What is the true value of design?

At this years’ Restaurant Show, I was privileged to share a stage with Tony Kitous, founder of the Comptoir Group, Tom Barton, co-founder of Honest Burger, Luke Locke-Wheaton, director of Lighting Design Studio, and Rich Ford of Sherlock Studio, to discuss the topic of ‘restaurant design’.

As operators, both Tony and Tom are very hands-on with design and sharing our individual experiences of designing a restaurant, the question was raised, ‘why you would need to employ a designer?’

This is a fair point to make; both Comptoir Group and Honest Burger are successful, well regarded restaurant businesses. Both Tony and Tom have been involved in designing their own restaurants, to greater or lesser extents.

Tony, with Comptoir Group, employs designers and architects to do the technical stuff, but does the creative ‘storytelling’ himself, sourcing many of the unique objects from far flung corners of the world.

Tom and colleagues (which includes his wife) through economic necessity designed their first venues themselves, often with challenging budgets. They have since hired a designer who they work with on all new sites.

I think it is fair to say both have worked, creating successful brands with a clear identity within what is a crowded market. The real question, in that case, is other than dealing with the technical and practical, what does a designer bring to the table? And can an external designer ever provide the ‘soul’ that a visionary founder does?

The short answer of course is yes.

"A skilled designer can take a founders vision, keep it intact, but translate it into something much bigger, going beyond physical design to create an embodiment of that vision."

Some of the greatest restaurants, absolute masterpieces of design, ambiance and experience, were conceived and implemented from a designers vision. Think Sketch, or Dishoom, or Dean Street Townhouse.

A skilled designer can take a founders vision, keep it intact, but translate it into something much bigger, going beyond physical design to create an embodiment of that vision.

It’s that fourth dimension that great design adds; the intangible, ‘hard to put your finger on’ thing when you know it just feels right. You could call it soul, or emotion; it’s about digging deep into what the brand stands for and overlaying this with your customers needs and aspirations.

In my view, the biggest danger of scaling a restaurant business is losing that soul, the thing that connected and resonated with customers in the first place; and for me, this is what good design is all about. Capturing that ‘essence’, bottling it up so it’s there to add to every single point of connection between your brand and your customers.