Coffee, sense of place, and designing whole experiences

Somehow my wife and I found our way to The Coffee Roasting Company at Lourensford Wine Estate on Saturday. We’ve never been there, and the experience was fantastic. I recently referenced an article on how architecture can be used to influence behavior, and this place is a prime example. The coffee shop is designed to encourage talking and not rushing.

You’re greeted with the almost-overwhelming smell of different coffees blending together. Next you notice the unpretentious, “we’re just here to brew good espresso” decor, followed by the rustic tables and stacks of well-read books about coffee scattered all over. This is how coffee should be enjoyed.

As my wife and I settle in to wait for our cappuccinos I pick up a book called Coffee by Claudia Roden. I read out loud to her:

In Turkey at one time, a man promised when he married never to let his wife go without coffee, and it was considered a legitimate cause for divorce if he neglected to do so. So important is coffee in Oriental life that it is common for beggars to ask for money to buy it. It is inconceivable that they should go without. Business and bargaining are always done over a cup of coffee served before the argument starts. Whether in a shop or a market stall it creates a bond and an obligation between buyer and seller.

Reading about coffee

The author goes on to say that coffee houses “required a certain leisure” since it took time to roast and prepare coffee, so people got accustomed to waiting and filling their time with conversation. As I read those words I think about something my dad brings up a lot. As a geographer he is very interested in “sense of place” and always encourages us to try to understand the soul of a town or a building. From Wikipedia:

Places said to have a strong “sense of place” have a strong identity and character that is deeply felt by local inhabitants and by many visitors. Sense of place is a social phenomenon that exists independently of any one individual’s perceptions or experiences, yet is dependent on human engagement for its existence. Such a feeling may be derived from the natural environment, but is more often made up of a mix of natural and cultural features in the landscape, and generally includes the people who occupy the place.

That’s what I felt as I sat there reading, drinking coffee with my wife, taking it all in. There is a strong sense of place not because of one single thing, but because of how the people, the smells, the architecture, and of course the coffee come together to create an undeniable identity.

Cappuccino perfection

What does this have to do with design? As my thoughts drifted I was reminded that all design has a sense of place – even web design. The interactions, typography, copy, images, etc., come together to create an experience. You can analyze a design in pieces, but you can only experience it as a whole.

We tend to break up the different functions of user experience design, and that’s fine. We need User Researchers, Information Architects, Content Strategists, Interaction Designers, Visual Designers, and [insert latest job title here] who specialize in what they do. But it’s fallacy to think that they can work in isolation as if each is building one piece of a puzzle that can merely be assembled once all is said and done.

For a design to have a strong and desirable sense of place a natural ebb and flow between the different aspects is essential (even if it’s all done by the same person). Turning a wireframe into a high-fidelity mockup isn’t a one-way activity – there will always be things to reconsider about the interaction or the content (or a multitude of other aspects). As I’ve written before, designing in isolation can be dangerous and very unsatisfactory for everyone involved.

I’ll add this: designing in a place like this is way better than designing in a cubicle. Creative spaces beget creativity.

Also, that coffee was amazing.