Creating the Coffee Shop Brand Experience: a Designer’s View

By John Barnett and Anna Burles, JB | AB Design

Designing a coffee shop isn’t just about getting the right look. Or serving the best coffee. It’s about creating an experience which not only shouts about the amazingness of your coffee, and how that makes people feel good, but also an experience which gives a double-shot boost to your brand.

We design coffee shops in different parts of the world for clients who roast and grind and brew really great coffee. We’re also serious coffee drinkers, which—handily—makes us a target consumer for the brands we work for. The challenge for our clients is that we, like coffee lovers everywhere, are increasingly spoiled for choice.

It’s a crowded marketplace for sure, with an ever-growing breed of artisan coffee brands opening up shop in our towns and cities. So what makes us (or you) choose one brand’s coffee shop over another? And how can we as designers use our professional and personal insight to help you as a client stand out in a way which makes consumers stay loyal to you?

Through our work in the coffee industry, we sometimes find clients feeling perplexed about how to approach the design of their environments in terms of identifying the most important elements to get right. We usually advise taking a step back to look at the business as a whole, to see what the new venue needs to deliver on all fronts.

A successful coffee shop integrates everything the brand represents into a three-dimensional space—not just a cool interior, but great customer service, a great product, smart and efficient operations and a powerful identity brought to life through branding and innovative graphics. Everything works together to create something even bigger. All the parts have to work in sync and if any don’t, the cracks start to show and the business suffers. These guiding principles are a must:

Share the same creative & business goals
The Holy Grail for designer and client has to be the same from the outset. To design something different, which cuts through the competition, delivering not only an exciting visual experience, but one which works to drive foot traffic and make money for the coffee shop brand. If your designer is only interested in creating the hottest new look in town, run for the hills.

Bring the customer center-stage
The coffee shop experience should always be built around the customer and the design tailored to fit him or her, culturally, socially and geographically, like a glove. Today’s consumers are savvy and warm to brands which mirror their view of themselves in the world, responding less and less to identikit design. So it follows that coffee shops in a chain shouldn’t be clones of each other, but tailored to fit the space you’ve chosen. Adding a local twist (or three) can make all the difference to making the consumer feel that the shop has been designed thoughtfully for him or her.

Get the customer journey right and the rest will follow
Understanding how customers will interact with the space is key. From what they see when they approach the shop from across the street through to how they move through the space. What they see at any given point will drive the decisions they make. We always put ourselves in the place of the customer, analyzing the way different types of customers might make decisions about the brand in and out of the shop environment. These decisions drive the interior design, spatial arrangements, bar configuration, graphic communications and customer service. Exploring this helps us work with the brand to talk to the customer through the design of the shop at the exact point where they make their decision.

Make sure design and operations are integrated (and willing bedfellows)
If you want to create an amazing interior display of coffee beans or coffee bags, make sure you also put in place some strict visual merchandising rules to maintain the display, or it’ll fall apart, become messy, and you won’t make a dime.

The coffee shop is the biggest and one of the most expensive marketing tools a business has and it should be used for maximum effect. The store design is like a silent barista, talking to the customer in discreet ways, in a tone of voice which makes them warm to your brand and love what you do.

Here are our top 6 tips for creating an exciting environment that does the things you want it to:

The shop is a stage. Raised seating all around the brew bar ensures the whole coffee shop is focused on the art of the barista in Travelers Coffee. Graphics communicate the provenance of the brand and the coffee.

1. The shop is a stage

Showcase your baristas’ skills: all the care and attention that goes into preparing the perfect cup. This is key to educating the customer about specialty coffee. Every point in the customer journey should be focused on spotlighting the barista and the theatre of making coffee. Help people understand the craft of great coffee and they will be encouraged to try new things. The design and spatial planning of the whole environment needs to be focused on this.

2. Customers eat with their eyes

The way to a person’s stomach is through his or her eyes. Which is why mouth-watering food and drink display and photography is key to the commercial success of the menu. Creating sumptuous imagery will stimulate the perception of taste, aroma and appeal.

3. Say it like you mean it

Graphic communication shouldn’t just be confined to the menu. The whole shop is a canvas for imagery and messaging that forms the basis of a conversation with your customers. Graphics can be updated and changed inexpensively, keeping the brand fresh and relevant. Graphics need to say something inspiring, not just look pretty. Use graphics to showcase your baristas’ skills, your specialist coffee and the deliciousness of your food. Customers can sometimes feel paralyzed by too much choice, so using graphics to tell a visual story can help them navigate the options more easily.

See it, like it, buy it. The customer always leaves with a pack of coffee. Our new concept coffee shop for Travelers Coffee in Russia delivers great product displays integrated into the customer journey and environment.

4. See it, like, it, buy it

The single most important principle we adopt when we’re designing is “See it, Like it, Buy it.” Great visual merchandising sells products. Easy to understand, accessible displays, attractive, persuasive point of sale and clear pricing at every customer decision point (not just at the bar) will increase profits.

Creating ambience. Circular manual brew bar for speciality coffee brand Traveler’s Coffee.

5. Creating ambience

Never underestimate the power of great lighting. It will transform the environment, creating mood and focus exactly where you want the customer’s eye to land. Yet it is one of the elements so often overlooked and under-budgeted.

Gather round the table. The Globe, set to lead a third-wave coffee revolution in the heart of Siberia.

6. Gather round the table

Customers know exactly what they want from their individual coffee moments, and the environment needs to give it to them, offering different reasons to visit whatever the occasion, time pressure or mood. Flexible design and clever seating arrangements will create special solitary spaces for those who seek them, as well as buzzy zones where people can enjoy socializing with friends.

Commercial design has two functions, to give pleasure and to sell. Focusing our work on both of these at every stage of the design process creates real value for customers and owners.

We also tend to get involved in every detail of the coffee shops we’re designing. Not only concepting the space itself but every element of the brand experience, helping design everything from the architecture through to the interior look and feel, as well as how the brand identity comes to life in the space, the graphics on the walls and menu boards, even down to the uniforms. We find this holistic approach works particularly well to make sure good design becomes good business.

JB | AB Design is an international design studio based in London. John Barnett and Anna Burles have worked extensively on creating coffee shop environments within the UK, Russia and China. The studio takes a multi-disciplinary approach combining disciplines from architecture, interior design, branding, graphics, exhibition design through to event design and production. Working with emerging and established brands, Anna’s and John’s in-depth experience working both client and design consultancy sides gives them a unique insight into how to combine creativity with the mechanics driving commercial success. Contact: