When we talk about the design of a wine list, what is it that we’re talking about? Most of the time, we’re talking about the careful curation of choices for what wines go on the list.
But I’d like to talk about the other meaning of designing a wine list. Yes, I’m talking about literally what that list looks like — the choices that were made in deciding how the carefully curated selection of wines should actually appear to the guest.
This conversation is going to be about aesthetics and the fundamentals of graphic design; about organization and readability; about context and creativity.
Wine list design, I must say, from the standpoint of someone who designs things for a living and pays lots of people who do, too, is almost universally awful.
For the past four years, I have been a judge for the global World’s Best Wine Lists Awards put on by the World of Fine Wine magazine. Which means for the past four years I have read literally hundreds and hundreds of wine lists from around the world. And they suffer from the same flaws that you might find in any randomly selected corporate PowerPoint presentation, or homemade poster on the wall of a community center.
In short, they’re not designed so much as just “put together.” But it’s surprising to me how often the wine list seems even less considered from a design perspective than the humble menu in a restaurant.
Granted, wine lists can be daunting things to contemplate putting to paper. After all, they’re often long lists of similar looking combinations of words. But that is precisely why they benefit from (and much more than menus, really REQUIRE) the application of proper graphic design principles.
In an effort to improve the standards of judging for the World’s Best Wine Lists in 2018, I personally reviewed every single wine list submitted to the awards. Thousands upon thousands of them. I can say with great authority, then, that the state of wine list design is universally deplorable around the world. In many cases there were literally only a handful of lists that were truly worthy of consideration for the award of Best Designed Wine List.
But the good news is that a few simple principles, thoughtfully employed, can really make a big difference. So without further ado, here’s my point of view on what makes for a really nicely designed wine list, purely from a visual, organizational, and experiential perspective. Don’t forget to put some great wines on it, too!
This is the first thing that anyone will notice about a wine list, and you’d be surprised at how many wine lists get even this basic, forehead-slapping principle wrong. And many get it so, so wrong. Cramming too many wines on a page; not distinguishing between the name of the producer versus the name of the wine; choosing fonts that are tough to read; putting images in the background of the list; the mistakes are myriad. And that’s not even including some of the more egregious errors of data — missing vintage dates, inconsistent reference to the wine’s place of origin, even missing prices (unforgivable).
The best wine lists are easy to read, to scan and to browse. Human beings have been printing things since the 15th Century, and only shortly thereafter did we realize that there were some things we had to to in order to make it easy for people to read the things we printed.
When you’re going to put a bunch of text on the page, you have to make choices. How much text are you going to put on the page? How wide will your margins be? Will you have big titles at the top of your page? Will there be page numbers? Where will those page numbers go? These are just a few of the dozens of choices that should be consciously made as one designs the pages of a wine list, and these choices should be informed by both the content itself (length of the list) and the style and sensibility of the dining establishment. The layout of a wine list, despite often consisting simply of text on the page, remains a visual exercise, one that is capable of expressing the restaurant’s brand and personality (though some people go too far in trying to give their lists personality from a visual perspective).
The best wine lists don’t crowd too much onto each page, leaving enough whitespace to make things easy to read, and to distinguish the various elements of the page.
As distinct from the choices of how to place text on the page, this principle is really about how someone has decided to structure the entire list. What are the top level categories, and how have those categories been further broken down into sub-categories, and sub-sub categories, and so on. This may seem trivial to the uninitiated, but there is a real art in deciding what the structure of the list will be. Will you organize it by country first? Or by grape variety first? Or by style? And once someone has selected one of those categories, how will the wines within that category be further subdivided? These choices depend, of course on the depth and breadth of the list itself, but also on the vision and strategy of the wine list’s author.
Browseability / Navigation
This, of course, is closely related to the aforementioned principle of organization. The browseability and navigational cues built into the design of a wine list should, in fact, reflect the organizational choices that have been made throughout the list. Customers should be able to understand and recognize where they find themselves in the wine list through cues provided on the page. These can be as basic as a page number and a title at the top of the page that reads “Red Wines,” for a list that might just have two categories (i.e. Red and White) but they should frequently offer much more, especially for lists that run to many multiple pages. These bits of information or other visual cues, known as affordances, can help orient the customer to where they are, where they might have come from, what it is they are looking at, and where they can go from here.
The best wine lists have clear ways of indicating the differences between groups of wines, which group of wines the customer is looking at, where those groups sit in the larger hierarchy of wines, and more.
The fundamental principles of typography remain a mystery to most people, thanks largely to the magic of word processing. The most that many of us might approach typographic principles would be the debate over whether a period should be followed by one space or two before the next sentence begins (the answer, despite what your grade school teachers drilled into you, is one). In the context of any text on a page, typography involves the choice of the actual font, of course, but also many other subtle, yet powerful decisions that have both practical and aesthetic implications. Decisions such as how much space appears between lines of text, or whether text is centered on the page or aligned in columns all affect the readability or scannability of the list. Other decisions such as which words to capitalize, whether to use bold or italic type, and what kinds of punctuation to employ not only affect readability, but also make an aesthetic statement in themselves.
The best wine lists select readable fonts, and utilize the various elements of typography to create readability, visual hierarchy, and distinction between elements on the page. Because wine lists are mostly text, and I can’t emphasize this enough, typography plays an outsized role in the effectiveness and aesthetics of a wine list.
On the whole, apart from the content (i.e. the wines) which excite only the geekiest amongst us, most wine lists are right up there with phone books on the scale of reading material capable of holding the interest of the average person. In short, they ain’t very interesting to look at. Very few wine lists attempt to offer any visual interest beyond the choice of font (which, if selected for that reason, is usually a major mistake). Quite surprisingly, this even extends to the use of color, which despite no longer being particularly cost prohibitive in this age of cheap laser and inkjet printing, nearly always seems to be overlooked as a tool by those designing lists. Some wine lists however, choose to adorn their wine lists with elements of visual interest, ranging from purely aesthetic curlicues, to grid and separation lines for organization, to actual illustrations (most often in the form of maps, and to a lesser extent, imagery of wine labels). Such elements more often detract from the experience than add to it, but done well, they can enhance the experience of perusing the list as well as convey the personality of the restaurant.
The best wine lists use visual elements, from color to illustrations, to decorations or other adornments to complement or supplement the text on the page, rather than distracting from the content of the list.
So who’s really doing it right? Well, this year, our choice for the Best Designed Wine List in the World went to The Barn at Blackberry Farm, which is truly a joy to read, not to mention being a phenomenal collection of wines. Anyone would do well to (figuratively speaking) take a page from their book when it came to use of type, browseability, and overall layout. But that’s just one of many ways to design a wine list well. If you’re a wine director or a restaurateur, why not take a little time to make your wine list better? Can’t afford to pay a designer to do it? I can tell you that there are almost certainly students of graphic design in your city who would doubtless give it a shot just for the chance to say they’d done it, or perhaps in exchange for a nice meal or two.
As with every interaction with the guest, the wine list has an opportunity to tell the story of your brand. Make it a good one. Or at the very least, make it understandable.
Photo of sommelier with wine card courtesy of Bigstock.