Thursday, December 24, 2009

How Menus Control You More Than You Realize

The Times dining section this week ran a story about the psychology of menu design. After eating at Alinea a few months ago and encountering their unconventional menu structure, and after reading New York Magazine's feature breaking down Balthazar's menu, I had planned to pen a piece on my observations about menu designs (this is what I get for procrastinating). After all, it mimics my main job, as Sarah Kershaw says here:

"Menu design draws some of its inspiration from newspaper layout, which puts the most important articles at the top right of the front page, where the eyes tend to be drawn. Some restaurants will place their most profitable items, or their specials, in that spot. Or they place a dotted outline or a box around the item, put more white space around it to make the dish stand out or, in what menu researchers say is one of the most effective tools, add a photograph of the item or an icon like a chili pepper."

When we ate at Alinea, the menu was presented to us at the end of the meal in a black envelope. For someone looking to remember every detail of the meal just consumed, the spare list of ingredients left me wanting. Not only did the bubbles represent the size of the dishes, but the waitstaff explained that the position along the left-to-right spectrum indicated the savoriness or sweetness of the dishes. The farther left, the more savory; the farther right, the sweeter. Alinea had this luxury because diners didn't need to rely on it for ordering purposes. It was a dismissive hand wave to the traditional menu structure.

It was also after eating at The Breslin that I began to ponder how accustomed we are to menu divisions of appetizers and main dishes and sides. Perhaps that has been diluted some by the proliferation of small plates restaurants, but generally there still exists some sort of hierarchy so people understand how to order and how much to order. Confused customers aren't as likely to enjoy their experience, after all.

In addition to menu layouts, we often also use price as a gauge of a dish's intention — something meant to whet our appetites or meant to make a meal. Here, I got the impression that the menu was set up in the smallest-to-largest hierarchy, but was confused by similar pricing above and below the line I assumed divided appetizers from main courses. After inquiring about the size of the Goat's Cheese and Leek Tart, I was told it would be large enough for lunch. It may be a ploy to get people to order more from the pricier dishes below or maybe they just haven't figured out menu psychology yet.

All of this just makes more of a case for what I've always believed in — design is a manipulative tool with power so subtle that most people don't even recognize it.

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