This is a menu I was recently asked to redesign for a restaurant here in Florida, the Siesta Key Oyster Bar, otherwise known locally by its initials, “SKOB”.
As soon as I laid eyes on the existing menu (whose pages are the three examples on top), I was instantly aware of two things: clutter—especially of unnecessary background items, and poor contrast between typography colors and background colors. Clutter creates many things, none of which add to clarity of organization no matter how you look at anything. Poor contrast between copy and background creates poor readability.
I mean, why on earth would you design a menu for a high profile place to eat and drink and make it hard for the customers to read it?
The existing menu, as I was later to find out, was created by a designer who works for one of the restaurant liquor distributors in the area. The menu didn’t cost the restaurant anything to have it produced. That was a courtesy of the distributor to secure business with the restaurant. Free is not always good.
In this particular case, SKOB is a high profile restaurant in the Sarasota area of Florida. Siesta Key is a tourist spot on the Gulf of Mexico, and the nearby beach is probably the largest white sand beach in Florida, one that’s used for several events during the year, such as the Siesta Key Classic Sand Castle Competition. Plus, the real estate values in that area are hard to beat along the gulf coast.
So you have to wonder why a good restaurant such as this would have their patrons look at and read a poorly designed menu. Not only is “free” not necessarily good, but the presence of money does not necessarily make good design of anything just happen by itself. Ignorance has no price.
The cover of the existing menu (top left) has everything in it but a beached whale. There’s too many things that vie for attention: the way the name of the restaurant at the top is treated reminds one of the old vacation postcards from the 1950s; then we have the red lifeguard shack; next is the logo at bottom left of the layout, needlessly repeating the name of the place; and then the extra clutter at the bottom caused by a flock of seagulls, giving us bad readability, against an otherwise clean span of beach.
My approach (bottom row of examples) uses fewer distracting elements in the background. I felt the cover should be the first example of simplicity in welcoming patrons to the restaurant. Since this is a cocktail menu, putting a simple tropical drink in a beach setting seemed to be the easiest way to convey relaxation and appetite near the beach.
The client called for a realignment of sections in the menu (hence the reason my first inside page does not have exact corresponding copy as in the existing menu). Their first inside page is full of copy describing each cocktail, with small type reversed out of a background of overlapping palm fronds. I can see people squinting just trying to read the menu at this point. I went with a fresh approach of non-clutter with easy readability of copy and just a few seashells on a simple sand texture, with tropical banana plant leaves calling attention to the different drink categories.
Their next page is not nearly as bad as the previous one, but repeating the background image here felt too easy. I opted for a change of pace with different beach sand and surf.
I always remember one of good design’s adages: simple is best. The fewer items, the better, when it comes to communications (print and web, menus included). You can add visual interest to any layout, but not to the point of clutter, and readability—one of good design’s staples—is always paramount.