Inside The Global Design World Of Starbucks

At the 2014 Specialty Coffee Association of America Symposium, Starbucks Design VP Bill Sleeth delivered a captivating talk on the brand's international design efforts. The talk shed light on Starbucks' ability to create some of...

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At the 2014 Specialty Coffee Association of America Symposium, Starbucks Design VP Bill Sleeth delivered a captivating talk on the brand's international design efforts. The talk shed light on Starbucks' ability to create some of the most beautiful coffee spaces worldwide. This insight challenged the perception of Starbucks as a maker of cookie-cutter cafes and grocery store kiosks.

Starbucks has a global team of more than 300 designers across 18 different offices who have created stunning one-off cafe showpieces around the world. From the soaring glass structure at Oak & Rush in Chicago to the unconventional seating and earthy tones in Mumbai, Starbucks has proven itself to be a design powerhouse.

One of the seating areas in a New Delhi Starbucks.

Regardless of one's opinion about Starbucks' coffee offerings, the brand's commitment to design is undeniable. With offices in cities like Miami, Seattle, and São Paolo, Starbucks is the largest cafe design firm globally. To gain more insights into the design process, an interview was conducted with four design leaders within the company, including Bill Sleeth himself.

The interview revealed that Starbucks takes a unique approach to cafe design. Unlike other brands driven by consumer insights, Starbucks makes its own determinations and then seeks feedback. Feedback from customers plays a crucial role in the design process, which is constantly evolving based on what works and doesn't work in different stores.

Starbucks draws inspiration not only from within the coffee industry but also from the DIY movement in restaurants and coffee shops. The simplicity and elegance seen in these spaces, even without professional design input, have influenced Starbucks' approach to design. Starbucks acknowledges and respects the breakthroughs achieved by individuals outside the design profession.

The company also considers the local cultural context when designing cafes. For example, in Amsterdam, where people tend to visit cafes in larger groups, Starbucks creates spaces that accommodate this behavior. In each location, Starbucks strives to strike a balance between providing a unique coffee experience and integrating with the local neighborhood.

New Orleans Canal St Exterior

Some flagship Starbucks stores stand out for their exceptional design and operational models. For instance, the New Orleans store on Canal and St. Charles reflects the city's culture through its design choices. The store embraces formality and hospitality with classic bar designs and a connection to the city's history.

The Galeries Lafayette store in Paris showcases a simple yet striking design centered around white cups that form the face of the counter and are displayed on the walls. This design choice reflects Starbucks' desire to treat coffee as a precious object and resonates with the local culture.

La Coupole GLF

Starbucks recognizes that not all design concepts from flagship stores are suitable for implementation in every location. Each store has unique operational and customer requirements. However, elements from concept stores can be incrementally integrated into other locations, allowing Starbucks to continually evolve and innovate.

Starbucks also values the feedback and experience of its partners (employees) in the design process. The triad of design, construction, and operations teams work together to ensure that every store meets the needs of both customers and partners. The goal is to create a connection and synergy between the design and operational aspects of each store.


Starbucks understands that the coffee industry and consumer preferences are constantly evolving. The company aims to move the needle on specialty coffee by introducing unique offerings and providing customers with the tools and knowledge to recreate those experiences at home. Starbucks is committed to meeting the needs of its customers and maintaining flexibility in its design and operational models.

Overall, Starbucks continues to push the boundaries of cafe design, creating exceptional spaces that reflect the local culture while providing a remarkable coffee experience. Whether it's the iconic "Gaybucks" store in Seattle or the innovative Oak & Rush cafe in Chicago, Starbucks remains a leader in the global design world of coffee spaces.

All photos courtesy Starbucks except where otherwise noted.