Behind the Scenes: Columbus menu design

Shelley Mann, Columbus Alive

Menus are a deceptively simple thing. At their most basic, they're a list of food offered by a restaurant. The best manage to capture a restaurant's entire essence in a single document.

The most striking Columbus menus were designed by professional graphic designers, often working for the restaurants on a freelance basis. And when the designer does his or her job right, the result is a menu that's a perfect match for the table.

"It's very much a part of the experience of eating at the restaurant," said Jodi Barnhill of Mercury Design Studio, who creates menus for Cameron Mitchell Restaurants. "In the end you don't notice it because it fits so perfectly."

When viewed out of the context of the restaurant-posted online, for instance, or in the front window-the menu should give a good indication of what the dining experience will feel like.

So Dirty Frank's colorful menus adorned with doodles of anthropomorphic hot dogs immediately clue you in to the fun vibe at that hole-in-the-wall hot dog joint, while Rigsby's Kitchen's comparatively sleek and modern menus hint at the restaurant's contemporary Italian cuisine.

"It's really about the food, and also the spirit that comes with it," said Sebastian Ibel, whose Ibel Agency revamped the Rigsby's menus last year. "And that's something we need to capture."

No menu is exactly the same, but most follow general patterns. Fine-dining restaurants tend to use single-sheet menus, sticking with minimalist descriptions-often just a list of the major components of each dish. More casual restaurants may use menu holders with multiple pages, incorporating photography and little anecdotes for each dish.

A menu is meant to grab the diner's attention, but not distract from the main event-the food. At the beginning of the design process, Barnhill looks at as many menus as she can find for inspiration.

"Then you take the pieces you love from a couple, mush them together and say 'oh, that doesn't work,' or 'oh, that's it!'" she said.

From there it's a matter of fine-tuning everything from the number of columns to the flow of the text to the verbiage, which often comes from the restaurant's management team rather than the menu designer.

"When it's done right, it looks so simple," Barnhill said.

The most important aspect of each project is legibility. That encompasses both the type and font size (which needs to be big enough to accommodate baby boomers who leave their reading glasses at home, Ibel says), but also has to be engaging to read and easy to navigate.

When non-designers design a menu, it can be easy to make rookie mistakes, especially over-designing.

"I see too many effects being used-gradients and drop shadows-especially by people who don't really know how to use them," said Barbara Eicke, a freelance designer who works with Columbus Food League.

Alberti agrees: "Menu design is about simplicity. Less is more."

Case Study: Rigsby's Kitchen Redesign

When a restaurant has been around as long as Rigsby's Kitchen, the menu often goes through several iterations.

As the Ibel Agency's Sebastian Ibel and Jenny Alberti began rejuvenating the Rigsby's brand a couple years back, they wanted to help the Short North restaurant feel more approachable and casual to appeal to a younger demographic.

The end result was a completely new look designed around a custom-typeface logo and a skillet insignia. Rigsby's owner Kent Rigsby had asked for an icon that would help clue diners in to the restaurant's Italian cuisine.

"The biggest challenge was figuring out that symbol," Alberti said. "He wanted something simple with a woodcut feel, and we tried animals, veggies, Italian symbols. We ended up with a modern take on a skillet. It connects the old Italian feel with a more modern, casual vibe."

While researching the project, Alberti noticed many restaurants have started to develop shorthand versions of their logos for use on things diners don't see until they're already in the restaurant, like chefs' jackets and comment cards. For Rigsby's, she paired the skillet with the letter R from their logo.

Once they'd developed the skillet insignia and new logo and settled on colors and patterns, the team started applying all those elements to the different branding pieces-lunch, dinner and bar menus, as well as gift cards and business cards, plus the website and print advertisements.

The agency chose a laminated cardboard that's substantial enough to hold up to wear and tear and food and drink splatters, but with inside pages that can be swapped out easily and frequently. That's especially important for menus, like Rigsby's, that change quite frequently based on seasonal ingredients.

"Everything is modular, so you can switch out the patterns in the future," Ibel said. "This is a very nice thing to have so a brand can actually evolve and not just be stuck."

Case Study: Columbus Food League

Barbara Eicke's first project for Liz Lessner's team was the Dirty Frank's menu, and she's since designed the menu for Jury Room and revamped the menus for Betty's, Surly Girl and Tip Top. Her goal with each project was to create something with a hometown feel rather than a corporate one.

"Eating at one of Liz's restaurants feels like you're going over to your friend's place," Eicke said. "So I didn't want the menus to feel too daunting or too fancy."

In 2011, the freelance graphic designer helped the Surly Girl staff roll out distinctive new menus housed in vintage volumes from a Time Life Books series on the Old West (purchased en masse from eBay).

"We sliced the guts out and kept the cover, basically. That way the inside pages are replaceable," Eicke said. Originally the menus were bound with grommets, but after a couple years of wear and tear they've been replaced with a spiral binding.

Her Dirty Frank's menus drew inspiration from a logo and custom artwork from Lessner's brother, Thom. When Eicke brainstormed the design for the remodeled Jury Room, for which she designed a logo and menus, she had less to work with.

"I had only been in the original Jury Room once, and I remember it being an old-school men's bar," Eicke said. "It's warm and cozy in there, but they really wanted to separate it from Tip Top. It's all mid- to late-1800s, a very Victorian feel."

Next up is a permanent menu for Grass Skirt Tiki Room.

"[Co-owner] Carmen [Owens] really wants to go all out with the Grass Skirt menus," said Eicke, who's looking at a kitschy design incorporating natural textures and maybe even peek-a-boo hula girls covered with embroidery floss.

Case Study: Cameron Mitchell Restaurants

Jodi Barnhill's most recent contribution to the Cameron Mitchell empire is The Pearl's menu, with stately engraved corners inspired by the late-1800s industrial age, but the Mercury Design Studio owner has worked with the restaurant company for 14 years.

Barnhill's menu for Marcella's in Short North, with its brackets and boxes and starbursts, is one of the city's most striking. But did you know Marcella's in Polaris has a completely different menu design?

Initially, the Short North menu was repurposed for Polaris-however, the company quickly realized the two restaurants draw a significantly different clientele.

"What worked in the Short North didn't work so well up in Polaris," Barnhill said. Polaris customers weren't as comfortable with the heavy emphasis on small plates, cheeses and meats meant for sharing, preferring instead to order a traditional appetizer, entree and dessert.

So Barnhill created a new menu, still using the same Marcella's logo and a similar casual, hand-drawn approach, but with a less-busy two-column layout, and more straightforward headers (starters, pizzas, pastas, entrees).

The next-generation Marcella's menu has been a hit, but sometimes menu revamps don't work out so well. A few years back, Barnhill created a bound booklet menu to replace Cap City Fine Diner's one-sheet original.

"It was a beautiful design, but it just didn't work. There were too many pages to flip through, and people got lost," Barnhill said. "They eventually went back to the traditional checkerboard border. It fits the restaurant."

At every step of the design process, Barnhill gets plenty of ideas and input from the Cameron Mitchell operations team. Every decision, from font to colors to type of paper, is very deliberate.

"None of it happens by accident. Everything is very well thought through," Barnhill said. "It's kind of like the Cameron Mitchell food. It's not an accident it's as wonderful as it is. They put as much thought into the menus as they do into the kitchen."