Fabio Ongarato Design, Studio Round and Spike Hibberd may not be household names, but without them many restaurants and cafes would fail to convey their message about who they are and what they do. These are three of the best design studios in Melbourne. They’re nationally and internationally recognised, and the common thread between all of them is their dedication to their craft, their ability to translate ideas in someone else’s mind into a business identity and their passion for visual means of communication.

You’ve heard of: Cumulus Inc., Cutler & Co, Mr Tulk, Pearl, Comme, SMXL - places of quality, places with profile but also places that conjure up images of idiosyncratically striking design that is as evident as it is subtle. These are just some of the restaurant identities created by these designers and their processes, while being different in each instance, have a way of exacting a look, an image and a feel that the business can be built around; each process is as fascinating as its outcome.

Michaela Webb, creative director of Studio Round, has worked with some of the best restaurateurs and has an ongoing working relationship with Andrew McConnell and Pascale Gomes-McNabb from Cumulus Inc and Cutler & Co.

Webb feels the actualisation of an identity must be in tune and represent every aspect of the dining experience. “The restaurant and its name represent the promise to the customer and what they’re going to get,” she explains, “but it’s the identity that will set them apart.”

However, the identity of a restaurant is often more than just a logo and business cards. Cutler & Co has a bright blue neon sign in the front window that’s hard to miss. Ever wondered why? It’s a clever extension of the restaurant’s identity to solve a problem. Cutler is across the road from the biggest methadone clinic in the Southern Hemisphere. “The light is blue because of the clinic,” explains Webb. You can’t find your veins under a blue light. “We wanted the signage to work in harmony with the street so neon worked well. It also needs to locate the restaurant quickly as the clientele are not use to this part of Gertrude Street!”

Spike Hibberd, from the eponymously titled studio he started six years ago, designed the identities for the State Library cafe Mr Tulk and city restaurant Comme, both part-owned by Frank Van Haandel.

“The Van Haandels have a great appreciation of design and the general aesthetic of the space they’re in,” Hibberd says. “What I’m doing is creating a symbol of them and what they want to show to people. The design is very important, I believe the physical side of the restaurant is as important as the food.”

What’s clear is that it is an organic process and what leads the project differs for all studios. Co-director of Fabio Ongarato Design Ronnen Goren, says “sometimes a client or chef will come to us with a project in the planning. In other instances the project will come to us via a designer where the design language as set by the interior architect then predicates the direction in which we move forward.” But the human variable will inevitably interject as Goren notes, “the challenge takes on a further dimension whereby the chef's agenda will also need to be integrated through, for example, a particular style of food or nationality.”

There are myriad ways to establish and create a restaurant identity and it takes different creative processes and different collaborative thought. The one common thread with each designer I spoke with was an immersion of sorts; of understanding the vision, the food, the chef and the space and how it will be utilised to such a point that they provide a clear expression of all this through a visual image.

“It’s like getting inside the proprietor’s head,” explains Webb. “We find out what the philosophy behind the food is, where the space is and the times of day it will be open,” she goes on. “A place that is open from breakfast through to dinner, like Cumulus Inc., will change throughout the day. We wanted to highlight the light and clouds coming through those windows so we thought of the name Cumulus and the term Inc. came from the industrial feel of the room.”

So the thought and the process that goes into what seems to be a simple neon sign, is not always simple. Like the chef plating a dish and understanding its textures, the sommelier finding the right wine to enhance the dish and the waiter anticipating your every need, the package that is a restaurant is an entire one and the identity may not be at the forefront of your mind when you leave but how the room presented itself and how this made you feel is one thing that will stay with you.