A Mini Sermon About Design

First off, I’m sorry if this sounds like a lecture. I’m not sure how to express it another way.

I hear from a lot of small business and start-up customers who are confused about design. This is not surprising because design is complicated and is not the same thing as shopping, styling or decorating. Design is about making things that work. Great design is about making things that both work and are beautiful. Engineers and Architects are types of designer. It takes years to train and get good at it and requires a deep knowledge of both art and technology. You can learn a little on a short course but it’s not enough to teach you more than the very basics.

During my career as a designer I've met lots of customers who believed they were better designers than me. Normally, they told me how to design for them by copying designs that had been made by others. This is not original thinking or using any imagination to see things in new ways so it’s not how genuine designers work.

If you’re designing your home only you have to worry about whether or not you like it, at least until you want to sell it, at which point you may have added value if you’ve done things well. If you’re designing a business, getting its design wrong (normally by basing it on your own personal tastes and not what the market demands) will likely work out a lot more expensive than hiring the most expensive designer you can find. As you can imagine, I see a lot of dreadful mess-ups.

If you’re confused about how to design then maybe it’s because you haven’t done your ten thousand hours (more in my case) of seeing projects through from concept to completion. It’s impossible to be confident in this situation unless you don’t know that you don’t know what you’re doing.

My suggestion is that you think about hiring an expert. The only one you can afford is the best.

And lastly, there’s no such thing as free design. So called ‘free design’ is just a way for kitchen makers, and those like them, to sell modular units. I believe that the use of the term ‘free design’ has lead many to think that design is always a free entitlement and that this leads to them not looking for paid advice when it would be best.

Jamie's Italian and Other Failing Chains in the UK

Today’s news is that Jamie Oliver’s Italian restaurant chain has failed. This is just the latest in a string of similar stories.

I’m not going to comment on why this is happening but I have observed since the 1990s that there have been increasingly fewer viable restaurant locations available to smaller operators, who have been squeezed out and out-competed by bigger money. I’m not sure this has been a good thing.

So, whilst I feel sad for Jamie and, moreover, for his staff, I see a chance for new, fresh entrepreneurs to pick up where he’s had to call a break and I predict that the market will re-balance quickly away from stereotypical brands

For the first time in two decades there are lots of viable locations available now and most of them will have expensive infrastructure, including kitchens and ventilation systems that can be re-purposed for a fraction of their new costs.

Highly trained staff will be looking for jobs. Maybe landlords will accept compromises.

Brave, up and coming restauratuers should see this as an opportunity that won’t last long

Credit Where It’s Due

I just got these photos of a restaurant I designed in 2016. it’s recently opened following a few fairly normal delays and teething troubles and I think it looks great!  The reviews are good too so I predict that it will do well.

I put a huge amount of work into this design but I think at least equal credit has to go to photographer Martin Behrman, who has generously allowed me to use his images. 

These days the majority of customers find your restaurant on line first so quality Images that really pop are worth a huge amount.  I’d go so far as to say that there’s little point in spending huge sums designing and building a food outlet in the first place unless you’re ready to hire a top interior photographer, like Martin, to help you show it off.

Here’s a link to Martin’s website – go take a look!




Do One Thing Excellently

Understandably most start up food businesses I hear from want to reach the maximum number of potential customers.

To achieve this mostly they dumb it down, average it out and fall over themselves trying to please everyone by offering more and more choice.

Can you see the problem?

When you seek to please with everyone, you rarely delight anyone.

The answer is simple but counter intuitive:

Consider the smallest market you can imagine. The smallest one that can sustain your business and that you can adequately serve.

Become an expert in that market.  Better still, become ‘the expert’ in that market.  Make only the best burger or the best mojito or the tastiest, most imaginative cupcakes.  Never all three.

In most cities there are many more customers for the ideal product than any small business needs to thrive.  Only in tiny, far-flung towns and villages do you need to think about pleasing everyone.

