Working knowledge What a graphic designer thinks you should know

Gil Shuler, who came to Charleston in 1983, has been putting his stamp on the way things look ever since, from corporate branding to keeping a menu current.

Gil Shuler is a graphic designer. In the restaurant context, that means he’s responsible for creating brand identities through signage, logos and menus, among other printed items. In his work with restaurants, including Four Ninety Two, Minero and Brasserie Gigi, he’s picked up plenty of ideas for diners interested in better appreciating the design dimension of their eating experiences.

One of the very first steps in developing an image for a restaurant is to meet with the architect, assuming one’s already been hired. They’ll trade ideas about paint colors, flooring materials and how the chef’s vision will be represented in the dining room. But perhaps most importantly from Shuler’s perspective, the architect will review any physical restrictions to implementing various design schemes. For example, if Shuler is contemplating creating menus affixed to a wooden backing, he needs to confirm there’s available storage space for them in the restaurant. “Are they going to take a beating?” he asks. “How is the menu going to attach to the board? If they attach a certain way, they’re not going to stack up. We have to think about all of these things.”

Big neon signs and splashy websites are the most obvious examples of design, but Shuler invests as much time in collateral items, such as pint glasses and matchbooks. “I love going into a restaurant that has really neat matches, even if you don’t smoke,” he says.

One of the significant design tasks associated with restaurants involves developing a carry-out strategy. “That boils down to what they want to spend, and if they want to have a special recycled kind of box,” Shuler says. “Then what we do is find that box and then apply a sticker to it. We always get rubber stamps made because you never know when you’ll need that.”

Shuler really likes the package he put together for The Obstinate Daughter, which includes a bag, box stickers and mailable postcard coasters. “That’s a real important part for continued marketing,” he says.

Anything bearing words or a logo has been through multiple iterations before the customer ever sees it. “People should know that when they’re holding a coaster that someone sat down and worked on that thing,” says Shuler, who estimates his team might present 10 versions of a coaster. “There might be a square one and a round one and a wooden one and a metal one.”

Shuler has seen what happens when materials aren’t vetted beforehand. “There’s nothing worse than going into restaurant and you sit down with the menu and the type is too small and it’s on colored background,” he says. “You come back two months later and they’ve changed the whole menu because no one could read it.”

Farmers, chefs and customers may thrill to menus that change according to ingredient availability, but the system forces designers to give up all kinds of aesthetic control. “If we have a menu that’s pretty constant, then we can lay that menu out and make it beautiful and we’re good to go,” Shuler says. “That’s simple compared to taking a complex menu and putting it in Word.”

Like the majority of design professionals, Shuler is a devoted Mac user, but most restaurants are equipped with PCs. So he has to come up with preprinted menu sheets and a Word template, and ensure that all of the needed fonts are correctly installed on the restaurant’s computer.

“When people sit down with their menu like that, nobody even thinks about someone coming into the restaurant that morning pulling up that file; making sure the stock is the right size and that when it comes out it’s going to lay flat,” Shuler says. “We customize for Word and it’s like the hardest thing in the world. It’s misery.”