Espresso yourself: Retail design for independent coffee shops


Design is a hugely powerful tool for retail – we take a look at the different design personalities evident in London’s independent coffee stores.

This morning, as I grabbed a coffee en-route to the office, I was struck by the diverse way in which independent coffee shops utilise design in their retail space.

Design is a powerful tool for these independent retail businesses; to promote a distinct point of difference, encourage affinity with the public, and ultimately steer custom away from their mass-market competitors. And within merely a few minutes walk from each other, I experienced four distinct approaches to the branding of independent cafes.

The All-singing, all-dancing approach

Here design operates very similarly as in a mass-market coffee store. The brand’s visual brand language is heavily promoted and evident across many touchpoints within the cafe – branded cups, promotional posters and even merchandise.

Four Corner’s merchandise – emblazoned with the brand’s identity

Four Corners is a great example of this approach. This business proudly makes the most of its impactful identity, by ensuring its omnipresence in the retail space. The brand’s ‘global’ story is seamlessly conveyed through the name (‘Four Corners’), products (Ozone coffee from New Zealand) and artwork (maps and circular devices throughout).

The Avant-garde approach

As seen in other challenger movements, such as craft spirits and beer, an off-beat design personality that purposefully distances it from ‘the norm’ can have great appeal. To deliver this in retail, artists or designers are often commissioned to create unorthodox environments.

Love & Scandal – doing it differently

The unusual illustrations and fixtures encountered in Love & Scandal evoke this mood perfectly. Here design is less about having a truly cohesive design identity, and more about creating the right tone of voice – one of an unconventional brand, who’s not afraid to do something different and deliver the unexpected.

The Archive approach

For many years Londoners have felt the allure of speakeasy bars; to be transported to a specific time and place can be intoxicating in itself. This effect can also be potent in retail spaces, and Coleman’s Coffee Roasters uses holistic design choices – from furniture to biscuit packaging – to bring to life the ambiance of 1950’s post-war Vienna. This is a nod to its brand purpose and selling point – coffee from a unique gas-powered roaster made in that time.

Coleman’s – a Post-war sense of place

The Authentic approach

Of course there are independent coffee outlets that have been serving the public for decades before their independent or mass-market counterparts opened. These more traditional stores adhere to the ‘form follows function’ ideology of design; there’s no ‘hipster’ design concept, but a matter-of-factness based upon the retail space’s intended function or purpose.

Cafe Pronto is a perfect example of this in our London neighbourhood – they’ve rolled out sensitive design evolutions over time to achieve a modern but familiar aesthetic for their loyal clientele.

Cafe Pronto – a much loved classic

As London continues to fill up with coffee stores, it’s inevitable that achieving the right retail design will become even more important for these businesses, and others like them.