Coffee, Wolves & Design

In the early 1990’s, my wife and I visited her sister at the University of Washington’s main campus in Seattle. While there we were struck by the vibrant community life around the campus. I wondered what was powering this electric atmosphere.

Some of it may have been the school’s large size. Some may have been the crescendo of the grunge culture. But what grabbed my attention was the hole in the wall coffee houses. They were everywhere—like ticks on a hound dog. These coffee houses hummed with artistic expression, authentic conversations and of course the stimulant of some pretty wicked caffeine. The scene I remember most vividly was walking from street level down a long staircase and looking into a large room crowded with students engaged in conversations, singing ballads, laughing with friends, playing a game of chess, and experiencing life in the raw. Most interestingly, there was no advertising anywhere. Nothing had been designed by professionals. The floors were wooden, slightly dirty and creaked excessively. The signage and menus looked like they were done on the fly by a bad doodler. There were no logos to be seen. No beautifully designed packaging of coffee products. No branded music playing through a high end sound system. Just some poor 5-year student, strumming out of tune grunge ballads on his scratched up guitar. But what life that place had!

Almost 15 years later I’m standing in Starbucks, the world famous coffee chain whose roots also started in Seattle. Carefully selected, trendy jazz music is playing through the Bose speakers. A few folks are quietly sitting around comfy chairs sipping Chai tea. A well dressed urbanite is ordering a double-tall-nonfat-caramel-latte-with-no-foam from the pleasant, smiling barista. And all around I’m surrounded by extremely well designed, award winning, multi-million dollar on-brand products, signage, logos, packaging, menus and brochures communicating the Starbucks message. How soothing to my designer eyes—everything carefully crafted to tell to me exactly what Starbucks wants me to hear. There’s no room for error. Nothing out of place. No weird combination of fonts. No clashing color schemes. Earthy tones to caress me into coming back. Then it hits me. Something’s not right. Something’s missing in this highly designed environment—life.

When trapped in the clutches of marketing and advertising, design strangles the life out of things. Creativity dies too. Design becomes manufactured rather than organic. It becomes lifeless instead of life giving. In an environment where design is under the control advertising, marketing and profit, there is no authentic exchange of ideas and communication. Just a very well designed system of products, services, packaging, logos, menus and brochures droning a corporately honed message that no one wants to hear. We’ve all been so trained to think that this is good design; design’s true friend; and maybe even the pinnacle of design. Now we don’t even know what life-giving design feels like.

I live in the foothills of the Appalachians. When I walk outside my door and take in the forest (or “wudz” as we say here), I see incredible design everywhere that is full of chaos, detail, decay, color, sound and motion, but full of life. And the forest reflects the life of its Creator powerfully as it grows, groans and sways. We must rethink the way we view design and escape from the clutches of the wolf. What would life giving design look like? We’ll explore that right after I drink my venti-mocha-latte-with-a-dabb-of-whipped-cream.

5 Responses to “Coffee, Wolves & Design”

  1. Brad Hill

    Christopher Alexander’s book series, The Nature of Order, is about exactly this idea. If you’re at all concerned about this, and we all should be, you should read the first book.

  2. Wesley Walser

    “I live in the foothills of the Appalachians.”

    I live in Boone NC, props!

  3. Ren

    “I live in the foothills of the Appalachians.”

    I’m over in Jonesborough TN. LOVE the Appalachians.

    I fear the world is becoming more and more sterile, as big corporations drive out the smaller, more creative businesses. sigh.


  4. Brad Hill

    Christopher Alexander's book series, The Nature of Order, is about exactly this idea. If you're at all concerned about this, and we all should be, you should read the first book.


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