue in establishing a mood from the moment you enter a restaurant to when you order your food. So it has to establish a sensibility for how the rest of your meal is going to be. This is as much the responsibility of the design and typography as it is of the materials and physical presence.”
- Like the kitchen, a menu’s got to have frequent line checks. “Lastly, there is the usability aspect of a menu in the restaurant. Can it be easily updated as the menu changes? Can it be reprinted if it stains? Can it survive multiple uses?”
Vit sites a brewery menu designed by Gamut studio as a particularly successful example. The layout is simple: a grid with information about the available beers. While this is nothing out of the ordinary, the design playfully invites guests to taste and explore the variety of brews on offer. “When you order a flight, your beers are placed on the grid they belong in so you know exactly what you’re drinking,” Vit explains. Each sheet is disposable, printed on cheap paper, and placed on replaceable (and wipeable) clipboards.
Another menu Vit loves comes from a small restaurant in Madrid. For it, creative studio Le Apéritif took old albums and replaced the record sleeves with a menu “case.” The unexpected and unique result only works because the restaurant is small and independent; for a place with 100+ seats the concept would be too expensive and time consuming to go through with. “It’s successful in a very different way, and it points to the opportunity to create really cool menus that only have a small production run,” says Vit.
For bigger restaurants, the single, large-sheet format printed in one color reigns supreme, and because it’s so standard, “the only way to pull it off is with perfect layouts and excellent typography.” Vit points out a particular example from an American restaurant in Chicago by Dan Blackman that gets it just right. “I see a lot like this one. The oversized, thick paper feels rich but comes without a huge price tag. It gets the job done.”
For designers with a tight budget who are looking to impress with size but in an unconventional way, Vit suggests newspaper menus, especially with the existence of platforms like newspaperclub. Although “the size can be overbearing” for his favorite newspaper menu from Toronto (by Tracy Ma), its versatile qualities—the fact it’s both a menu and a French fries wrapper—makes it distinct and appealing.
As for what Vit is sick of seeing, he’s become especially wary of the clipboard. It’s practical, yes, but it’s everywhere. “To take it to the next tier of trend, I see a lot of the industrial-looking clipboard or the distressed clipboard. I understand it though; they provide flexibility and a durable backdrop.” There also seems to be an unwritten rule that brassieres are required to use at least a dozen different fonts, one-color etching, and some type of curve. Vit points a menu by De Vicq as a “lovely example that’s exactly on trend.” Unsurprisingly, Vit finds photo-based menus are the least appealing. “They usually look weird and not very tasty,” he says (although he sites this Vietnamese menu as a very rare exception).
Vit was recently travelling to Oslo, and after 20 hours of travel he was tired and desperately hungry. When he fired up Foursquare to find a place to eat, he immediately saw Illegal Burger and got excited because they’d featured it on Art of the Menu in 2011. “That’s where I had dinner and I made the decision based on design,” says Vit, “The burger was pretty good too.” A menu with good design has as much pull as a good menu for both the discerning designer and the discerning diner. Color, material, and typography have just as much power to seduce you as the smell of freshly baked bread bakery and hot coffee in the early hours of the morning.