Stories of design across all media


Raising a Cup to the Past

“Branding is all about taking your clients on a journey.” It’s certainly the type of thing a marketing professional might say; it might even be true. In the case of the retro-themed San Francisco coffee bar Coffee Cultures, it turned out to be the ethos that fueled Chen Design Associates’ cross-media transformation of the establishment into a hip hangout with great coffee and an early-20th century vibe.


  • Construction Wrap
  • Website
  • Signage
  • Collateral
  • Environmental Graphics
  • Merchandise

Letting the Location Set the Tone
Despite a critical mass of coffee joints throughout the land, there remains an unswerving desire in the U.S. for coffee houses that cultivate good conversation rather than merely attracting scroungers of free WiFi.

Jason Michael Paul, already familiar with the coffee-shop business – he was one of the founders of Coffee Bar in the Potrero Hill area – planned for his new venture to offer up artisanal foods and socially responsible Counter Culture-brand coffee, amongst other gastronomical delights.

Right away Paul engaged Chen Design Associates and “challenged us from the start to do something that would turn heads and put his coffee bar on the map,” says CDA Design Director Max Spector.

In a city as packed-to-the-gills with food-and-drink destinations as San Francisco, there are dozens of directions a new establishment can take – from utilitarian and modern to fun and funky.

Ultimately, it was the location of the new establishment itself that gave Chen Design Associates the inspiration they needed. As CDA Public Relations Manager Kathryn Hoffman explains, Coffee Cultures “is in the historical Standard Oil building of San Francisco’s Financial District. We wanted to complete the classic, beautifully restored 1920s space.”

From a psychological standpoint, it doesn’t get much better than placing a coffee shop in a ’20s-era building. Whether conscious of it or not, most people’s ideas of “café culture” comes from that enjoyed by Americans in Europe during the ’20s and ’30s, depicted often in film and television.

The theme that CDA came up with for Coffee Cultures’ interior, signage and website played off that bygone area beautifully, taking patrons on a journey back in time.


An Elegant Air of the Past
As so often happens with projects like this, once things began to move, they did so very quickly.

By the end of February 2013, the design firm had a smart and elegant type logo approved, and had “designed the construction ‘wrap’ to generate street level visibility and buzz,” says Hoffman. “CDA’s creative team custom-created the letterforms for the Coffee Culture’s logotype. The thinking behind it was the intersection between European black-letter type and American diner-style script. We then had it applied in gold leaf to the door and windows of the landmark building storefront.

“We built the brand and environmental graphics around this custom lettering, exploring travel ephemera: train tickets, boarding passes, passport stamps, etc. We wanted to evoke travel and an international feel for a sophisticated, multicultural clientele.”

The smartphone- and tablet-friendly website, completed in mid-July 2013, features a similar theme, giving you the basics (address, phone number, email address and menu), all set against a brown background reminiscent of the shop’s interior.

“The brand solution is unique to who Coffee Cultures is and aims to be,” says Hoffman. “And offers a memorable, elegant impression to complement its grand, historical location.”


Easy Does it
“The hardest part with any client is conveying that a consistent look and feel isn’t about stamping the logo everywhere, or repeating the same set of items wherever possible,” Creative Director Josh Chen explains. “Our role as brand stewards is to take those elements and create a living, active story across the various pieces and unique entry points to engage the public.”

It is a distinction that Coffee Cultures owner Jason Michael Paul seems to appreciate, particularly in the work CDA has done with his now-two-year-old establishment.

“The consistency of the branding throughout the space lends itself to a very professional and established company,” he says. “All of the elements that were handled by Chen Design Associates are done to the highest design. The design is timeless.… The colors and originality with the concept and the play on the name is detailed in all facets of the design. Many of the elements are utilitarian, which is ultimately what I strive for when developing a new brand and identity, and Chen understood that.”

Considering that absolutely everything came together in under six months, “Time was the biggest challenge on this project,” admits Chen. “We moved quickly to get the branding and construction signage installed for maximum PR visibility, and then onto the rollout of the actual interior, collateral and other pieces.”

Still it’s a coffee shop, after all. Surely the CDA team was plied with round-the-clock cups of prime coffee during that crunch time.

Quoth the Hoffman, “Designers do not work by caffeine alone.”


Author: Aaron Berman

A former writer and editor for USA Today, Aaron Berman is also the editor of PaperSpecs, and covered the newspaper industry for the Newspaper Association of America’s monthly magazine, Presstime.


  1. Everything is better in SF, even the coffee. Nicely presented and well written. Thank you.

    Post a Reply
    • Thank you for the kind words, Barbara. And a nice little pat on the head for SF to boot :-)

      Post a Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *