Restaurant Design Psychology: Greatness is in the Details
June 21, 2017 Cristina Villalón
restaurant design

7 Clever Tricks to Serve Guests What They Want: A Delectable Experience

Before they prepare and serve food, restaurants must persuade would-be dining guests to enter and choose to eat there. The secret to a full house is to use restaurant design psychology to cater to the senses of guests and provide a captivating, authentic and memorable experience.

Guests’ feelings and experiences are influenced by their five senses. Good food is not enough to keep them coming back for more, just as nice decor is not enough to entice them to return if the food isn’t good. Most customers are not aware of how restaurant design affects their experience, but they know how they feel in that space.

Restaurants can use details, such as interesting light fixtures, to skillfully craft an attractive atmosphere, promote their brand and stimulate guests’ appetites. Every single design detail contributes to the pleasure or displeasure of dining guests.

There are more than 1 million restaurant locations in the U.S. competing against each other for a piece of an $800 billion industry sales pie, according to National Restaurant Association data. Each one is trying to differentiate itself from the competition. It’s all in the details.

Restaurant Design Details That Cater to Every Sense

Before focusing on the details, a restaurant needs a big picture: a concept and story behind the design. Every detail must be in agreement with the concept and tell that story. Without a concept, the details would not make sense, and without the details there would be no story.

1. Lighting

Lighting is key in restaurant design. It affects human behavior in fascinating ways.

  • Use ambient lighting to set a mood and make guests comfortable, accent lighting to draw attention, and task lighting to illuminate staff areas.
  • Ambient lighting blends reflections from various surfaces to produce a uniform, pleasant light.
  • Adjust the lights to suit the time of day, dimming them as the night progresses.
  • Avoid bright downlights over tables that cast shadows over guests’ faces.
  • Neither too bright nor too dark is good.

2. Color

Color plays a huge role in how people feel and behave in a space, adding another layer of sensory stimulation that helps set the right mood and express a restaurant’s concept. Colors influence space perception. Pastel cool colors can enlarge a small place, while dark warm colors can shrink a space. Bold, primary colors and bright lighting encourage quick turnover at fast food shops.

  • Black and gold convey a sophisticated, upscale, powerful image.
  • Brown makes a space natural and comfortable.
  • White neutralizes food colors, making them less appetizing, and causes glare.
  • Red, orange and other warm colors stimulate the appetite, while gray suppresses it.
  • Green induces thirst.
  • Yellow elicits warmth and well-being, ideal for breakfast restaurants.
  • Blue is not a food color, so it must be used carefully and in smart combinations.

3. Sound

Silence isn’t always golden when it comes to restaurants, but it can work in small, intimate dinning rooms whose natural sounds along with guests’ conversations provide the right atmosphere. Extreme silence and noise drive customers away.

When it’s too loud, guests can’t hear each other; when it’s too quiet, others can hear their conversations. When people can talk and hear each other, they stay longer and open their wallets.

  • Loud noise is good for bars, particularly music, which boosts drink sales.
  • Consider making some areas louder (near the bar) than others (away from the bar).
  • Music should match the restaurant’s concept and tell its story, which can change on weekends, for example, when a restaurant could feature live music.

4. Scent

A restaurant should have an aroma that is appealing to guests. Different smells trigger different experiences and powerful memories. Research shows that custom scents can increase sales by 300 percent. It’s no wonder so many retail establishments are relying on scents to influence customers.

  • Baked bread: homey, comforting, kind
  • Vanilla: calming, warm, inviting, friendly
  • Lavender: peaceful, balancing, reduces depression and anxiety
  • Fresh cotton: casual, comforting, playful, soft
  • Baby powder: safe, secure, childhood
  • Citrus: alert, fresh, energizing
  • Pine tree: outdoorsy, homey, happy, soothing

5. Comfortable Furniture

This one should be obvious, but you’d be surprised how many restaurants ignore this very simple detail: comfortable furniture translates into comfortable guests who end up staying longer and spending more.

Fast food establishments, on the other hand, profit from fast turnover rates, so their hard, cold seats encourage customers to eat and leave quickly.

6. Temperature & Ventilation

Kitchens emit a lot of heat, smoke and smells, making proper ventilation and temperature control a must in restaurant design. Air conditioning in the summer and heating in the winter are not luxuries but necessities. Restaurants that allow smoking should install adequate ventilation systems to keep non-smokers comfortable and able to breath relatively fresh air.

7. Seating & Spacing

Every table in a restaurant should be a good table. No one wants to sit next to the bathroom. Crowded dining rooms are uncomfortable and oppressing. Americans are very protective of their space and prefer to sit up against something, hence the popularity of booths, where per-minute spending is higher because of the physical and psychological comfort they offer.

  • There should be enough space between the tables to walk around without bumping into other guests.
  • Most guests prefer sitting in smaller sections or larger spaces that are divided into smaller areas.
  • Intimate corners are charming, but the staff needs to be able to see the guests.
  • Round tables soften the look but can’t be combined to allow for flexibility in accommodating larger groups.

Other details, such as artwork, tableware, uniforms and fixtures, also have subtle psychological and behavioral effects on guests and should be considered during the design process. Everything the guests see, hear, smell, touch and taste becomes part their experience and a memory they will choose to repeat or forget. As Charles Eames wisely said, “The details are not the details. They make the design.”


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