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As coffee’s third wave washed over America, a distinct aesthetic formed among cafés across the country—think botanicals, minimalist decor, bright whites and earthy woods. But now, in an increasingly competitive market, many roasters and cafés are looking to stand out from this recognizable aesthetic by turning to branding and design agencies for more unique identities. “When you think about it, preparing a coffee drink evokes all the senses,” says Tom Crabtree, founder of San Francisco’s Manual Creative. “And opening a thoughtfully designed package, touching a beautiful cup, or walking into an inspiring retail space is all part of that experience.”

Manual is one of a growing number of design firms working to create distinctive identities for coffee companies while keeping the story of a roaster or shop—and the coffee itself—at the forefront of each project (their portfolio also includes Port of Mohka, Loveland Aleworks and Merchants of Beverage). “When you take something as precious as a coffee bean that has been grown far away on a small farm, then processed, handled and roasted with great care not to lose what’s so special about it, the final step in that journey is how it’s packaged or consumed,” Crabtree says.

When approached by Australian roaster and café Pablo & Rusty’s, Manual took inspiration from the stenciled typography traditionally used on coffee sacks and employed a subtle color palette to focus attention on the coffee itself. “Good design is honoring the product and the journey it took,” he says.

Good design can also reflect the spirit of a company’s employees, culture and setting. For Studio Mast‘s work with Loyal Coffee, principal Travis Ladue spent time getting to know the people behind the Loyal’s coffee. “It’s important to bring the personality of the people selecting and roasting the beans into the brand,” Ladue says. Loyal’s final design included an homage to the company’s hometown of Colorado Springs, with both the café’s interior and its to-go cups featuring a rendering of the surrounding landscape.

For Ritual Coffee in San Francisco, Good Stuff Partners wanted to find a way to communicate the stories of Ritual’s coffees in a creative yet approachable way. To do that, they designed belly bands that snuggly wrap around each bag of coffee and draw in would-be buyers with illustrations and stories of the farmers behind the beans. “Creating a solid brand foundation, built around a company’s vision and values, is the most important piece to creating longevity,” says Good Stuff partner and creative director, Aimee Kilmer.

Beyond conveying the story of a coffee or the ethos of a company, design should ultimately help drive awareness and sales. “I’m convinced anything tastes better when it’s designed, packaged and branded well,” says Corinne Alexandra, a San Diego-based designer who did branding work for Scrimshaw Coffee. For Scrimshaw, Alexandra played to a social media–savvy crowd by designing an Instagram-friendly whale (“Verne”) as the shop’s mascot. “There’s so much competition in the coffee realm; it’s not enough to just make good coffee. You have to draw in your audience with visuals and keep them coming back for the experience.”

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