The Design Process: Where do we begin and how will it end?

From the spring 2018 issue of Canadian Restaurant & Foodservice News

By Chris Hannah

In my early days of teaching design, I had to write a quiz for students learning the process for the first time. As it happens, I was sitting in a client’s restaurant composing the test, when he walked by and asked what I was doing. When I explained, he picked up the paper I was using and read the first question. “What is the first step in the design process?” That’s easy he said, “Get a retainer!”

Of course, that was not the answer I was looking for from a student, but it was the perfect answer coming from (or referring to) a client. While the design process is a way of achieving creative solutions, it also parallels the contract and scope of work that is struck between restaurant owner and designer.

The complication to viewing this as a simple process involving two parties is that in design and construction of the built environment, there are many people involved, and many factors to consider.  The client group may consist of culinary, financial, operations and concept specialists, or a single owner/operator that has to wear all these hats. On the design side, there are interior designers, architects, mechanical, electrical and structural engineers, as well as other specialist consultants in certain cases. Typically, there is one consultant who leads the process, and that is usually a specialist foodservice designer. At the front end of the process, a client who is new to the business may need assistance in the early stages from a consultant who covers all or some of the client group skills noted above. It is for those new to the process that I write this article.

The process that follows more or less reflects what you would see in a contractual scope of work laid out by a design consultant, but I will try expand on the creative aspects. One interesting note is that we teach the process to students as being non-linear, such that we often circle back on steps as new questions arise. When this happens in the real world, it is often frustrating, particularly within tight timelines. However, it is often necessary and should be embraced in order for a successful end product.

Phase 1: Programming and Pre-design

More often than not, clients come to us with a site (and a time-sensitive lease) before this phase is complete, which puts the whole team under stress. Alternatively, some clients are capable of doing most of this phase prior to engagement of a design team. The key here is to have a full understanding of the concept and operation in terms of things like food and beverage offering, target market, service model, price point, and an overall financial model.

When we meet a client for the first time, we can usually assess at this point if we need to engage specialist operations consultants. For us as designers, this process of working with the other consultants is very instructive, and typically a lot of fun. For my students, they often see this information-gathering phase as more frustrating than enjoyable, preferring instead to jump ahead to design — always a bad mistake!

Phase 2: Concept Design

If we have all the right information from phase one, we are ready to jump into design. This is the fun part for designers, and often equally so for clients. Planning, equipment section, interior form, lighting, finishes and furniture are all developed. Design being an iterative process, options are explored in this phase so that the team can agree on the main thrust of the design in terms of the elements noted. A great way to streamline the overall process in terms of timing is to start this process before site selection. By doing this, the time pressure of lease conditions is eliminated, and the actual process of site selection can be done in a more educated way.

The one large variable in this phase is the type and quality of the presentation material. Some clients understand the basic two-dimensional drawing produced, and can visualize the planning, finishes and lighting based on experience. More often than not, more detailed 3D colour renderings are needed for a full understanding of the design direction. The important thing is to know what to ask for, particularly when comparing design proposals for competing designers.

Phase 3: Design Development

In this phase, all of the elements conceived in phase two are developed further. Also, this is often a good time for engineers and other consultants to dive into the process more actively so that the various aspects of the environment are coordinated. Client and design communication is still very active as specific details that the client and their staff will have to work and live with for some time are fleshed out. The main goal at the end of phases two and three is that the entire team is happy with the design before it gets documented.

Phase 4: Contract Documentation

This is typically the most time-intensive phase for a design office. As well as drawing all of the details needed to price, acquire permits and build the restaurant, it also involves lots of coordination with the other consultants. This is still not a completely hands-off phase for the client, as many details will need review and discussion. The goal, however, is that major changes don’t happen here as they are costly in terms of time and fees. While there may be some overlap in phases two through four, the hope is that each previous phase is complete and approved by the client to avoid these issues.

Phase 5: Contract Administration

Once drawings are complete, pricing and permitting can be done. While this is often done consecutively, we actually try to expedite the permit drawings ahead of tender drawings. This way, potential code issues may be resolved before a final price is established and before a contract is signed between builder and client. While the big-time push is done prior to this phase, the key here is that the designer is your advocate to review shop drawings, site construction and help you deal with issues that arrive during this critical phase.

There are a number of ways to articulate the process, but the steps are basically the same. Knowing the phases of the process and what to ask for is the first step in getting a great restaurant design.

Chris Hannah is the principal of Cricket Design Company Inc. in Toronto. The firm was founded in 1988 and specializes in hospitality projects, from kiosks to casinos and everything in between. Hannah also teaches at Ryerson’s School of Interior Design. For more information visit – but stand by for a new and improved site coming this fall. Email: [email protected].