The psychology of design

Melbourne’s Munich Brauhaus trades on the noise and vibe of a beer hall. Photo: Tom Blachford

Harsh lighting, music that’s too loud, and the wrong colour scheme are some of the factors that can dissuade customers from choosing your bar or restaurant—even if they like the menu. Which is why it pays to ensure that the interior and mood of your establishment is just right, writes Petra Starke.

Ask the average person to describe their favourite restaurant, and they’ll likely tell you all about the wonderful food, the warm service and the extensive wine list.

They probably won’t wax lyrical about the lighting, or the colour of the walls, or the amount of space between the tables. Yet the design of a restaurant, from the ceiling height down to the choice of flooring, can have a psychological effect on how customers view a restaurant—and how much they spend there.

Associate head of the School of Art, Architecture and Design at the University of South Australia, Jane Lawrence, says there’s a simple trick when it comes to getting customers to spend more money in your restaurant, and that’s getting them to spend more time there.

“Service, price and turnover aside, if patrons are to spend more in a restaurant, they need to stay longer. If a bar or restaurant is comfortable, then patrons are likely to linger,” she says.

So how do you ensure they linger? Enter the designer.

Michael Delany, of design studio International Worldwide, is the creative force behind some of Australia’s hottest restaurants and bars.

He says two of the most essential elements to get right in any hospitality venue are lighting and sound design.

“In a nutshell, it’s all about lighting and sound levels; they’re super important when it comes to making people stay and feel comfortable,” he says.

“If you’re sitting near a speaker that’s really loud and you can’t hear your friend talking, that’s a really basic thing that affects the feel. And always, always, flattering lighting is essential, no matter what business it is.”

“Service, price and turnover aside, if patrons are to spend more in a restaurant, they need to stay longer. If a bar or restaurant is comfortable, then patrons are likely to linger.Jane Lawrence, School of Art, Architecture and Design, University of South Australia

Lawrence agrees, saying good lighting design can make customers subconsciously feel better about themselves, and therefore want to spend more time—and money—in a venue.

“The type, colour and positioning of lighting affects our personal appearance and skin tone and how we see ourselves and others—think blue, flickering fluoro in a bathroom compared with pools of soft, warm lighting. It’s critical,” she says.

Restaurant lighting can even have a psychological effect on how customers order. Spotlighting table tops with a gentle pool of light can suggest a defined territory for each dining group, creating a feeling of intimacy that coaxes customers to linger longer. A 2016 study by Cornell University in New York even found dim or atmospheric lighting in restaurants led to diners eating more slowly, ordering richer food, and enjoying it more.

But dark and moody isn’t always best, says Matiya Marovich, director of award-winning Adelaide-based design company Sans-Arc Studio.

Rich colour, low lighting and oversized images projected onto brick walls give Bar Machiavelli in Sydney a dramatic feel.

“It may not work for every environment to be dimly lit and romantic; attention should be paid to how the customer will feel in a particular space,” he says.

“A light-filled space with high ceilings is going to have a more positive, elevated mood than a romantically-lit basement.”

Equally critical is sound design, which can encourage conversation and help stimulate customer spending when done correctly. But getting it right can sometimes mean going against current design trends such as stripped brick walls, metal embellishments and stone surfaces.

“Good acoustics for me is primary and one of the hardest aspects to get right in the design of bars and restaurants,” Lawrence says.

“Hard surfaces are easy to maintain, and can look great, but they do not absorb sounds well and make for noisy and uncomfortable settings that can prohibit conversations.”

But Delany warns that getting these elements right isn’t always up to the designer.

“In a nutshell, it’s all about lighting and sound levels; they’re super important to making people stay and feel comfortable.”Michael Delany, International Worldwide design studio

“You can get the best designer in the world but if the restaurant manager or whoever is working on the night doesn’t follow the guidelines, it can all fall apart,” he says.

“Things can be gotten so wrong by managers and staff who don’t reset lights or the music to where they are supposed to be. There really is nothing worse than walking into a restaurant and there’s two people sitting there and the music’s really loud, and the lights are too bright. It seems really simple but it’s amazing how often these things happen.”

Experts agree that the colour scheme of a restaurant can have a psychological effect on customers, but they’re divided over what those effects actually are.

Traditional thinking is that red is a good choice because it stimulates the senses and induces hunger, but some experts say it can actually repel customers from lingering, and is best utilised in fast food establishments where high turnover is the goal.

Lighting at Sydney’s Salaryman runs from low and indirect to very obvious and bright to suit different clientele. Photo: Alana Dimou

Greens and browns can promote a feeling of health and wholesomeness, but can turn dingy and depressing in darker spaces, while blue can make food look unappealing and actually depress the appetite.

Ultimately, Delany says, colour choice should be dictated by the space.

“Colour and texture all do set a mood, but it really depends on what the product is. Is it a fast food thing, or is it a sophisticated restaurant, or a small bar or a big club? Every project should be considered on its own,” he says.

And when it comes to tables and chairs—it’s less about what they look like and more about how you arrange them, he adds.

He recommends offering a combination of seating—such as bar, banquettes and tables—to make a psychologically welcoming space for all customer types.

“Having a combination of those things means people can colonise an area with a bigger group, or they can sit at the bar and have a meal by themselves, rather than sitting at a table for two where staff sweep away the other setting and make you feel like a bit of a loser,” he laughs.

This great content is produced for members of the Restaurant & Catering Association. Find out about becoming a member here.

Restaurant & Catering magazine and its associated website is published by Engage Media. All material is protected by copyright and may not be reproduced in any form without prior written permission. Explore how our content marketing agency can help grow your business at Engage Content or at YourBlogPosts.com.

1 Comment

  1. Nice article.
    I am NOT a restaurateur… I am a customer.
    I am trying to TACTFULLY (not so much because I don’t want to hurt their feelings but more because I want them to do what I ask) get a local restaurant in my town to change their lighting. Presently, their lighting is NOT AT ALL complementary to a person’s complexion. It has a very slight greenish hue which gives a rather sickly pallor to people’s — my otherwise very lovely wife’s — skin/face. This is decidedly NOT a romantic light.

    Besides your article here, of which I will make them aware, are their other “sciencey” articles on this subject that I could point to?

    Thanks! 🙂

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