A customer’s perception of a café starts to form in the second that they walk through its door. It can take moments for them to decide whether the space they’ve just stepped into is worth their time, or if they should leave.
Historically, specialty coffee shops haven’t always had an inviting and friendly aesthetic. Many of these spaces were repurposed factories or storefronts, and had not truly been designed with customer experience in mind.
Since these early days, a number of different visual trends and patterns that have emerged. Many cafés opt for a sleek and minimalist aesthetic, while others are more rustic and “old-school”, and some defy expectations entirely. I spoke to some baristas and café owners to learn about more of the factors that influence café design. Read on to learn more.
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Exploring Some Of The Major Trends In Café Design
Café design has come a long way in the past decade or so. Historically, larger chains often opted for clean, basic café style with space for their brand and messaging to speak for itself. Generally, independent and third-wave coffee shops stand out from these chains visually, and look noticeably different.
In the beginning, many chose an open, industrial style which was purely thanks to the space that they occupied. A lot of third-wave coffee roasteries opened in factory or ex-industrial settings in order to meet legal requirements for their equipment.
Many of them then added a café to supplement their income while showcasing their roasting capabilities. This created a shared space that would often have high ceilings, exposed brick, cement floors, and a lot of bare natural light.
One of the other big trends among early third-wave cafés was grounded in minimalism and simplicity. For many coffee shop owners, this “less is more” approach puts more focus on the coffee, rather than vibrant colours and symbols which could be “distracting”.
This movement is mainly associated with coffee shops in Asia (namely in Japan, where minimalism is an otherwise popular school of design) but has spread to Europe and North America in recent years. These cafés are often sparsely furnished with all-white surroundings. For some people, this visual style communicates cleanliness and tranquillity; critics, however, might feel that these spaces are sterile or lacking in personality.
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How Travel Influences Café Design
As travel has become easier, more affordable, and more accessible throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries, café owners have looked beyond their local area for inspiration. Often, coffee shop owners are influenced by the journeys that they have taken, and their cafés may well pay homage to cities that influenced them. It’s not uncommon for these cafés to combine some familiar traits with others that are less popular.
Eldric Stuart owns Harken Coffee, a café and roastery in Vancouver, British Columbia. He tells me that when he designed Harken, he was inspired by café cultures from a few different cities.
“I lived in Melbourne, immersed myself in the world of coffee there for three and a half years, and then moved to Berlin,” Eldric explains. “This meant that I got to see the Australian style of coffee, but also look at how the European market had adapted to get to where they were.
“After that, I came back to Vancouver and saw that a lot of our coffee shops that classed themselves as ‘specialty’ were still basically following the corporate model [in terms of design].”
Subsequently, Eldric opened Harken. He tells me that Harken is designed like a sushi bar, meaning that customers face the baristas while their drinks are prepared. He adds that this creates a workflow where the customer is the focus.
Balancing Café Design & Functionality
This sushi bar aesthetic in Harken, Eldric says, was designed so that customer service could take centre stage. He tells me that this decision was inspired by similar movements in the hospitality and restaurant sector.
One of the most notable examples of this is Benihana, a Japanese-American restaurant chain. At Benihana restaurants, customers take their seats around the chef, who cooks at a teppanyaki grill at the centre of the table while telling jokes and socialising with diners.
Eldric says that he wanted to design an area that customers could occupy that also prioritised customer service. “We wanted to work out how to handle customers while preparing orders and doing takeaway orders. This helped us to provide a little more elevated experience without having to go out to as many tables, which can be pretty labour-intensive.
“We try to design everything around that, so that our bar is in the middle of the room. We decided to design the space from the ground up… it’s a single counter, inspired by Japanese sushi bars or cocktail bars. [We wanted] to provide an elevated level of service without it being too expensive, so we went with a ‘bar-style’ design.”
Working With A Café’s Surroundings
When you start a café or open a new outlet nearby, a lot of people feel that it’s important to respect and acknowledge the identity of the local area.
Leon Zadeh opened Saint Espresso in London a decade ago. He says that when opening a new café in a certain city or area, you need to leverage your café’s branding with the area’s identity. “As London has changed, we’ve opened more sites.
“We are now trying to create some synergy between them, while also respecting each individual area and its unique identity. It’s exciting to see new designs emerge and the variety within the city and across the world.
“We aim for a clean, elegant feeling in our cafés, offering plenty of natural light. We like to think of ourselves as a harmonious blend of the New York loft apartment and Scandinavian simplicity. We use clean lines and sustainable materials such as brick, woods, mild steel, stone, and concrete.”
Eldric found it challenging to determine where to draw the line when considering the influence of other cultures. “Japantown in Vancouver (where Harken is located) is a pretty new area. It was where all of the Japanese immigrants lived in the city, so we tried to design it in a very delicate way.
“We didn’t want to appropriate any of their culture, but we still wanted to ‘tip the cap’ to the area’s history. We kept a lot of the exterior intact – as much as we could.”
Creating A Cohesive Café Brand Image
Naturally, a café’s design and layout will have to be informed by its brand identity. If it’s an offshoot of an existing chain or brand, it will likely be designed with a pre-existing design scheme in mind. If it isn’t, then the owners should think long and hard about what their space communicates about the café and the brand.
Eldric tells me that he worked with branding experts to ensure Harken’s product packaging met his aesthetic vision for the business. “It is down to brand identity. We look at it from the same approach as a company designing a cologne or perfume or any other kind of product.
“There’s a feeling that people get from the company; that includes the packaging in the space [as well as the layout and the design]. We wanted to present [everything] in a way that’s really refined and elegant.”
For Saint Espresso, Leon tells me that his goal was to create an image that “blends in” with its surroundings and acknowledges the local area, but still sticks out enough to attract new people.
“We operate neighbourhood cafés, so we have to ensure the space works for that specific area,” Leon explains. “Although we like clean lines in our design, we also soften things to be inclusive for all [and create a comfortable space]. We have a lot of greenery and plants.
“[Our aim is to make] each space elegant, simple and exceptional. We want to bring the best coffee and experience we can to our neighbourhoods and friends; it’s that simple.”
Social Media’s Influence On Café Design
Social media has become a big driving force behind some of the world’s most successful cafés. Quality content and a strong visual identity on platforms like Instagram and Pinterest can mean more customers coming through your door.
However, it works both ways; if your café offers a visually appealing or intriguing space, people are more likely to post images of it online and tag their friends.
Leon tells me that being noticed on social media is highly rewarding for café owners. “I think it could be a factor in designing a café space for many new cafés. As a brand, there’s nothing more rewarding than seeing someone share their experience with us on Instagram, because then we know we’re doing something right.”
Eldric admits that social media isn’t his main focus, but he says that it should be a priority. “I think it’s just become a part of how you think about things. We ask ourselves if things look good in photos, and so on. You do need to be able to create content… it is super super important.”
For many people, coffee shops are the final point in the coffee supply chain. It is a highly competitive marketplace, and standing out from the rest is no longer just a benefit – for new cafés, it needs to be at the top of the agenda.
To create an appealing space, you need to consider a lot of different things. Do your design choices reflect your brand image? Does your space fit in with the local neighbourhood aesthetic? Does it look good in photos? And will it get people coming through the door? Ask yourself these questions, among others, before refurbishing your space or opening a new coffee shop.
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Photo credits: Nicole Motteaux, Neil Soque, Harken Coffee
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