Christine Outram: What Starbucks Gets that Architects Don’t

Christine Outram is a former architect, MIT research fellow and currently a designer at a brand strategy agency.

She talks about how architecture has focused on form without listening to consumers, to the people inhabiting the spaces they design.

Love what she says because it applies to any job that is supposed to serve people, but has grown self-referent (i.e. marketing, Dribbble design).

Dear architects,

You’re outdated. I know this because I once was one of you. But now I’ve moved on. I moved on because despite your love of a great curve, and your experimentation with form, you don’t understand people.

I correct myself. You don’t listen to people.

In legal terms, an architect is the all seeing, all knowing, building professional….

…But the truth is, most of you don’t try. You rely on rules of thumb and pattern books, but you rarely do in-depth ethnographic research. You might sit at the building site for an hour and watch people “use space” but do you speak to them? Do you find out their motivations? Do your attempts really make their way into your design process?

This really hit home for me when I read a recent article on the design of Starbucks stores. Now you might hate Starbucks. You might believe they are a soulless commercial entity with no architectural merit at all, but do you know what they are good at? Responding to people’s needs and desires.

The article reads:

Starbucks interviewed hundreds of coffee drinkers, seeking what it was that they wanted out of a coffee shop. The overwhelming consensus actually had nothing to do with coffee; what consumers sought was a place of relaxation, a place of belonging.

My dear architects. This is why Starbucks designed round tables in their stores. They were strategically created “in an effort to protect self-esteem for those coffee drinkers flying solo”. They were not round because the architect felt it looked better that way, they were not round because they were cheaper, they were round because as the article concludes “there are no empty seats at a round table”.

No wonder architecture has become a niche vocation. You don’t connect with people any more.

The problem is that architects seem to pray at the feet of the latest hyped-up formal language. I dare you. Flip through an architectural magazine today. Find any people in the photographs? I didn’t think so. Find plenty of pictures that worship obscure angles and the place where two materials meet? You betcha.

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