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You’re outdated.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.


5 bits of amazing design: A typography dating game, early Mac icon designs, an iPad visual declutterer, metaphorical digital installation art and Fallingwater

1.  Susan Kare’s Sketchbook

Susan Kare was an artist who was asked to design fonts for Macintosh, back in the day when there were no screen icon design apps.  The featured excerpts of the sketchbook where she drafted initial ideas for user interface icons are just an interesting glimpse into sometimes overlooked bits of web design as we use and look at them day in-day out.

2.  I love how someone thought of creating a “virtual palate cleanser”.

Sam Kronick’s Configuration Space via Creative Applications

3.  James Alliban and Keiichi Matsuda‘s Cell

Featured on Creative Applications, Cell is an interactive installation that, when you walk through it, lets social media tags “stick” to your body – symbolizing the second identities we create through our Internet profiles and activities.

4.  An animated look at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater

5. Type Connection, a great bit of interaction design. via IwantTorideMYbicycle, the apricot-juice blog

A “dating game” style activity for type matching.

Really, brilliant. I would like to kowtow to Aura Seltzer  for organizing type-matching wisdom this way.

The copy is clever, the site is clean, and it’s really just educational. Woooow.

via SoFiliumm
I think it was brave of the owners and designers to go off-tangent – be in the opposite direction of typical ice cream parlor and gelato store designs that are usually crafty, old-world, luxuriously decadent and traditionally warm.


Ice cream parlour Polka Gelato is located in an old historic building in Fitzroy Square in London. Designed by London based design studio Vonsung the interiors are somewhat surprising when entering the gelato shop.

With raw concrete and rough limestone being the primary materials and all graphics and furniture being in monochrome colours, the actual gelato is the only colourful thing in the shop.

Vonsung has designed all branding including naming, identity, signage, website and spatial design.

The designers explain, “An early decision was to place the Polka’s colourful, beautifully crafted gelatos as the central focal point and make the surrounding interior resemble the sculpted nature of the hand-made gelato.”

Read more: Polka Gelato

Read more: Vonsung

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5 Favorite Finds: Wendy MacNaughton, Zeldman blog, The Atlantic Cities, Emily Badger, Citizens for Optimism

I am floored by people’s amazing brains.

1.  Via The Littlest Comma, I found my way to Wendy MacNaughton’s blog and illustrations.  I am definitely going to buy one of her pieces from 20×200.

She’s clever, and her illustrations are accurate, but quirkily fun.

2.  The Zeldman site, by Jeffrey Zeldman, A List Apart‘s main man and founder of Happy Cog.

He recently featured notes from An Event Apart, as taken by Luke Wroblewski: on Kim Goodwin’s Silo-Busting with Scenarios, Zeldman’s Content First, and Whitney Hess’s What’s Your Problem?

3.  The Atlantic Cities

"Subway Platforms Around The World"

I like how they have a special (and engaging) section on Neighborhoods and urban planning.  It’s such a content- and category-rich site :O

Yes, that was an emoticon.  I can’t express how amazed I am at the sections they thought of.

Like “The Democracy in America” section!  Where they have a This Week in Bans feature!

Why I find this cool – this week’s feature, for example, on parents in New York’s Park Slope trying to express how they want ice cream vendors to be banned from the park is a genius example of freedom of speech. Particularly, this one line from a comment stream, that just shows the interplay of different economic forces at work: “I should not have to fight with my children every warm day on the playground just so someone can make a living!”

Other articles I bookmarked were: The Map Geeks Behind “Bostonography” and America’s Urban-Rural Work Divide (which I want to use as inspiration when categorizing occupations).

4.  Emily Badger, whose articles I found in The Atlantic Cities.

I like the way she writes, and what she writes about.  She writes about cultural trends regarding architecture and urban spaces, but in a relatable and un-hoighty-toighty way, like in I Can’t Stop Looking at Photos of Absurdly Tiny Homes.

5.  Citizens For Optimism, a group of designers who created posters based on words that a survey of New Yorkers associated with “optimism”.

Joe Hollier - "Sing"
Pablo Delkan - "Dream"

5 links for the day: Starbucks Omotesando; the concept behind Hypebeast, links to other culture curation ‘zines

My tabs do not run out 😦

The Internet is an infinite cornucopia. I don’t think that makes sense since “cornucopia” connotes an abundant, but finitely visible set. Oh well.

Also, I think some of the sites featured may be insulted by my calling them ‘zines.  I apologize; I couldn’t think of a more accurate term.

1.  Cool architecture in the Kengo Kuma and Associates portfolio.  They’re the group who created the design for Starbucks Omotesando. via Designspiration

2. Fast Company’s feature on Hypebeast founder, Kevin Ma.

I like Hypebeast; it knows it’s target market and supplies fresh, slick product features that cater right to it.

Moleskine Messages Collection
Rubin Clear Jar - Bedwin & The Heartbreakers

Yeah, it’s basically inspired by a Mason jar, but it has striations that denote Latte, Cappucino, etc. contents.  See, very aligned to its target market – the coffee-shop-bespoke-DIY-ish-manly-“knowledgeable” set.

3.  CitID, a project that asks creative people from all over the globe to send a logo or visualization that represents their city.

The site asks you to “honour your city”, which, for me, is a winning and emphatic tagline.  It makes me wish I was a graphic designer (as if I didn’t already).

It’s a beautiful project, and I wish I could read more about the people behind it.

Lisbon - by Andre Beato

4.  It’s Nice That.  It’s the name that I like, really.

It’s another one of those cultural curation sites.  Interesting stuff, although might be a bit too high-brow-artsy for my personal taste and subscription.

Gravitation - by Katrin Korfmann

5.  Huh Magazine.

Which I found through Hypebeast.

I liked this featured image – Banksy talking about advertising.