This may be counter-intuitive. It may go against everything you learned in business school but in fact it’s the simplest way to get noticed.

Because you can’t be famous for doing a lot of things averagely

But you’re bound to get famous for doing one thing excellently.


Better than it needs to be

A lot of people who contact me just want a new restaurant cheap or quick, and normally both.  They can rarely afford a designer, let alone the costs of building the design itself.

I politely decline to work on projects like these because I don’t find fulfillment in taking money for designs that I know will never get made, only frustration.  It’s really better for people on a budget or in a rush to save their money and make do without a designer.

Instead of design, they can create customer engagement with nothing but the power of their personalities. This works if they are outgoing, warm and generous but often traps them front of house full time.  No days off, ever, which is cool, if that’s what they want.  Some do.

What if we look at that restaurant another way though?

Instead of making it as cheap as possible and building it fast why not make it more generous, more fair, more responsive to its customers than it needs to be? Why not deliver the food and service with more flair, more care and more urgency?

Why not create a compelling message around good food and drink in a refreshing, comfortable and stimulating environment?

This builds a much stronger business with the right foundations for growth and expansion because it isn’t reliant on the charisma of just one person but instead on the power of its generous ethos, which is embodied in its design.  A design that can be repeated time and again and which can be managed by a team and not just one person.

Of course the type of people who create restaurants like this do it because they can, not because they have to. They invest the time and money it takes without fear.

I’m on board with people like that, every time!


Design Everything

Many people I hear from think that design is about shopping or colours whilst any serious designer will tell you that it's about thinking in new ways about doing things differently so that others notice for the right reasons.

This 'Design Thinking' can be applied to everything a business does, by anyone who brave enough to take the initiative.

Or perhaps it could just change the message too, "due to unusually lazy or frustrated design and systems staff (and their uninvolved management), we're going to torture you every single time you interact with us.

Thanks for your patience."

Avoiding the Budget Trap

I just had a short email correspondence with a restaurant owner

He wrote to say that he wanted to find the cheapest builder or designer, this is a common occurrence.

I asked him what made him think that, if he could not afford to do things right the first time, he’d ever be able to do them all over again.

And that was the end of that.

Insufficient time and money is the biggest mistake novices make.  It’s better for beginners to wait until the right time in their lives than rush in and destroy what may be their only chance.  I don’t like to crush refreshing enthusiasm and sometimes feel like I’m the meanest dragon in the den but I’ve seen the results of under-budgeting enough.

If you’d like to know more about this here’s a link to a help sheet I've written.


But What if it Works?

Getting Your Restaurant Off The Ground

Several times in my career I’ve experienced restaurant projects that I just can’t get off the ground.  This has always been down to clients who keep changing their minds about the design and putting the launch date back, mostly for flimsy reasons. I even had one small project that went on in an endless spiral of unnecessary design revisions and self-imposed setbacks for 8 years.  In the end I had to remove myself politely because I couldn’t live with the frustration and disappointment.

This typically happens between couples or businesses run by families or committees who are not comfortable together.  I’ve noticed that they seem to appoint advisors as relationship counselors or mediators instead of facing up to their own internal differences.

The Indecisive end up wasting huge sums on drawings and designs that never get implemented.  So, whilst consultants like me get paid, the wasted effort is too big a drain on our creativity.

The strange thing is that it's always my best ideas that get squashed so I’ve come to the conclusion that the problem is not fear of failure but fear of success.

Because if the design works, things are going to change and, although I embrace it, not everyone else is ready.  Some prefer the idea to the reality.

Asteroid Impact

I think that the answer is to set a clear timetable and agree the launch date up-front.  You can then set deadlines after which decisions made can only be changed in exceptional circumstances - asteroid impact for example.

Get everyone to buy in and then launch.  Ready or not.

How to Think About Colours Professionally

Colours define the type of customer who a restaurant will appeal to.  They define the emotions that the design has to convey and they start the conversation with the customer.  Before they've even read the name on the sign over the door people have understood what its colours say.

