Design secrets—not just a pretty face

Great restaurant design is more important than ever—and as Tim Mutton of the Blacksheep agency told CGA Peach's 2020 Conference, it delivers much more than just pretty looks

Restaurant operators should see beyond interior aesthetics and consider what good design can do for operations and business results, Blacksheep founder Tim Mutton told the 2020 Conference. 

Blacksheep has worked with dozens of the sector’s top brands, including helping Five Guys to launch into the UK. But before even thinking about restaurant design, the agency helped Five Guys to convey the US brand to landlords—and that’s an important place to begin. “We needed to set the relationship out and communicate in the best way. Sometimes people don’t realize that actually that’s how design can add value.”

Restaurants should not approach design with the aim of imitating other successful concepts, Mutton said. “Instead of similarity I like to work with difference… difference is disruptive.” Rather, think of it as a means of communication. “It’s not just about tables, chairs, pretty lighting and the pure aesthetics… Design is a tool to visualise your business strategy. What is really important is how design helps your brand to grow.”

The best designs tell the story, values and beliefs of a brand with style and clarity, he added—and not just through the big showpiece elements. “It’s the small things that make the impact—something like a menu. That’s the engine room of the restaurant design and can make a massive impact—potentially more than the interiors do. My philosophy is to look at the totality of the design experience—it’s not just one thing.”

Design has become even more important in the new era of intense competition on the high street, and particularly given the daypart-to-daypart versatility that many operators now crave. Mutton compared the sector to a Swiss Army Knife, with numerous components and flexibility of use. “The industry has moved on… There’s so much more versatility now.” 

But he also understood early on—having started out as a restaurant pot washer and barman before moving into his current work—that design needs to be simple too, and relentlessly focused on the customer. ”I realized standing behind the bar that this industry is pretty simple: it’s about satisfaction.”

As well as appealing to customers, design should enhance day to day operations, Mutton argued, and always start with the product. What is on the menu dictates the size and shape of plates, tables and the kitchen, for instance, and brands need to tie their design briefs closely to their business goals. “This is a numbers game—how many bums on seats can you get, and how many sites do you want?”

Design has the power to inspire staff too, he reckoned. “Good design can help you attract and retain great people… It should breed confidence in your teams as well as your guests. If that happens it provides growth.”