Skip to content

Menu Design Research Paper

Whether we like it or not, marketing and psychology have been fast friends for a long time.

So it’s quite likely that pretty much any design has at least some elements that were chosen specifically to get you to feel a certain way or take a certain action.

Call it what you will — subliminal messaging, the power of suggestion, manipulation — but businesses are constantly cooking up ways to influence your decision-making, restaurants included. In fact, the restaurant industry has its own special toolbox of psychological strategies called menu engineering.

Menu engineers study the visual and verbal psychology behind why people order certain items — and use that valuable information to design menus in a way that maximizes restaurant profits. Gregg Rapp has been engineering menus for 30 years and, as we explore the 10 menu design techniques below, we’ll draw on some of his expert insights and insider tips about the subject.

Design your own Menu!

We’ve sprinkled some Canva menu templates throughout this article. Click on any of the menu examples with an “Edit this design in Canva” tag on it and you’ll be taken to your Canva account to make the menu your own.

01. They know the value of a strong first impression.

Rather than read menus from front to back, diners tend to scan them quickly (spending an average of just 109 seconds, according to a Gallup poll). This means that a menu has a small amount of time to make a big impact. Restaurants can make their menus easier to scan by using clear section headings, easy-to-find dish titles, and other visual techniques (more on that under point #3).

Menu engineers make a point of studying which parts of the menu are “prime real estate” — where people look first in that short 109 seconds, and (as a result) which menu items tend to be the most profitable. The general conclusion? When scanning vertically arranged menus, customers tend to spend the most time looking at the first and last items  —  for that reason, the dishes in those spots are usually the biggest sellers.

02. They analyze your reading patterns.

Most researchers seem to agree that when diners scan a menu, their eyes tend to gravitate first toward the upper right-hand corner of a menu, known in the industry as the “sweet spot.” As a result, many restaurants place the menu item they want to sell most (often an expensive dish) in that location. The menu below places high-priced seafood in the upper right-hand corner, highlighting it with a tasteful illustration rather than a photograph (See #5 for more on whether or not to use photographs).

Instead of using a graphic or illustration in the upper right-hand corner, this menu features large, bold typography to draw your eyes right toward that sweet spot. And guess what — that dish, the Steak and Kidney Pie, just happens to be one of the most expensive on the menu.

However, the sweet spot does change slightly based on the layout of a given menu (one, two, or three panels, etc.).

03. They emphasize certain menu items.

Like how newspapers and magazines use “call-out” quotes to emphasize certain bits of information, menus highlight certain items that restaurants want you to order using what industry pros call “eye magnets.” An eye magnet is just what it sounds like — anything that attracts the eye.

It could be a photo of the dish, a graphic or illustration, a colored or shaded box, a border, or some other attention-getter.

The menu below features decorative frames and pointing hand graphics to bring attention to certain menu items. These embellishments also give the menu a nostalgic, old-fashioned diner vibe. Later, we’ll take a closer look at how nostalgia can be a powerful emotion in terms of getting people to order certain dishes.

This menu uses multiple eye magnets, including shaded boxes and frames with both solid and dotted lines. Elements like ribbons and arrows help your eye travel down the page.

The next menu continues the pattern of using a box or frame to highlight certain dishes (a fairly common practice), but takes it one step further, grouping some of the more expensive menu items together. This grouping, along with the decorative illustrations inside the box, draw the eye and encourage customers to order from that selection.

Here, this restaurant opts for a different clever strategy. It uses an eye-catching red box to highlight the second-most-expensive item on the menu, but also labels the dish as being “for two” to make it come across as more reasonably priced.

However, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Gregg Rapp recommends being strategic with emphasizing menu items. The more often you do it, the less impact it will have. He suggests limiting highlighted items to one per category or section (e.g. appetizers, entrees, desserts, etc.).

The dessert menu below features just one highlighted item. As a nice touch, its style reflects the restaurant logo at the top, and hand-drawn illustrations add a little interest to an otherwise very simple design.

04. They use color to influence your feelings.

Color can also be used for emphasis, because people respond to color in emotional ways, often subconsciously. For that reason, color theory is put to use in everything from advertising and product packaging to deciding what color to paint your office or what color tie to wear to a job interview. For menus, though, red and blue are generally thought to help trigger appetite.

This menu features bright shades of both red and blue, which (regardless of their psychological power) work well for this casual barbecue restaurant.

The next two menus choose either red or blue as accents, adding the colors strategically to attract attention to certain areas of the menu and establish a hierarchy for the layout.