Colours can set the design apart from competitors (or make it fit in) and they can act as a visual shortcut to instant brand recognition.  This is why big brands select very precise colour schemes and stick to them.

Colour selection is often not given the professional attention it deserves.  I like to select colours very early on in the design of a restaurant before pretty much all the other work and as soon as I've clarified my client's instructions, researched competitors and defined the target.

Non-designers nearly always get this wrong.  To tell the truth so do many paid designers. Mostly because they choose the colours they like personally.

I always employ a trained Colour Psychologist even on the simplest projects.  It makes a huge difference to the outcome and potentially to the success of the whole venture.

By way of example here's a colour palette I just produced with my team for a small Indian restaurant. (I'd publish something for a bigger project but it wouldn't fit.)













13 Fruit Pies And Other Short Stories

Too Many Prawns

I had a delicious lunch in an Indian restaurant recently and then someone reminded me of this famous quotation . . .

"A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."

This made me wonder if all 18 King Prawn dishes on the fish section the huge, multi-section menu were really necessary and why so many restaurant owners fall into the trap of thinking that offering their customers more options leads to greater profits.

18 Prawn Dishes In One Section of One Menu

18 Prawn Dishes In One Section of One Menu

The Paradox of Choice

The Paradox of Choice - Why More Is Less,  is a book by American psychologist Barry Schwartz. In the book, Schwartz argues that eliminating consumer choices can greatly reduce anxiety.  Here’s why: we humans are more afraid of making the wrong choice than we are of making no choice at all so when confronted with a large array of options we’ll most likely either buy the one we already know we like or we’ll buy nothing.

You might think that this means that you have to offer every customer a dish that they already like but that’s what leads to an unmanageable menu (perhaps with too many prawn dishes) to anxiety for your customers and to an inefficient business that’s difficult to manage.

The World’s First Business Computer

Most probably you’ve never heard of Lyons but chances are that if your grandparents are British they’ll remember them with affection.

In 1894 Lyons started as a teashop in Piccadilly, London and, from 1909, developed this into a vast nationwide chain of teashops known as Lyons' Corner Houses.  Lyons also ran high class restaurants and hotels. From the 1930s Lyons began to develop a pioneering range of teas, biscuits and cakes that were sold in grocery stores across the world.

Leo 1 - The World's First Business Computer

Leo 1 - The World's First Business Computer


After the second world war the top management of Lyons foresaw the need of new electrical computers for organising the distribution of cakes and other highly perishable products. Therefore, they helped finance the University of Cambridge's Electronic Delay Storage Automatic Calculator (EDSAC), built their own programmable digital computers and, in 1951, became the first business to use a computer. The Lyons Electronic Office, LEO 1, It handled the company's accounts and logistics.

Of course by today’s standards LEO 1 was slow and crude. It was also huge, taking a whole large room to create the computing power of a modern hearing aid.  Nevertheless, it enabled Lyons to analyse sales data in unprecedented detail.

13 Fruit Pies

When I was a small kid in London Lyons Individual Fruit Pies were a treat that we always took on family picnics in the country.  First introduced by Lyons in the 1930's, long before I was available to eat them, these square-shaped pies had fruit or fruit puree fillings and were individually boxed.

Eventually, and perhaps due to the analytical power of early computing, the individual pies were made in 13 different flavours:  apple, apricot, raspberry, rhubarb, gooseberry, mince, blackberry & apple, blackcurrant, cherry, orange, peach, pineapple, and lemon curd. Sometimes these flavours changed but as one was added another was taken away so that the total range only ever numbered 13 choices.

It turns out that 13 flavours are the optimal range of choice.  Jam manufacturers’ too found that any more choice than 13 options often leads to lower sales, not more.

Worth remembering then because the chances are that if you have fewer than 13 choices on your menu, your restaurant will do better, not worse.

You're Never Fully Baked

For a chef, baking things for the right amount of time is critical.  A minute too much can burn the dish.

