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The point of sale counter at Armistice Coffee and Cocktails, located at the Lucille on Roosevelt.

Commercial, Interior Design, Third Places

Elements of Great Café Design

Think about your favorite café. What stands out to you? When it comes to designing amazing café spaces, there’s a lot to consider, but it doesn’t need to be complicated. Here, we break down the basic elements every café should include to achieve a great design that elevates your brand and your customers love.

August 31, 2023

Think about your favorite café or coffee shop. What makes it so special?

Whether you’re breezing through on your way to work or having a leisurely afternoon with a loved one, the ideal café should be well suited to a variety of needs. They’re community spaces great for socializing with friends, working remotely, and so much more. And when it comes to café design, each location has its own set of variables to consider, from comfort to efficiency to aesthetics.

What are the basic design guidelines for cafe design?

Café design, like most forms of commercial design, should inspire intentional interactions and help guide consumer behavior and movement inside the space.

When it comes to guidelines, functionality should be at the heart of all decision making. The flow of the space should be intuitive to customers, and the space behind the bar should readily support baristas to keep lines moving as quickly as possible. Owner or their operations manager can work closely with designers to help bring their vision to life.

What are other key considerations of café design?

When it comes to the elements of great café design, there are a number of variables to consider. First, it’s important to assess the scope of what’s actually being offered. Will there be light pastries, or more substantial food items? Will there be tea, boba, or shakes offered in addition to coffee drinks? The range of beverages and food offerings will definitely inform and impact the design of the bar and back of house, which should be designed first.

Once services have been decided, you can start thinking about the overall layout of the space. circulation, seating, lighting, color palettes, queuing, barista accommodations, and elevating your brand.

Creating a Memorable First Impression

Great café design generally incorporates an ‘Instagram’ moment or unique focal point that contributes to the overall customer experience and makes them eager to return.

Shadow boxes as café tables. – Ada’s Technical Books & Café – Retail Design – Board & Vellum
Shadow Box Tables

Unique moments, such as these shadow box tables, create memorable experiences for customers.

Encourage your customers to take a picture of drink or foam art with an art piece, neon, or some other defining characteristic of your space. Not only does this help your café it stand out from others and be easily identifiable, but it helps get your name out there through the best marketing around: work of mouth. Building a warm, welcoming, and one-of-a-kind first impression crafts a narrative specific to brand of the café.

Barista Accommodations

Crafting drinks is a messy endeavor, especially if you’re doing so in a rush. Luckily, there are ways to minimize visible messes and wait times alike without diminishing a barista’s interactions with a customer. Equipment displays are paramount to great service and happy employees. All essential tools should be well within reach and easy to clean after use.

The point of sale counter at Armistice Coffee & Cocktails, a coffeeshop in the Lucille on Roosevelt. – Commercial Retail Design by Board & Vellum
Supporting Baristas

Plenty of room for baristas behind the bar is essential, as is a thoughtful layout that makes it easy to sling espresso, chat with customers, and clean up quickly.

It’s important that the area behind the bar can comfortably accommodate at least two baristas working alongside one another without feeling cramped or overwhelming. There should also be an abundance of hidden, open, and closed storage to keep everything organized. And of course, barista accommodations will be impacted the scope of services offered, such as food items and the complexity of drinks.


Seating is one of the most important elements when it comes to elevating customer experience in a café. Comfortable, abundant seating helps give off a cozy, sit-and-stay-awhile vibe, and increases the likelihood of guests spending more time in your space.

A bookstore coffee shop on Capitol Hill. – Interior design and retail interiors by Board & Vellum.
A Seat for Everyone

A variety of seating options for a variety of guests and groups can make your space feel accessible and comfortable no matter who walks in the door.

Your café design should include multiple options of tables and chairs that can accommodate various party sizes, such as solo seating, group seating, indoor and outdoor, and tucked away spaces for quieter options. You can even consider larger, community spaces where larger groups can meet. Flexibility is key as a cafe space develops over time.


Another crucial element of great cafe design is queuing. The process to order and pick up food and drinks should be intuitive to guests, with plenty of space for larger crowds to wait.

Point of sale at a coffee shop. – Fuel Coffee on 19th, Commercial Retail Design by Board & Vellum
The Line Starts Here

Queuing should offer easy access to menu viewing without crowding the rest of your space.

Queuing should not interfere with or disturb seated guests, so it should stay relatively distanced from the seating area. It should also feature retail items for customers to browse as they wait to order, like easy grab-and-go style snacks and sandwiches, water bottles, or merchandise specific to the coffee shop or cafe.


When it comes to great café design, one overlooked element is lighting. It can be a little bit complex! Finding a balance between soft, atmospheric lighting and lighting bright enough to read beneath is key to accommodating a range of customers. It should also be indirect to reduce glare and distracting shadows.

Café with mobile above. – Ada’s Technical Books & Café – Retail Design – Board & Vellum
Soft Lighting

Lighting makes it easy for folks to enjoy your space, rain or shine. For best results, make sure to include lighting that’s comfortable and easy to read or work beneath.

At the bar area, lighting can be more flexible. Customers should be able to easily read menus, and baristas should have no trouble quickly moving about their station.

Mitigating glare is just as crucial near the bar as it is for customer seating areas. Access to natural light is also important — windows should be strategically placed to capture sunlight and allow people to see inside from the street.

Color Palettes and Materials

The color palette of a cafe is always subjective and creates an opportunity for the owner to communicate their vision for the space. It’s more important that the chosen colors are complemented by timeless, natural materials like wood.

Atulea Tea Shop – Board & Vellum – Commercial Interior Design
Colors & Materials

Whether you go bright or neutral, the colors of your space can make a huge statement. Natural materials, like wood, are a great choice no matter your style.

A neutral base creates an excellent canvas for all the other accessories of cafés, such as books, merchandise, equipment, and brighter, more vibrant colors and patterns can always be layered on top. Keeping in mind that coffee shops can sometimes be noisy, adding textures to the surfaces, furniture, furnishings can help with the acoustical quality.

Cafes are an irreplaceable component of our culture — they’re places to work, relax, and come together as communities. It’s important that we design these spaces with a sense of identity, purpose, and functionality so that we can all continue to enjoy them, together.

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