Hato, Sketch homepage avatars

Flying in the face of the idea that you should never play with your food—and that websites should be functional before fun—the new website for trendy London eatery Sketch is a masterclass in rule breaking. Aside from the eschewal of the levels of etiquette that are to be expected in London’s swanky Mayfair, the site itself takes a wildly innovative approach thanks to its designers, Hato.

While most restaurants are content to go with a website bearing a three-line hamburger in the corner, an unassuming serif font, a Squarespace-esque layout, and a gallery of tastefully shot food photography, Sketch’s new platform is a jamboree of interactivity and weirdness. The effect is of a Mad Hatter’s tea party brought to its (il)logical digital conclusion, managing to merge fun and functionality.

For those who’ve been to Sketch, the site makes sense: the interiors of the restaurant itself are a ludicrous riot of pink walls, David Shrigley artwork, scalloped velvet furniture, and “egg-loo” toilet pods. Essentially, Sketch is intricately detailed and high-end bonkers—which is exactly what Hato wanted to reflect online. The studio was brought on to the project by 3D designer and mutual friend Andrés Ros Soto, and while the scope of the work changed considerably—initially the plan was to make a “stairway to heaven”-like video for a cupcake fridge, apparently—the bulk of the work was done and dusted in a 12-week sprint. Where many Hato projects are characterized by the studio’s “co-creation” processes, for this project the team was largely given carte blanche, according to Sketch owner Mourad Mazouz. The collaborative element manifested itself as a set of rigorous weekly presentation meetings throughout the design process.

“If anything, it was the reverse of what you’d expect the client to be hoping for,” Hato co-founder Ken Kirton tells us. “We were the ones trying to make sense of the [reservation] process at the heart of the website,” while Sketch was a dream client in a way, pushing the designers to go as far as they wished.

That imaginative aspect of the website was key, but so was usability. According to the restaurant, its former digital platform had become “a complex warren of subpages, links, and photography.” As such, it wanted a new site that offered a design that was unique to all devices, and which offered users a simplified booking system.

Yet simplicity is certainly not what jumps to mind when you land on the Sketch website. The design is based around a virtual version of the restaurant’s interior spaces, with a homepage based on 3D graph paper. Each space within Sketch—the Lecture Room & Library, the Gallery, the Parlour, the Glade, and the East Bar & Pod—is assigned a 3D avatar that appears as a floating icon on the homepage. By clicking on these avatars, users enter the page dedicated to each space, and can lose themselves in the interactivity offered there. Or, by clicking on a button in the right hand corner of the browser, they can book a table online.

Users who choose to spend some time playing around on the site will find that each section reflects the spaces themselves: for instance, the section for the Gallery (the part of the restaurant that serves afternoon tea) lives digitally as a surreal game of food Tetris; the Parlour is only “lit” online if users create a neon sign with their cursor; and “verdant café restaurant and lounge bar,” The Glade, encourages us, naturally, to make a digital grass rug grow. It’s best experienced to be believed. Where text is used (it’s sparse, and placed only where it needs to be in order for the site to function), Hato chose to use the Colophon foundry typeface MAD across the site, which is inspired by the angles of CAD plotters, to reflect the multidimensional feel of the site.

The idea is to hint at the spaces, while never spoiling the surprise—no mean feat for “one of the most Instagrammed restaurants in the world.” For Hato, Sketch’s social media fame was both a help and a hindrance: while it makes the idea of avoiding interior photography online something of a moot point, it’s also beneficial. “It helped inform us on certain directions,” says Kirton. “We could look at where people were taking selfies and what they were focusing on—maybe the afternoon tea cake stands, the David Shrigley plates. We were influenced by that, and we’re interested in how we can connect Sketch to their audience away from social media.”

“Sketch is a playful, fun experience…. We had to try and convey that essence in a digital environment, and we did that through interaction.”

So what’s behind the site’s drive for people to tinker with it? Why should a business that’s essentially built on food and footfall care if those perusing its site get to mess around with sound and neon? “It’s just to have fun, is the shortest answer,” says Kirton. “Sketch is a playful, fun experience—it’s a unique space in that it’s a high-quality, two-star Michelin restaurant, but it’s also very lighthearted. We had to try and convey that essence in a digital environment, and we did that through interaction.”

Once you get the hang of it, the site is pretty simple to use–it only takes a few clicks to figure out where the menus are, where to book, and all the other nuts and bolts that most restaurants would place at the heart of their digital platforms. However, it’s certainly a distracting, if rewarding, path to get there. Hato was aware that such a radical site design might not be the most intuitive experience, so the designers tested various iterations on those toughest and most honest of critics: their parents. 

“While it’s about creating excitement and intrigue, I was also regularly checking in with my mum and dad, seeing if they could book a certain room and so on,” he says.