In life generally and in design especially this rule doesn't apply.  Design is an ongoing lesson that there will be ongoing lessons. You're never done. Surgeons and Architects are expected to keep studying for their entire career—in fact, it's required to keep a license valid.  I think the same way about my job.

Yet many knowledge workers often act as if they're fully baked, thinking that more training and learning is not just unnecessary but a distraction.

I read today that the average knowledge worker reads fewer than one business book a year.

On the other hand I read one or two books every week.  The image shows small subset of my Kindle library. On top of that I read a two newspapers and countless web posts every day.  When I'm not working or sleeping I'm reading.

Show me your bookshelf, or the courses you take, or the questions you ask, and I'll have a hint as to how much you care about leveling up like me.


Keeping Ahead

I just installed Vectorworks 2017 Designer, the latest version of my favourite CAD and rendering software, issued today. It's the 21st year I've been using this package.

I always advise advise my clients to buy the best tools so naturally the same applies to me.

If you're a geek, like me, you can see more about what it can do here - it's certainly moved on since 1996



Credit Where It Belongs

La Rascasse

Last week I was invited to lunch for some lovely clients whose bar I designed exactly 20 years ago.  They remembered July 20 1996 as being the launch date and the huge amount of money they took that night from what was then a very small outlet.

Since then La Rascasse (http://www.larascasse.com) has grown to fill the unit next door and all the land behind right into every corner.  It has been a huge success, commercially and in the way it has fulfilled it's owners needs, employed loyal staff and delighted customers. It is pretty well full most of the time.

My clients were kind enough to credit me with this success (and their staff blamed me sarcastically for their busy jobs) but that is not fair.  Great restaurants don't come from great designers.  It's the other way around. Great designers come from great clients who let them have the trust and freedom to create new, brave ideas.  I may have helped by sowing a seed but it took my clients years of cultivating it to make it grow into the success it has been.

It was a lovely lunch and my reward is I'm now going to get to design it all over again.

I can't wait to start.

Try Charging More

How can a can a small coffee shop owner hope to compete with Starbucks or a mom and pop pizza restaurant with Dominos?

Scale is often the secret to retail.  With scale comes efficiency, which drives down prices and increases sales.  This results in cut-throat corner cutting that small operators can only match by working long hours for minimal returns.  It’s a race to the bottom.

But what if instead of charging less they charged more?

What if they say “we’re always a dollar” more and they spend that dollar, all of it, on their staff?

Or on their coffee producers in the third world?

What kind of person buys the cheap coffee produced by subsistence farmers or the pizza made by the stressed out crew on minimum wage?

Some people will always want the cheapest, regardless of what it costs them in the end but in market after market there are organisations who proudly charge more and who are worth it.

Too Much Information

We’re obsessed with data. Who ordered it? Who ate what? What percentage? What's trending? What's yielding? How many reactions on Facebook? Really!

But there are some people who don't need more data...

Anyone who's making a long-term commitment to a new type of restaurant. Brave people who want to create art, to make a difference, to challenge the mass market.

Because when you want to make that sort of change, data is the cudgel your enemies will use to push you to build more restaurants like those you can already see.

Over dependence on data paves the road to the bottom. It’s the junkie’s lazy way to figure out what to do next. It's addicted to the short-term, shot-in-the arm quick fix.

Data got us McDonalds, Starbucks and a thousand other ‘me too’ franchises.

There’s no data for the future, only your imagination, intuition and your determination to commit to perfection and the bravery to see things through.

When to Protect Your Profits

I hear from many restaurants of all sizes whose owners are managing decline. Normally it’s too late to help them because they’ve run out of capital.

The best way to avoid this problem is with foresight when you’re a success and making money.  If you’ve waited for regular customers to stop coming you’ve left it too late and you may get sucked into a whirlpool from which there’s no escape.

I think this is worth repeating, staying clear of the downward spiral before it gets expensive and difficult is far better than paying a premium in a rush when it becomes an emergency and your money's all spent.

