Coffee Shop Design Observations

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Brown (2009) states that design is not limited to designers and one can infer that he is speaking of designers by degree or qualification.  Many times I have watched TV shows such as The Block, Grand Designs and more recently Restaurant Revolution.  These shows are the stuff that dreams are made of and full of innovative concepts and little did I realise till today, examples of design thinking as not only the final product but the processes and journey it takes to bring these concepts to final form.

What about the local coffee shop I go to though?  Had I really taken much notice of the design?  Not really.  It is a local coffee shop attached to a large shopping centre and I go there because the staff are friendly and basically it is easy for me to pop in and out quickly.  I actually never take the time to sit and observe how the design of this coffee shop operates so to sit for 30 minutes inside was a novelty not only for me but for the staff as well.

Here is an overall sketch of the physical layout of the coffee shop.



The coffee shop is located right at one of the main entrances to the shopping centre.  It is always busy and the entryway can become crowded when there are people waiting for coffee, people waiting to pay and people needing to get through to sit in the coffee shop.


The ‘work area is partitioned by a wall which has a pass cut-out into the wall where the food is passed through from the kitchen.  Dirty plates and dishes are taken via a small single door to the kitchen and the final preparation for plates of food, such as adding cream and ice-cream are done in the coffee area or the bench space near the door to the kitchen.

The seating is very squashed together and little did I realise there were not many younger people or families using this coffee shop.  The clientele seemed to be retirees or groups of adults of no more than 3.  The tables in the centre had a space between of between 20-30 cm from the corner of one table to another and staff needed to pass food across the table to get to the people sitting in the centre.


While waiting for food and coffee, there was little to look at if facing towards the entrance of the shopping centre.  Selling drinks and food were definitely on the agenda of the owners as when facing towards the shop and shopping centre entrance the customer could see a drinks fridge, the preparation of food through the pass and the several glass jars that cluttered the bench surrounding the coffee machine that were full of cakes and biscuits.  As well there were some flowers in a vase.

An interesting observation is that two customers required walking aids and 1 customer had parked hers right in front of the cake fridge next to where she was seated and the other had to park hers outside the shop where trolleys also need to be put if using the coffee shop.

It was difficult to observe without judgement but it became apparent that I now knew why I prefer to get takeaway coffee rather than use the coffee shop.  The advantage this business has is that it is located in a prime position within the centre and the staff are always happy and friendly towards their customers.  While food and staff are central to customer experience in a coffee shop so too are the surroundings.


Brown, T. (2009) Change by design: How design thinking transforms organizations and inspires innovation. Summary by Get Abstract. Retrieved from:

10 thoughts on “Coffee Shop Design Observations

  1. Hi Michelle
    An interesting reflection. Your comment of prime position shows the importance of ‘location, location, location’. It is interesting, one tends not to notice ‘who’ are the customers for a restaurant/cafe or business when you are there (I am talking in a ‘Mall/shopping complex scenario’ )and yet the design obviously is central to attracting a certain ‘clientele’ and excluding others. I imagine even changing the number of tables/chairs and providing more space would impact the business and clientele – I wonder if to a positive or negative outcome?

    • Thanks, Yvonne. It was an interesting exercise to stop and smell the coffee. ;-D Even in observing the takeaway space – some days I am virtually pushed into the shopping centre as customers leaving need to pay, customers wanting to sit inside move in and me waiting for that much needed coffee adapts. Also, the idea of the importance of empathy definitely came to the forefront as I watched the staff try and manouevre around some very tightly packed spaces. On reflection, if I was to invite someone to have a catch up and a coffee, it isn’t a coffee shop I would suggest. I guess it depends on the ‘vision’ of the owner and what they want to attract.
      Thanks for the visit and the feedback.

  2. Hi Michelle

    After reading your post and Yvonne’s reply, it reminded me of a YouTube clip I came across the other day. The video clip was made by a successful businessman. He said, when you see something that’s working, double it (effort, investment, etc)!

    I can see as a takeaway customer, the coffee shop works fine with you but when you dine in, the story is a bit different. In the prime location, the rent is usually high so increasing physical space will be an expensive practice. I would be interested to see what will happen if the owner focuses more on takeaway and use the space for more takeaway style shopping like snack food grab and go. Would you take a piece of cake or newspaper while you are waiting for your coffee?

    P.S. for the observation, I took a very different approach and observed the digital space. Please feel free to have a look. Thanks.


  3. Hi Michelle,
    Your post reminded me of my own experience or accessibility. My daughter is just over a year old and I often walk around shopping areas with her. It’s amazing what an insight this gives in terms of how shops and retailers provide – or do not provide – adequate provision for someone with a pram, wheelchair or other mobility equipment. Even today I couldn’t even ENTER a shop with my pram because there were steps leading down to it from the entrance. I think it’s an interesting area of design to look into…this book looks good : Inclusive Design: Designing and Developing Accessible Environments
    It’s available in the CSU library too : )

    • I remember all too well the pressure of manoeuvering around a cramped shop looking for a top. People actually sigh at you. I am very judgemental of accessibility to any shop/cafe. There were 2 ladies today, both with prams. The cafe was so full and they were happy to wait for a table but in the end they just said no thanks, we’ll go somewhere else.

  4. Really appreciated your sketches, but this coffee shop might could use some inspiration! Empathetic observations, as you have done, would be the best way to address some of the design challenges this business faces. By looking at the actions by individual customers and among them, such as the ones squeezing past each other, the fundamentals of the space and its functionality become apparent (Brown & Katz, 2011). It seems as though comfort and traffic flow should be a higher priority than the number of tables.

    • Thanks Taylor. As I have been thinking about the space, I have also been thinking of not many cafes have docking stations where customers can charge their phone while eating lunch and wi-fi could be a deciding factor in the development of a different demographic. I was thinking the 4 tables in the centre are squeezed so tightly together, why don’t they get a large communal table, scatter some reading materials. Add taller stools around it to give it a point of interest. The whole idea of salience, where do we want the eye drawn first. Makes it easy for a high chair to be added at least so prams can be parked outside. I don’t think I have ever seen a high chair used in this coffee shop. I think there may also be a case of this is the way we’ve always done it.

  5. Hi Michelle
    I found it interesting that your coffee shop, while having the exact opposite elements in design problems to mine (overcrowding as opposed to too much space, etc.), the outcome in terms of the end-user was the same; you could only use the space in groups of 2 or 3. I’m not sure whether this was, in your case, to encourage the space as a take-away or just poor planning.

    • Actually Andrew the space was full to the brim at lunch today. The take away part has only been added in the last few years. I just think the staff are the biggest asset and just have a natural and relaxed way of making everyone feel welcome. The owner always greets you personally with a smile and a hello, how’s your day been? I think the intent is to be a place to unwind and almost has a feeling of authenticity without pretence.

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