Inside the Studio: Starbucks Global Creative

by Andrew Gibbs

Starbucks Global Creative recently opened their doors exclusively to The Dieline readers! They are an in-house design studio for all Starbucks creative work worldwide, and, in my opinion, one of the best design firms on the west coast.

I had the pleasure of going on a behind-the-scenes tour with Starbucks creative director of packaging, Mike Peck and the Starbucks design team. We interviewed Jennifer Quotson, director of visual presentation; Jeffrey Fields, vice president of global creative; and Jean-Marie Shields, director of brand strategy and expression.

They gave us a glimpse into the world of Starbucks—from the design philosophy, the brand values and the creative process to sustainability and staying inspired. We even did an official coffee tasting with Major Cohen, a Starbucks Coffee Master, in the Starbucks cupping room! 

 

 



From left to right: Jeffery Fields, Jennifer Quotson, Jean Marie Shields

 

Andrew Gibbs: 

What is the Starbucks Design Philosophy?

 

Jean Marie Shields: 

For me, it’s about nurturing and inspiring the human spirit. It’s really through that lens that we do everything—with that warmth. I think that’s really the epicenter of the design philosophy. Within the store experience, we focus on and celebrate connections with people which contribute to a feeling of intimacy around the brand. So a lot of the design reflects that.  But, if I were to describe it in just a few words I’d say it’s a warm and textural and nuanced brand. A very evolutionary brand, not a revolutionary brand. The design always has to reflect that. The brand is almost like a friend—a unique, well-traveled, cultured friend you know well but who always manages to surprise you. That’s always our focus. I think the design aesthetics reflect that.

 

Andrew Gibbs:

 It’s a fascinating way of looking at it. It’s kind of like an old friend.

 

Jean Marie Shields: 

But it’s not that friend who is always the same. It’s the friend who leaves you feeling energized and who you always can count on to have a great exchange with. A friend with warmth. Starbucks is really comfortable in what it is and keeps on moving. It’s fluid and organic. And I think about how things were different before Starbucks came around. I’m not from here— I’m originally from Sweden. Decades ago, Americans were in diners drinking coffee from styrofoam cups or gathering at a church or community center, and those were the choices for connecting. So Starbucks really brought forward a new point of view, a new experience. It really reinvented this experience or ritual you already knew. And it’s similar to what we’re doing recently, reinventing ourselves in the stores. We want to bring in better sensibilities and make sure our stores serve that aesthetic. We want to be a vital part of the neighborhoods we’re in and we want to connect in each neighborhood. Those are really important things for this brand. 

 

Andrew Gibbs: 

What are the principals that represent Starbucks brand values? 

 

Jean Marie Shields: 

It’s really “using scale for good,” and I think when you ask most people why they come to work for this company it’s because they believe they can make someone’s day better through the small things that we do. It’s based on coffee and community. And we engage in community both near and far—locally and globally. 

 

 

Andrew Gibbs:

How much work is created by your team in, let's say, in a month or a year?

 

Jennifer Quotson:

My team supports every single promotion and product launch that we do globally, season to season. We set every product and sign in store, consider the customer journey, and feel insanely passionate about the retail space. We also support and consult on many other things, as we own the holistic retail experience. We're fortunate enough to consult on prototypical stores, new retail concepts, and are integral in taking the brand strategy work for the emerging brands into a more tangible space. We'll work with the packaging team on form and function of any given product, and work out how it comes to life in stores. The easiest way to describe the way we approach the breadth of work is in different tiers, because in any creative space you are always looking at the aspirational work – the future, you're always looking at today's work, the things that need to get out right away – the present, and then we are always looking back and saying, "What worked? What didn't?" Past. Present. Future. On any given day, in any given project – that's the cycle we're in.

 

 

Andrew Gibbs:

How do you determine who will work on which brands? Especially with acquiring the new brands like Teavana, etc.

 

Jeffery Fields:

There is a creative leadership team in place that oversees all the brands. We lead a dynamic, cross-functional group. We’ve structured the Studio into teams by proficiencies—packaging design, 2D design, visual presentation, content writing, and so on— so everyone can work in their proficiency on every brand. 

 

 

Andrew Gibbs:  

How do you keep your designers inspired?

 

Jean Marie Shields: 

How do I stay inspired? Nature always inspires me. Nature is such a big part of Starbucks, too. All our offerings come from the earth—teas, herbs, spices, botanicals and of course, coffee beans. I try to bring in any kind of any stimulus to help inspire the team. Being curious, many of us spend a lot of time exploring and researching on Web sites. I try to offer a lot of flexibility in how the team spends their days— understanding what’s important to them. It’s not a rigid nine-to-five kind of thing. I have a diverse group in which the strategists are really interested in the words and spend a lot of time on words, the latest trends and what the market is doing. On the other hand our designers are more interested in the trend visuals and products. Plus looking at a lot of artists and what’s going on in art and design. How people are feeling and thinking. So much of what we do is bringing relevance to the brand and sometimes shaping and reflecting what happens in culture. I think also what inspires people here at Starbucks is that we’re not bystanders. We have a point of view on issues, for example. We bring in political leaders to talk with us. We listen to music while we work—today it’s jazz, yesterday we listened to rock. We also get inspiration from our diverse workforce. It allows us to learn from each other. If I feel lost, I just go out and talk with baristas and customers. It kind of grounds me in what really matters.

 

Mike Peck, Creative Director, Packaging, Starbucks Global Creative, when waiting to ask fellow Creative Director Toki questions.

 

Andrew Gibbs:

What is the Starbucks design process? And your design process? How do you start and finish a project?

 

Jennifer Quotson: 

When a project is briefed in, we meet as a collective to assign a team and go straight into the creative work. We get many different creative briefs from our business partners, regarding many different projects and products. Some briefs we initiate ourselves because we want to challenge an aesthetic, or we really want to up-level a certain piece of the journey. We approach them all differently, but they all start as a collaboration in the Studios. Often between the packaging team, the in-store retail promotions 2D team, the writers, and my team – it's really a collaboration from the start. We go through our creative process, which morphs based on what we've been briefed on. I have an interesting role because I am fortunate enough to be a part of the collective from the beginning, helping to shape the strategy, the work, and at times jump in and out to consult as needed. When the rubber hits the road we start to build out the dimensional idea - the tangible manifestation of the work. We get going. We build things. Lots of duct tape and toothpicks (laughs). 

 

Andrew Gibbs:

How do you learn about your customers?

 

Jennifer Quotson:

We use our consumer insights team. And I personally spend a lot of time in our stores. It's important that every time we launch a promotion, my team goes out into our stores and talks with our store partners and with customers. The team is super-engaged, and I believe that it's because we keep ourselves grounded. We don't consider ourselves presumptuous; we don't always know what the customer will respond to. We need their perspective. We can theorize, but in my opinion, it's not always good to be assumptive. It's really good to check yourself and be humble in that way. 

 

Jeffery Fields:

We try to go into our customers’ minds, mine their brains and understand them. There’s a lot that we hear from stores themselves and the interactions there. Also, social media is huge for us. When we want to know what our customers are asking for and what they think of our products and experiences, it’s out there—they’ll tell us. It’s a special kind of relationship we have, as a brand, with our customers. It feels very transparent and I think that’s one reason why Starbucks is successful. As creatives we have our own experiences as customers, too. We go out to the world and come back and share stories.

 


 

Andrew Gibbs:

Do you do any consumer testing as far as the projects you work on before they hit stores?

 

Jennifer Quotson:

Absolutely, especially the work that has long-term implications like new fixtures or small wares (think vessels, utensils, accessories) in stores. Or, if we want to try new things in the customer journey, or try new ideas or considerations with the store design teams. For us it's really important to understand if a big or small creative idea is viable – especially in our world when we are trying something new from a merchandising or fixturing perspective. For example, if we want to look at scooping beans in specific vessels for customers in the retail lobby, the first thing we ask ourselves is: what would that look like?  How would that work from a creative standpoint? How would we work to operationalize? Is it sustainable? We certainly have and will continue to test things like that. It's almost a prerequisite to test and ask both our store partners as well as our customers for feedback if we are trying to change any type of behavior. That's where our partnership with the store operators is critical.

 

Andrew Gibbs:

How do you handle new store designs? How do you test them? Do you build a physical store? A physical mockup and bring consumers into it?

 

Jennifer Quotson:

The store Design team works within their palate(s) and are the creative owners of the concept, new, and renovated stores designs. They are always trying new things, looking ahead, and continue to push the notion of local relevance – it's hugely important to us. We're always working with them to understand if in any given new concept, new or renovated store can accommodate our current fixture package, or even if it's relevant for a region or market. It forces us to think about how we may need to support these stores in different ways, how we can help them understand our intention, and what tools and philosophies they may need to be successful in bringing the collective vision to market. 

 

 

Andrew Gibbs: 

With so many projects, how do you manage your time and find the time to do everything you guys do?

 

Jennifer Quotson:

We have a team of Producers who help us manage and prioritize the work. We're then able to go back and manage the creative with our respective teams based on business priorities. I will say that with each and every brief that come into the Studios, we are all very, very much committed to pushing great creative work. And that takes time. You must be able to prioritize in order to be able to spend the right time on the right things – because we're creators – we like to noodle. We have a huge support system in the Producers to help push and move the work along. We all have our own internal creative process, but at the end of the day, we've also got many tangible, and sometimes pressing, deliverables. Understanding the business needs and priorities are key in delivering thoughtful creative.

 

 

Andrew Gibbs:

How does Starbucks bring sustainability into its product, in packaging in particular?

 

Jeffery Fields:

Sustainability at Starbucks is a big deal. I like to think we’ve been forging a way globally of creating sensibility and responsibility. The biggest eye-opener is that we can make a lot of moves to become more sustainable, but how is the rest the world able to help us solve that? The simple idea of having our white cups be recyclable, we did that, but not every facility in our country has the means to deal with that. It’s a fascinating kind of problem to solve. As a company we are committed to finding solutions. The store design team actually is doing a beautiful job at looking at sustainability and structure when they remodel stores, utilizing things that still should be there—creating a new life for the old products.

We’re always sensitive to using as little packaging as possible. Using the right materials within packaging, etc. There’s a consciousness about it. And we know there’s always room to improve. We’re always trying to find innovative new ways. 

 

 

Andrew Gibbs:

Any tips for packaging designers on how they can start thinking about sustainability more and bringing that more into their products?

 

Jeffery Fields:

As designers it's important to realize we can't change the world alone. We have a responsibility to push our production partners, each other, and the broader design community in order to have a meaningful impact on the issue of packaging sustainability. So my tip would be to look for inspiration in what others are doing, and inspire those around you. 

 Andrew Gibbs and Mike Peck in The Jungle Room, where Starbuck housed thier previously designed packages.

 

Andrew Gibbs:

What’s the favorite project you’ve ever worked on?

 

Jeffery Fields:

That’s an easy answer—the refresh of the Starbucks brand three years ago was probably the most profound one. It was one that shook the foundation and reset some of our sensibilities and I’m so proud to have worked on that. But it’s actually the projects that never see the light of day that are my favorites. The ones that pushed boundaries and started us thinking in new ways. Work that’s provocative, that really gets you going.  

 

Andrew Gibbs:

The things that you are able to push boundaries on.

 

Jeffery Fields:

Totally, and you know the effort put into these projects is not wasted. They’re actually there to help inspire and show other ways of thinking. I often wonder that about other creative agencies—wouldn’t you love to take a peek and see what their favorite work has been? And it usually isn’t what sees the light of day. I think there’s something there. Maybe you guys can start something, bringing that to life. It’s an exciting thought.

 

Jennifer Quotson:

Oh, you're not going to make me answer that (laughs). You know, I have one. It was a project called Coffee Market, and it was a concept initiated by the Studio, by my team, actually, and what we did is we asked, “What if? What if we had all the money in the world, or no money in the world, and what would we do differently in the store?” And so we had a space that we built and we created, and it was an experience, and it went all the way up to our senior leaders, and I think what it did was influence decisions. It never came to fruition in its entirety, but there were things that we pulled from it, and that for me was a moment in time where we were able to think a little differently, and a lot of heart and love went into that, and any time we get to create an experience and give the team the freedom to do that, it's just really empowering.    

 


Left to Right: Designers Jen Polaski, Derek Shimizu and Anasazi Wade

 

Andrew Gibbs:

What's your favorite part about working for Starbucks?

 

Jean Marie Shields: 

I think it’s the culture aspect of it. I believe Starbucks brings something really nice to the U.S. culture. My first engagement with the brand was when I had moved here from Europe. I was totally lost, and this was before Apple had their playlists, and before you could buy compilation CDs here. And I grew up with that… I wanted something that made me feel at home. Music has always done that for me. And I remember Starbucks was the only place that carried those albums.

 

Andrew Gibbs:

Oh yeah, that’s right.

 

Jean-Marie Shields:  

I remember buying the Ray Charles album. You probably remember that one, with the beautiful cover. The stories that are inside the CD covers really give you behind-the-scenes insights. I grew up in Sweden where there’s a big coffeehouse culture. So I remember going to coffeehouses with my grandfather and he knew the baristas and the people in the cafés. So I have warm personal reasons why I feel so strongly about the coffeehouse, and what it means to personal connections.

 

Photography by Curtis Edwards

 

Mike Peck from Starbucks will be presenting Packaging: A Retail Experience at The Dieline Package Design Conference in June.

Mike Peck, Creative Director, Packaging, Starbucks Coffee Company

Few if any brands are as complex as Starbucks, with its retail cafés, grocery products and lifestyle cachet. So how does a brand with so much invested in the customer experience package up its product without stripping away the dynamic aspects of the café? The answer lies in an important combination of consumer insights and shop-alongs, but more importantly, in a deep-seated knowledge and love of the product. When designers have a passionate knowledge of the product they are designing for, creativity is only helped by data, not driven by it.

 

 






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