Good design; kept up to date, is a cheap, highly leveraged way to retain your customers and attract even more. The cost of a refurbishment and re-brand that will last a decade or more is normally less than the value of 6 months’ of sales for a successful restaurant and a tiny fraction of the cost paying its staff and rent over its lifetime.  What's more it nearly always pays for itself with renewed customer engagement.

The magic of slack (surplus profit or capital or a little extra time in the refurbishment process) is that it gives you the resources to stop and avoid problems or fix them when they’re small.

Over-optimized and fast-growing restaurant chains often misunderstand the value this slack, they always wait until something is a pressing emergency, because their owners don't have a moment to spare. Expensive.

Careful design now is almost always cheaper now than rushed design later.

When The Design of Your Restaurant Is More Important Than Its Food

The design of your restaurant isn't going to change the flavour of the meal.

Except, of course, it does.

It does because most times people can't judge the meal until they’ve eaten it, but they can judge the packaging. And if they choose someone else's restaurant, you never get a chance.

Not only that, but confirmation bias creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. We like what we liked. The customer would rather be proven right than proven wrong.

That's why it's so important to understand the worldview and biases of the customers you seek to influence, to connect with, to delight. And why the signs we display matter so much more than we imagine.

It’s why you shouldn’t leap at the design you like or that you want to give to the world and why you should first ask the world what it wants from you.

 It's not always fair that we need to worry about how we and our work will be judged but until we come up with a better way to communicate what we've done though, prepare to be judged in advance by your design.


Sincerity – It’s The Vital Ingredient


Recently a restaurant owner told me that he thinks that the most important elements for food outlet success are: -

1.     Location

2.     Menu

3.     Service

4.     Atmosphere

5.     Escape plan

This is what most people think but we all know restaurants that have these things and fail; hence the need for an escape plan.  We also all know restaurants that don’t have all or even most of these elements yet they somehow get away with it.

But I don’t know any restaurant that has succeeded well for long without sincerity. It’s the one vital ingredient.

Small independent restaurant owners can sincerely engage their customers with the simple power of their personalities; perhaps leveraged with interesting social media posts.

Big chains operators engage us with a well-trained team and a thoughtful design that runs right through all their customer touch points. These things can compensate for a failure of any of the other elements, so long as they are sincere.

Of course it’s best if you have a great location, menu, service and atmosphere too but unless you find a way to engage sincerely chances are they won’t be enough.  They are just a way to start the conversation, they’re not enough to prolong it.

People like to talk about themselves. They like it when we listen to them. So, as I wrote before, your restaurant is not about you, it’s about your customers, and customers respond best when you listen, sincerely.

How To Avoid The Budget Trap

This is vital advice about project costs for novices contemplating building a new bar, restaurant or coffee shop in a competitive environment

“In order to successfully enter a new market any food or drink outlet must exceed standards set by incumbent competitors.
So there is no point in opening a restaurant or café that fails to exceed expectations, which will almost invariably have been set by large chain operators spending large sums to attract carefully targeted groups of customers.
If you try to launch a new restaurant or café into a crowded market without doing things right you won’t get a second chance. Ugly doesn’t sell. If you don’t spend enough to solve this problem, which may be more that you want to spend, then you’ll probably waste all of your money.
In my view, it is a failure to appreciate these simple facts that leads to the failure of most new food and drink ventures. I call this the budget trap. This article describes a common scenario.
Since writing this the first tile many years ago I have heard from any number of distraught people who have told me this scenario is just like a scene from their lives.
The good news is that once you understand it you can avoid it and build success”
A Common Scenario
1. How The Budget Trap is Set

A novice restaurateur or coffee shop owner has partly devised a concept and sales offer. They may even have acquired premises. They have raised funds based on their own estimation of the likely fitting out costs or a loose quotation provided by a general builder. It is unlikely they have done enough proper market analysis to find out if their concept is best suited to their locality. So they have costs and market opinion based on gut feeling and don’t have a clear picture of what customers want or what the true up front costs will be. On this basis they can’t predict their true break-even or capital requirements. It's already a bad situation but novices are often blind to facts that disagree with their enthusiasms.