On the menu below, the blue accent color is especially appropriate for this seafood-centric restaurant, bringing to mind fresh, ocean-caught fish (even though most of the seafood here is smoked or pickled rather than fresh). But, again, it’s all about the psychology. If people like associating their seafood with crashing waves and salty ocean air (which, judging from the abundance of nautical-themed seafood restaurants, is probably pretty likely), then restaurants can make design choices that reinforce those associations.

05. They use photos sparingly.

Whether or not photographs of dishes will be an effective addition to a menu depends largely on the type of restaurant. Pairing a photograph with every dish tends to be a technique associated with low-end or cheap venues, so high-end restaurants generally avoid the practice. On the other hand, Rapp’s experience has shown that one photograph per page can increase sales for that menu item by up to 30%.

A restaurant chain like Applebee’s (which will be familiar to many American readers) is the perfect candidate for featuring photos in the menu. It’s a casual, affordable eatery with a sports bar-like atmosphere. This Applebee’s menu limits photos to one per category (or one per panel/page), and also uses brackets to highlight particular dishes.

This steakhouse uses photos sparingly in its menu, but chooses high-quality ones that play up the dish’s ingredients, colors, and textures. This technique is all about making a menu item as appealing as possible so people want to order it. So placing poor-quality or unappetizing pictures will defeat the purpose.

Alternatively, some restaurants opt for illustrations to add emphasis. You may see this at high-end restaurants (like the Balthazar menu under #2) or even at more casual eateries. For instance, this classic pizzeria features vintage-style illustrations on its menu, with one small graphic per category.

06. They use descriptive language.

You might call the names and descriptions of dishes the heart of a menu — this is the information that diners base their ordering decisions on. That’s why menu designers, engineers, and copywriters work hard to get diners’ taste buds tingling with phrasing that is appealing, appetizing, and evocative. In an interview with ABC News, Rapp says that “It’s been proven that sales will go up by almost 30 percent when they have a good description.”

He’s referring to a field experiment conducted by Dr. Brian Wansink, the director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University. This study found that descriptive menu labels (such as “succulent Italian seafood filet” vs. “seafood filet”) resulted in customers feeling more satisfied with their meal. In turn, this allowed for more favorable comments — assuming that the item lives up to expectations (i.e., is not significantly worse than expected).

Comparing dishes labeled with sensory descriptors such as “tender,” “succulent,” and “satin”; cultural/geographic terms like “Cajun” and “Italian”; and nostalgic terms like “homestyle,” “traditional,” and “Grandma’s” versus the same meals without those extra descriptors revealed an important insight: the descriptive labels increased sales by 27%.

So, needless to say, restaurants that spend some time crafting mouthwatering dish titles and descriptions will reap the rewards. Let’s take a look at some examples:

This menu has a conversational, engaging copywriting style in general, but also devotes attention to making specific dishes shine. Check out the description for the Chicken Fried Steak in the second photo below: “House-cut, tenderized, then hand-dipped and deep fried to a golden brown.” Showing the details and craftsmanship of how a dish is prepared will help diners appreciate it more.

The menu below wisely includes descriptions for every dish, keeping them brief and to the point. The writing is not too wordy or flowery, but just includes the dishes’ ingredients and how they were prepared with well-chosen descriptors like “tender,” “spicy,” “fresh,” and “homemade.”

Similarly, the names of the menu items in this example are highly descriptive on their own.

The ingredients and cooking processes speak for themselves, with phrases like “crispy,” “beer braised,” “28 day dry-aged,” and “spice crusted.”

Restaurants might also use appetizing descriptions to offset price. Here, this menu spotlights the most expensive item in its First Course category with the following description: “Char-grilled cold water lobster tail on herb spun angel hair pasta with srirachi garlic vinaigrette.” Compared with a more generic title like “Pasta with lobster and spicy garlic sauce,” this detailed label is much more likely to convince customers to splurge on a special meal.

07. They make you feel nostalgic for your old family favorites.

In the study referenced above, Dr. Wansink and his team discovered that descriptive menu labels can be effective in a number of ways, categorizing various approaches as geographic, nostalgic, sensory, or branded. The menu below opts for the geographic approach, which makes a dish like “Napa Valley Nachos” sound a little more interesting. (Plus, the alliteration with the N’s is a nice touch!)

We saw a few more of those techniques at work in the previous section, but here, we’ll focus on the power of evoking nostalgia in a menu. This approach might include reminding diners of the “good old days” when times were simpler with words like “traditional” or “homemade.” Or it might involve humanizing a dish with a reference to the chef, the restaurant owner, or where the recipe came from.

According to Rapp, “Humanizing a dish takes it out of the realm of being a commodity.”

