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The Art of Food Menu Design

It is to be noted that the points listed as under apply equally well to offline as also online menu boards, including web and apps.

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For food-lovers, a well-crafted menu is the best piece of paperwork - or digital creative for that matter for online channels – that they can come across any day. While a catchy menu, with the content and art thrown inappropriately, makes customers figure out what they are looking out for a seamless exercise, restaurants, on the other hand, can rake in greater revenue and margins if menus can utilize the paper versions and online real estate (for digital channels) better. The commentary below aims to understand and recommend how Menu Design can be a rewarding activity. 

While marketing communications, including promotions, LTOs, Loyalty, are paramount to promoting any foodservice concept, the Menu is the only communication that occurs at the ‘Moment of Truth’ viz. ordering food. On average, customers glance for 109 seconds at a menu page (offline or online) before they make up their mind. So, 109 seconds of attention span is all restaurants have to send in the right messaging – of which items to pick. 

It is to be noted that the points listed as under apply equally well to offline as also online menu boards, including web and apps.

  1. Restrict Options: It has been found that about 80% of restaurant sales come from only 16% of menu items. Too many menu options are thus not only unnecessary, but they also confuse customers (Paradox of Choice theory – The more options we have, the more anxiety we feel.) Based on researches done, it is found that a maximum of 7 options per category of food (Appetizers, Entrees, Desserts) is an ideal number to have on menu board. 

  1. Use Complex Descriptions: Though simplicity is a virtue for most facets of life, it might not be so in Menu design. It has been found that longer menu descriptions increase food sales by as much as 30%. And it’s not without no reason – Detailed menu item description tends to veer customer’s attention away from price, and enhances perceived value. Also, the longer the description, less would the customer have to think about it. Similarly, evocative and suggestive dish names have been found to increase sales by around 25%. Also, creative comments generate a more positive association with the brand and menu items – thus enhancing not only the likelihood of ordering the item but also the satisfaction in consuming the item. 

  1. Usage of White Space: In a menu list cluttered with descriptions, white spaces draw customer eyeballs. Now, that’s a desirable feature! It might make sense to place the high-margin items in the white spaces? Or even better, create some white space around the high-profit items and draw customer eyes directly in there. 

  1. Visual merchandising: This is a topic that is a favourite in Retail, and retailers are known to place items (SKUs) at eye level on racks, as also devise the online real estate to make item placement catchy. Similar can be done for restaurant menu boards as well. It has been found that customers’ eyeballs wander most frequently to the upper right corner of a menu list. Now, that makes the task easier in terms of high margin item placement? 

  1. The Menu ‘Golden Triangle’: A similar theme to the above is how customer eyeball moves when it encounters a menu board. This has a very close relation to retail customer movement in stores, where they typically take left (for left-moving customer groups like in India; In US where customers are right-aligned when walking, the opposite is true) after entering, going round and then ending on the right side of the store. In case of eyeball movement on menu cards, diners start typically from Centre, move up right, and then up left. This is typically called the Menu ‘Golden Triangle’. Having known this, it becomes a lot scientific to place menu items appropriately – It’s advisable to put high-margin items at the triangle tips.


  1. Menu colours: Continuing on the above theme, colours have a role in the proper uptick of menu items too. Did you know that – Red stimulates appetite? Just as yellow draws attention, blue helps in selling seafood, green in selling vegetables (well, some are obvious!). A proper colouring on appropriate items – or to the icon beside it – is a sub-conscious lever to prompt customers to choose the right items. 

  1. Menu sequencing: It has been found that customers on average subconsciously tend to order the top 2 menu items in the list (paper or digital). Now, that throws up some interesting connotations. If the top-priced items are placed towards top, not only would there be a tendency to order those more, but it would also make the ones below much more reasonably priced and thereby promote their sale – and thus even if they are low on price, restaurants can keep their pricing appropriate to command a higher margin. Thus, their induced ordering would actually lead to a higher margin order volume by customers. And remember, menu design is driven by the fact to induce more sale of higher-margin items, rather than higher revenue (price) items.


  1. Get away with Dollar sign: A lot of menu design is driven by consumer psychology. No better applicability of that truth than this - It has been found by the Center for Hospitality Research that customers spend significantly more at restaurants where menu items do not have the $ sign. Well, really? As it turns out, yes. Getting away with the dollar sign removes the “pain point” of the cost of the item, and thus induces a better and more “painless” ordering. Thus, instead of placing price of a Burger as $10.00, just list it as 10.00, or even better – 10. Watch out the results! 

On a similar theme, ‘association’ of the price with the menu item is important. Its advisable to not use dotted lines from items to the price. The dots in effect draw eyeballs discretely to the spot where you do not want customers to spend more time – the price. Instead, “nest” the price against item description – so eyeballs seamlessly ‘glide’ over the price, rather than being ‘led’ to. 



  1. Don’t use photos like there’s no tomorrow: An interesting trivia says that one photo next to a set of menu items increases sales by about 30%. If needed, especially for new menu introductions or edits to menu engineering, pictures might make sense – but under normal circumstance, a good rule of thumb is to use one photo per page.


As you might have observed by now, the piece of the menu that you encounter regularly in restaurants or the digital menu card/board that you view digitally has a lot that goes behind its design, in terms of placing the items appropriately with the right layout. So, next time you order something online or ponder on a menu while dining in within a restaurant, spare a thought to the Art before you commence gorging in on the delicacies! 


Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Tags assigned to this article:
food menu art design lifestyle food prices food

Debraj Bhattacharya

The author is a strategy consultant, working with clients across the US and APAC, primarily from the consumer sector, retail, F&B, manufacturing space.

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