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Designing a Restaurant Menu

Aug 18, 2007
When you're a start-up business with a shoe-string budget, that photocopied sheet with a simple list of your dishes was enough to get by. But as your business grows and becomes more successful, the time will eventually come when somebody says, "Isn't it time we got a more professional-looking menu?"

Yes, indeed, a full-featured, laminated menu just like the big restaurants use will definitely be necessary in most cases, if your restaurant is to be taken seriously. Even if you don't go for the large, laminated book-style folding menu, there are many alternative styles to choose from.

To get one thing out of the way right away: you are probably better off getting a professional graphics designer for this number. Designing a menu has many skills in common with designing a website, and your restaurant may not have somebody computer-savvy enough to figure out how to do it, let alone the artistic skill to make it look good!

But if you are up to the challenge, you will need: A computer with design and editing software, a separate graphics program, digital photos of servings, clip-art, and either a printer capable of high-resolution color printing or a print shop which will publish your design. If you hired a logo designer to brand-mark your signs and logos throughout your business, you'll want your company's logo on the menu as well. Oh, yes, and a spell-checker!

You'll need to design a color scheme, come up with a style and theme, decide what sections the menu will include, and plan the layout. In addition to the main menu, you may want to create place-cards or table tents advertising seasonal specials and such. There are paper and publications standards in the printing industry, with standards designated as A4, A5, and so on, so check with the printing company who will be publishing your design.

This whole project doesn't need to cost you an arm and a leg. Remember that simple, casual diners, coffee shops, cafes, and other small establishments do very good business without making a big production out of their menu. Here are some simpler design formats which almost anyone can learn to use:

HTML - Not many people think of it, but this is a document standard, after all. HTML, being the language of the World Wide Web, is capable of handling text in many sizes, layout formatting, and images. This is not recommended for fancy designs, but it can be enough to squeak by in some cases. Any web-page editing software can help you run up a layout. But there are some problems with this format: HTML can't do custom fonts because they can't display in your web browser, it isn't good at keeping pages to a size standard, and is not powerful enough to handle more demanding layouts.

PDF - This is the most commonly used standard. The Portable Document Format is widely used for all purposes throughout the printing industry. A sophisticated PDF editor can design anything from a business card to a newspaper. It uses rigid page design and the editors for PDF have all of the standard sizes selectable from the menu. It can handle any font, image, and layout you throw at it, and is also likely to be preferred by the print shop. The only downside: PDF editors are expensive. Proprietary software patents have choked out most of the competition, resulting in a highly monopolized industry.

SVG, XML - This is the second most commonly encountered standard, and in fact much of the printing industry is starting to use this format more widely. They are each capable of the full set of PDF features, and even add some new tricks that PDF can't do. SVG stands for "scalable vector graphics" and XML is the parent of HTML, being the original document mark-up language.

SVG and XML combine in the same document. SVG is not only a means of producing a document, but is a graphics language as well, so you can draw in it! Software for editing SVG and XML documents is widely available as free and open source software, and in every case the free software is at least 99% as powerful as the expensive commercial version. The only downside here is that it takes some extra learning to use and understand SVG and XML. For example, web browser have been able to render SVG and XML elements for years, and yet you don't see much of it on the Internet, because there just aren't that many people skilled enough to use it. You don't exactly have to have a computer science degree - but it won't hurt!

Whatever document format you use, you will have many considerations in planning your layout. If you use photographs, you will need to have a professional photographer to snap photos of your food and provide you with the images in digital format so you can include them in the menu. You will want to pick a font and layout consistent with your restaurant's atmosphere and your business image.

You will want it to be attractive as possible, but not be so "busy" that it is difficult to read. And using clip-art is convenient and easy, but will make your design look like a tired cliche. Using custom-made graphics, on the other hand, will require digital graphics design skills that aren't too common in the general public. You might also want to provide versions in different languages, and a braille menu for the visually impaired.

It is quite challenging for someone with little design experience to undertake this task; there is much more to design that is left out of this article. Remember that menus define your restaurant; it is the first product that your guests will get to see. Making a good impression here is important.
About the Author
Freelance writer for over eleven years.

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