We can see this concept in action on the menu below.. Dishes named “Chef Isaac’s Gumbo” and “Ms. Bertha’s She Crab” give the menu a personal, friendly tone.

But there’s nothing more nostalgic than evoking memories of food and family. It’s a match made in heaven, both in life and for the purposes of restaurant menu design. Because many people have happy memories of shared experiences in the kitchen or around the dining room table — maybe baking cookies with Mom or Christmas dinner at Grandma’s — using nostalgic terms that encourage customers to remember those types of feelings can be particularly effective. In his ABC News interview, Rapp offers the example of “Red Beans & Rice” vs. “Grandma’s Cajun Red Beans & Rice.”

Here’s another example from a restaurant called “The Hungry Farmer.” With a theme that brings to mind countryside picnics, fresh milk, and homemade bread, why not capitalize on those warm-and-fuzzy feelings with a dish named “Granny’s Pork Chops”?

08. They don’t use dollar signs.

Pricing — it’s one of the trickiest elements to get right on a menu, to strike that balance between making a profit and not scaring customers off. One of the first steps that menu engineers like Gregg Rapp suggest is getting rid of the dollar signs or other currency symbols. Any reference to currency reminds diners of the “pain” associated with spending money, and may lead them to order solely based on price rather than choosing menu items based on ingredients, quality, or what sounds most appealing. But, according to Rapp, leaving off the dollar signs “softens the prices.”

Not only that, but a study by The Center for Hospitality Research showed that people spend significantly more at restaurants whose menus do not include dollar signs or the word “dollar(s)” with the prices.

This restaurant has the right idea by leaving the dollar signs off its menu altogether. The technique would be even more effective if the prices weren’t lined up for easy comparison, which brings us to our next menu design tactic…

09. They bury the prices.

Rapp says that price lists are the “number-one problem” he sees on menus: “Placing your prices in a column causes customers to focus on price, not your food, and could lead them to choose the cheapest item in the column.” Which, obviously, isn’t what restaurants want.

In his restaurant consulting business, Rapp regularly makes menu prices less visible, burying them at the bottom of appealing descriptions. The menu below does just that, placing prices inconspicuously beneath item descriptions. Bonus points for leaving off the dollar signs.

Another related pricing trick that restaurants often work into their menus to distract customers from the prices is known as a “decoy.” A decoy is a menu item that seems outrageously expensive, but is there not necessarily because the restaurant expects it to sell, but rather to make other (perhaps overpriced) items look more reasonable.

Take this menu, for example. The most expensive entree, Cote de Boeuf, is $64 — more than double the price of any of the other main courses. While most people might not want to pay more than $60 for ribs (Cote de Boeuf is just French for “beef ribs”), that price might make $29 halibut or $24 chicken look a little more affordable.

10. They use friendly numbers.

Many industries capitalize on the psychology of numbers — you might fall under its influence while doing your everyday shopping or pricing a big-ticket item like a home or car. Different number combinations have different connotations: for instance, prices ending in 99 suggest value (but not necessarily quality) while those ending in 95 suggest friendliness. For the purposes of menu pricing, Rapp clarifies that prices ending in .00 seem “stuffy” while prices ending in .95 come across as ”friendlier” and more inviting.

This menu assigns prices ending in .95 to many of its dishes and also uses boxes, as well as red as an accent color, to highlight certain parts of the menu — combining a few of the different tactics we’ve discussed so far.

Now that you have an insider perspective on the psychology behind menu design, here are a few more design examples that feature many of the concepts we’ve covered (see if you can spot them!), as well qualities like nice typography, interesting embellishments, and well-planned layouts for your viewing pleasure.

Inspired? Design Your Own!

Now it’s time to apply your creative genius! Why not try designing your own menu in Canva using the skills you’ve learned in this article. If you have any feedback, comments or questions – we’d love to hear it in the comments below!

Inspired? You might also be interested in these awesome articles:

Helping users navigate should be a high priority for almost every website and application. After all, even the coolest feature or the most compelling content is useless if people can’t find it. And even if you have a search function, you usually shouldn’t rely on search as the only way to navigate. Most designers recognize this, and include some form of navigation menu in their designs.

Definition: Navigation menus are lists of content categories or features, typically presented as a set of links or icons grouped together with visual styling distinct from the rest of the design.

Navigation menus include, but are not limited to, navigation bars and hamburger menus.

Menus are so important that you find them in virtually every website or piece of software you encounter, but not all menus are created equally. Too often we observe users struggling with menus that are confusing, difficult to manipulate, or simply hard to find.

