I’ve drawn a lot of chalk menus over the years using many different materials and I’m about to tell you a bit about my process.
I started working in retail marketing in 2010 as a sign painter in Texas. I learned a lot in those early days about layout, technique, and speed from my partner, a 3rd generation sign artist named Steve. We’re still good friends to this day and we often bounce ideas and tips off one another. Steve taught me to letter with a small, flat brush and even though I almost exclusively use markers now, having to concentrate on the strokes of the letterforms helped me greatly later in my career as I refined my own styles. We often designed our signage on the computer, then used a projector to paint the final design.
In late 2011, I started working for Whole Foods Market and it was a whole different ballgame. Everything had to be fast and clean and adhering to strict brand standards. Budgets were tight and we didn’t have a projector. We usually had to sketch out the design directly onto the final board and use our own very neat print to write in the menu items without tracing. In the nearly 4 years I worked there, I got very good at copying typefaces from the different regional marketing campaigns.
Now that I’m on my own and I can take more time to be as meticulous as I like, I use a combination of these methods. For logos and other designs that are not my own, I usually use a projector because it has to be exact. One drawback to a projector I’ve run into is that you have to have electricity. Sometimes if it’s a space that isn’t fully built yet, it’s a struggle to run extension cords all over, find a good place to set it up, and constantly worry about construction workers bumping into the machine. It’s also a pain to have to leave the site before the work is finished and set up the same design all over again the next day. It just never lines up again quite the same! In existing spaces that have to be open for business while you’re working, I’ve had clients tell me they dislike the projector because they either have to turn their lights way down or close the business altogether for a day or more. For these reasons, I like to be versatile and not rely solely on a projector.
My preferred method is actually just simply using my good ole’ 4ft aluminum level and a piece of chalk. I start by designing the menu in Adobe Illustrator, as I would any project. This allows me to show the client proper scale and helps me decide if the letters are big enough for customers to read. When it’s finished, I drop guides at text baselines and starting points. I then print the design that shows the side rulers and guides and fill in any key measurements on the printed pages.
When I’m ready to start the menu, all I have to do is make one set of marks and use the level to draw the straight baselines. For small areas of complex typefaces like titles that would take too long to sketch, I often print the selection at full size, chalk the back of the paper, and use it as a tracing transfer to the final piece.
The markers used are an important component to any menu because you need to know which parts are likely to change. If I’m the one to build or paint a menu board, I like to use Behr premium interior matte paint/primer-in-one tinted black. It’s cheaper than “chalkboard” paint, it covers amazingly well, and the texture isn’t as toothy as chalkboard paint, so it’s easier to erase and make edits without having to repaint every time. If I do a partial menu with someone’s logo at the top that they can edit frequently, I either use Zig Posterman waterproof markers or Sharpie oil-based markers for the logo. This way, you take away the possibility that they’ll accidentally smear your pretty art while switching up their daily specials. For the rest of the menu that has the potential to be edited down the line, I use Posca chalk markers. They come in a wide array of colors, they’re wonderful to use, and they erase cleanly without ghosting, especially if you used them on the Behr-painted background 😉