What it takes to design a successful business not only a beautiful space 

This is the third (3 of 4) in a four-part series of articles that make up the restaurant design guide focused on exploring what it takes to design a successful restaurant business not only a beautiful space. In this article I discuss, Emotional Design, Ambience, Visual Merchandising, Styling and Art, Finishes, The 2sqm Experience, Proper Detailing, and Cradle to Cradle (Circular Economy Model / Sustainability)

Article 1 of 4Article 2 of 4
Various Design Functions
Project Lifespan
The Design Brief

Design Concept 
The Brand 
The Layout 
Kitchen Design
Article 3 of 4Article 4 of 4
Emotional Design
Visual Merchandising, Styling and Art
The 2sqm Experience 
Proper Detailing
Cradle to Cradle (Circular Economy Model / Sustainability)
The Importance of MEP 
Designing with Maintenance in Mind 
Site Conditions 
Designing to Budget and Value Engineering 
Local Codes & Landlord Requirements
Project / Design Management 


Emotional Design

There are many articles, design thinkers, and professionals who explore this topic in depth. It is getting more momentum with UX design in the digital world. There is also a book written by Donald Arthur Norman, titled Emotional Design, where he elaborates on this notion from a product design perspective.

I came across this idea by accident while working on a project more than 10years ago. One of the fundamental elements of the brief we put forward on that project was “make people fall in love with the brand”. Not merely like. Not merely enjoy. But fall in love with it. We luckily achieved that, and the brand enjoyed tremendous success. A big part of this was the brand story and the environmental artwork used that linked with the food story and had nostalgic and humour components intertwined. We not only fed and served people, we touched their hearts by evoking pleasant memories and a smile. 

Things to consider while aiming for emotional design impact on your consumers are:

  • Branding alignment 
  • Nostalgic queues
  • Expressive Art
  • Ambience 
  • Brand voice 
  • Multisensory queues
  • Clear storytelling
  • Surprise with details 
  • Relevance with target audience

In the Experience Economy article, I outline how to connect with customers and make them fall in love with your brand by creating memorable experiences.


Ambience is perhaps the most important aspect in a restaurant design (along with the layout), yet the most elusive and subjective. This is another one of those vastly discussed topics and is one that I have been contemplating for the past 20 years. 

Ambience is the umami of design. While umami is a specific flavour profile connected to a deep savoury taste, the common description is that it is the taste of deliciousness. This is what ambience is to a restaurant design.   

It is possible to break it down into building blocks, however, ambience is something that you feel. Given that it is an emotion, no two people will have the same experience. You can try your best to orchestrate and curate, but ambience will remain a personal experience. 

My view on restaurant experience changed when early in my career I had the privilege of doing a city tour as part of a research initiative on a project we were working on. That tour was with an amazing lighting designer. Every time we walked into a space, he didn’t explain to me the design elements he saw, he expressed a feeling he had. He literally felt spaces. This opened my eyes to the power of lighting to set the mood / ambience. 

Ambience Building Blocks 

I would also add these elements to the list of things I feel can affect the ambience, in addition to lighting:

  • Seating arrangements and space allocation per person
  • Music
  • Finishes (warm / cold / hard / soft etc)
  • Site lines (open space, organised chaos, stylised)
  • Art
  • Service style (speed, casual vs formal)
  • Other customers (the scene)
  • Scents (the aromas of a coffee roaster, a bread maker, or a fire pit)
Restaurant ambience food business design

I am assuming many of you have come across hygge, the Danish term, that is associated with a “cosy design aesthetic”. I reference this because it stems from an emotion. Design queues curated and geared to stimulate a specific feeling. That to me is what defines ambience.    

Visual Merchandising, Styling, and Art

The finishing touches. One of the most important stages of a design process. Often overlooked, value engineered, or outside the scope of the design team on the project, without this final stage, the space, as beautiful as it may look aesthetically, will lack life and soul. While it is possible to set the direction during the early stages in a project lifespan, until the place is finished or at least close to being finished, it is very difficult to have a clear vision on how to style and / or visually merchandise it. 

You find that, frequently, these are the elements that are most remembered by customers and dare I say it, often photographed. It is when resolving this aspect of the design process does the question of greenery present itself. Do you go with natural or artificial?  There are pros and cons to either approach. The decision will depend on maintenance and upkeeping budgets you have in place if you opt for natural plants. If you choose the artificial route, then the quality of the product will be vital to avoid a “fake plastic” look in your restaurant. 

Art plays a big role in bringing a space to life. It does not have to be expensive and unattainable. All it has to do is reinforce the story, add an element of surprise, and engage with its audience, your customers. It can be as typical as a hanging painting or as novel as a bespoke piece of pottery by a local artist. The human touch is what you are after.