Avoid common mistakes by following these guidelines for usable navigation menus:

Make It Visible

  1. Don’t use tiny menus (or menu icons) on large screens. Menus shouldn’t be hidden when you have plenty of space to display them.
  2. Put menus in familiar locations. Users expect to find UI elements where they’ve seen them before on other sites or apps (e.g., left rail, top of the screen). Make these expectations work in your favor by placing your menus where people expect to find them.
  3. Make menu links look interactive. Users may not even realize that it’s a menu if the options don’t look clickable (or tappable). Menus may seem to be just decorative pictures or headings if you incorporate too many graphics, or adhere too strictly to principles of flat design.
  4. Ensure that your menus have enough visual weight. In many cases menus that are placed in familiar locations don’t require much surrounding white space or color saturation in order to be noticeable. But if the design is cluttered, menus that lack visual emphasis can easily be lost in a sea of graphics, promotions, and headlines that compete for the viewer’s attention.
  5. Use link text colors that contrast with the background color. It’s amazing how many designers ignore contrast guidelines; navigating through digital space is disorienting enough without having to squint at the screen just to read the menu.

Even designers familiar with all of these guidelines can still end up creating menus that are overlooked by users, because it is so difficult to objectively evaluate your own work — especially for subjective criteria like whether something is visible. If you know where it is (because you put it there), then of course you can see it! That’s why it’s so important to test your menus with users.

Communicate the Current Location

  1. Tell users ‘where’ the currently visible screen is located within the menu options. “Where am I?” is one of the fundamental questions users need to answer to successfully navigate. Users rely on visual cues from menus (and other navigation elements such a breadcrumbs) to answer this critical question. Failing to indicate the current location is probably the single most common mistake we see on website menus. Ironically, these menus have the greatest need to orient users, since visitors often don’t enter from the homepage.

Coordinate Menus with User Tasks

  1. Use understandable link labels. Figure out what users are looking for, and use category labels that are familiar and relevant. Menus are not the place to get cute with made-up words and internal jargon. Stick to terminology that clearly describes your content and features.
  2. Make link labels easy to scan. You can reduce the amount of time users need to spend reading menus by left-justifying vertical menus and by front-loading key terms.
  3. For large websites, use menus to let users preview lower-level content. If typical user journeys involve drilling down through several levels, mega-menus (or traditional drop-downs) can save users time by letting them skip a level (or two).
  4. Provide local navigation menus for closely related content. If people frequently want to compare related products or complete several tasks within a single section, make those nearby pages visible with a local navigation menu, rather than forcing people to ‘pogo stick’ up and down your hierarchy.
  5. Leverage visual communication. Images, graphics, or colors that help users understand the menu options can aid comprehension. But make sure the images support user tasks (or at least don't make the tasks more difficult).

Make It Easy to Manipulate

  1. Make menu links big enough to be easily tapped or clicked. Links that are too small or too close together are a huge source of frustration for mobile users, and also make large-screen designs unnecessarily difficult to use.
  2. Ensure that drop-downs are not too small or too big. Hover-activated drop-downs that are too short quickly become an exercise in frustration, because they tend to disappear while you’re trying to mouse over them to click a link. On the other hand, vertical drop-downs that are too long make it difficult to access links near the bottom of the list, because they may be cut off below the edge of the screen and require scrolling. Finally, hover-activated drop-downs that are too wide are easily mistaken for new pages, creating user confusion about why the page has seemingly changed even though they haven’t clicked anything.
  3. Consider ‘sticky’ menus for long pages. Users who have reached the bottom of a long page may face a lot of tedious scrolling before they can get back to the menus at the top. Menus that remain visible at the top of the viewport even after scrolling can solve that problem and are especially welcome on smaller screens.
  4. Optimize for easy physical access to frequently used commands. For drop-down menus, this means putting the most common items close to the link target that launches the drop-down (so the user's mouse or finger won't have to travel as far. Recently, some mobile apps have even begun reviving pie menus, which keep all the menu options nearby by arranging them in a circle (or semicircle).

‘Wow’ the User with Innovative and Interesting Menu-Interaction Methods

Actually…no.

Attempting to impress your users with cool effects should not be one of your priorities when creating menus. Other designers may be impressed by novel menu designs, but users tend to be far more impressed by great content that is attractively presented and easily accessed with familiar menus.

Of course sometimes new types of menus improve the user experience. (Mega-menus are a great example of this phenomenon.) Or, sometimes new technologies are so different that some of these guidelines won't apply — for example, the guideline for visual weight is irrelevant to voice-recognition systems. But these cases are few and far between, and most interfaces will be easier to use if they adhere to these principles.

(Learn more about menus in our full-day course on Navigation Design.)