Next the novice restaurateur finds a suitable architect or designer specialising in food outlets. Most of these specialist designers are reluctant because they have seen novice clients fall into the budget trap many times; this reluctance is sensed by the restaurateur who misinterprets it as greed and becomes wrongly suspicious of the designer’s good motives.

The specialist designer discusses the project and possibly makes a site visit. They may analyse local competitors. They then express a rough view that the construction budget should be, for example, £2000 per square meter.

At this stage, based on other similar experiences, the designer may express concerns about the viability of the concept. They may say that it is pitched to low to the market and the cost per meter should be higher putting up the estimated set up costs or break even.  They may say that the proposed site is too small to ever break even and become viable or they may say it is too large or that it requires too many expensive remedial building works.  All these examples happen often because most premises available to novices are those that more experienced operators have already rejected.

The novice restaurateur, already being suspicious, considers this advice but has a budget of £1000 per square meter, to them a huge sum.   They haven’t fitted a restaurant before but, perhaps lead by their blind faith in themselves, they assume the specialist designer is wrong or advising them to spend more out of self-interest. They don’t see the need to use specialist fit out contractors to get the most out of the expert design. Some or all of these matters aren’t discussed openly but the parties still agree to go ahead. The would-be restaurateur thinking that the designer has deliberately overstated the costs and the designer thinking that the client has taken their advice and can raise enough money.

The budget trap has now been set

2. The Budget Trap is Sprung

The project proceeds and the designer produces drawings with which the client is happy. The next stage of more complex drawings is produced, often taking days or weeks. Everyone is happy.

Next the designer suggests some specialist fit out contractors to build the outlet properly. A specification is drawn up that includes many items that the novice restaurateur forgot to include in their budget. The tenders are returned and they are all around, for example, £2000 per square metre. Double the funds the client has raised but in line with the designer’s predictions.

Guess what happens next? Well if there isn’t a dispute, then the design gets cut back. The costs of providing basic services to the restaurant, such as heating, ventilation, kitchens and toilets are always about 65% of the total. These costs can’t be reduced, they have been designed to minimum building standards set by law. So, the cuts happen in the furnishings, light fittings, signs and decorations.

The project goes ahead but now the budget trap has been sprung. The restaurant or café does not compare well with the incumbent competition. There is no money left for marketing or for a good website.  Enough customers do not come, or if they do, they are unimpressed and they don’t return. Word spreads, quickly these days because of social networking. The venture fails, sometimes within weeks, and all the investment is lost.

3. How To Avoid The Budget Trap

This is easy, it just takes simple planning and a little expense

Ask your designer and contractors to work with a specialist quantity surveyor who will provide truthful,  independent and detailed advice about project costs before your project commences or as soon as initial drawings have been prepared.

Make sure the costing advice is then updated regularly throughout the project.

Of course the quantity surveyor will charge for this service but these charges will be a small proportion of the total costs and represent an investment to make sure you plan your finances properly and don’t get trapped.

Be ready to postpone the project until you have enough money. If it cost you a little to find out you didn't have enough don't regret it, you just saved a huge sum.


Executive Summary

If you want to open a truly successful restaurant or cafe, you’ll need to spend enough to beat incumbent competitors.

This may be more than you want to spend.

If you spend less than this amount, there’s a higher risk that you’re going to lose all of your money.

Don’t assume you can find a way to spend less and still get a better result than the major competitors.  They didn’t get where they are by spending any more than they had to and they have established procurement chains and string buying power.

Don’t jump to the conclusion that an experienced designer is wrong about costs even if they seem sky high to you.  Find out properly from an independent quantity surveyor.

There is every hope of success if you do things right.

I'd love to help

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