This is where warmth comes from. It is where a project turns from a space and a layout to an actual restaurant that is emotive and attractive. Finishes considerations include:

Functional Elements 

  • Fire rating
  • Safety (in terms of sharp edges)
  • Acoustic characteristics
  • Hygiene (more relevant today than ever)
  • Cleanability 
  • Lifespan and wear and tear
  • Surface on which the finish is applied onto 
  • Cost 
  • Time to instal

Aesthetic Elements 

  • Colours
  • Textures
  • Lighting (changes everything)
  • Accents and dominant finishes
  • Contrasting finishes
  • Complementary finishes 

The 2sqm Experience 

This is a subject that is very close to my heart and am very passionate about, the 2sqm (two square metres) of a restaurant space. I divide this to two separate components: 

  • The Dining Experience
  • Service Counters and Stations
2sqm design food business design

The Dining Experience 

This is defined by the furniture, textiles / fabrics, lighting and tableware. Everything the customer touches and feels. Most customers, if asked after their dining experience what ceiling colour or feature they noticed, or the floor finish they walked on, they could not answer. They would, however, be able to tell you if the chair was uncomfortable, the light was glaring in their eyes, or the table too small or too high. The focus here should be on functionality, usability, comfort, and pleasure. Unfortunately, all these components are rarely designed. On most projects, designers and owners select them. The bigger projects have them classified under the FF&E heading and get treated as a procurement task. In many projects I have been a part of, this is the first category that gets looked at when the dreadful yet necessary value engineering exercise begins.

Service Counters and Stations

While the first element was dedicated to the customer experience, this one mostly focuses on the operating team. It addresses everything from waiter and POS stations to bar and buffet counters and trolleys. The age-old battle of form and function, compounded by value engineering pressure, often results in stations that are not built to last nor serve their primary functions. 

True, you are designing a restaurant for the consumers, but we should also consider the operating team as customers who frequent the restaurant daily. These stations and counters, while they need to look the part and be in line with the general aesthetic and story of the restaurant, need to be efficient at performing a function. A lot of times, they fall through the cracks because they involve two separate entities, the interior and kitchen design functions. This is where proper communication, collaboration, and cooperation becomes vital to ensure a successful outcome. 

Proper Detailing 

How detailed should a set of drawings be? It appears the answer to that is not so straightforward. It depends on the country you’re in, the scale of project you are working on, the designer you have appointed, the builder you chose, and who the designer uses to get the detail set done (in house or outsourced). Detailing is a very important step in the design process. 

Detailing is important on three main levels:

  • Aesthetics
  • Durability / wear and tear
  • Budget

Proper detailing can :

  • Affect the project timelines on site
  • Impact the budget and minimise the need for last minute value engineering exercises
  • Improve durability of the finishes and minimise wear and tear
  • Improve functionality
  • Minimise the need for maintenance and sometimes design and plan for the maintenance process
  • Ensure you achieve the design vision without compromise 

Not all details pertain to manufacturing and durability aspects. Details can be fun and engaging. They can tell a story. They can engage and surprise the customer. Attention to minor details makes a big difference. This can be functional customer centric elements such as purse space, electric plugs, hanging hooks, and textures of material touched by the customers. These can also be aesthetic details that surprise, engage and deliver a talking moment and an opportunity to create a memory. 

Cradle to Cradle (Circular Economy Model / Sustainability)

People who know me know how important I feel the subject of sustainability is, and how we have a duty to uphold certain principles while working on any project. I tend to not use the word sustainability just like I avoid the word organic as both have become marketing gimmicks. The reason I introduce permaculture and Cradle to Cradle concepts is because they propose a system. A circular model that mimics nature and is in harmony with it. One that does not look at “resource exploitation” rather works with what is available and is conscious of the entire cycle along the way. 

I am not promoting any single system or certification body, I am using these as examples to show an approach we all need to consider. 

This system assesses various products on:

  • Material health
  • Material Reutilisation
  • Renewable energy
  • Water stewardship 
  • Social fairness 

It is not true that going down this path is always more costly. It can be the opposite sometimes, granted it requires more time in terms of research and design. 

When using any evaluation method to assess the environmental impact of a product, you realise that reusability and what happens “end of life” of an object are key in minimising harm to the planet we live on. Products that are well made, reusable, repairable, and can be upgraded are the way forward.

The utopian aim as stated by C2C is to have “clean ingredients perpetually recycled”. 

C2C closed loop system food business design

Farm to Chair

In my world I have been exploring more the concept of farm to chair. A term I use to guide design decisions and concept ideas towards closing the loop on our food industry and using waste of one industry to become a product of the other. While this approach takes us back hundreds of years and we can learn a lot from the past both in terms of techniques and approach, there are many advancements happening in the world of bio tech with a forward looking mindset. The mission is simple, eliminate byproducts and avoid the use of “new resources”. 

Refer to the Permaculture and Restaurants article where I tackle the subject of sustainability and “closed-loop / circular” systems further.

Continue reading article 4 of 4

Subscribe to get alerts with new posts and articles and become part of a community of knowledge sharing lovers of our industry.


If your enjoyed this article and found it useful then I would recommend you check out the following : 

THE BUSINESS OF FOOD What it takes to turn your food passion into a successful business 

RESTAURANT BUSINESS MODEL The building blocks of setting up and operating a successful restaurant 


I am keen to hear from you. Listen to your stories, challenges and experiences in the industry. I would also like to know if you found this article useful and whether you had a specific question or subject you wanted me to tackle in the future. Get in touch with me


Thank you for taking the time to read through this article. To learn more about me, click here

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *