From the Ground Up: ‘Not hipstery, not Starbucks’

The 11th installment of a series about the launch of a local coffee shop and roastery.
Read previous From the Ground Up stories.

From cups to lightbulbs, Compass Coffee's co-founders are deliberate about seemingly everything related to the forthcoming business on Seventh Street NW in Shaw.

Except for the company colors.

"I don't have a meaning for blue and orange," co-founder Michael Haft said, shrugging. "I just like the colors."

After the company name, colors were among the first branding decisions Haft and co-founder Harrison Suarez made, unusual considering they hadn't hired a graphic designer yet. The co-founders have DIYed their way through much of the construction, but after trying their own designs, they hired Austin-based graphic designer Erin Tyler.

"A lot of the ways that we created this brand were totally backwards, but it worked," Tyler said. "They just knew that they wanted to be not hipstery, not Starbucks, but also be sort of clean and simple and elegant."

Compass-branded products next to a Pantone book (Courtesy of Compass Coffee)
Graphic designer Erin Tyler was hired to hone Compass Coffee's logo and wordmark on cups, mugs, tins and other paraphernalia. (Courtesy of Compass Coffee)

When Tyler was brought on to the project, her first task was to finesse the logo and wordmark. That meant tweaking some of the colors to slightly warmer shades, and choosing the company's official font.

"They came to me wanting to do Futura, which is a totally classic font," said Tyler. "It has these pointy, sharp aspects that I didn’t think was appropriate." Instead, she pushed them toward Nexa, a newer font that she said has been popping up everywhere. It has a friendlier, more approachable feel.

Compass Coffee's sign illuminated at dusk (Courtesy of Compass Coffee).
Compass Coffee's sign illuminated at dusk (Courtesy of Compass Coffee).

Next, they worked out the design for their coffee bags and packaging by going through competitors products to get an idea of what they liked and didn't like. All of the designs they gravitated towards were white with clean lines, Tyler said. She designed mugs, labels and even the illuminated sign outside of the shop.

Haft and Suarez chose a range of secondary colors that complemented the blue and orange of the logo. "They knew that they wanted to use colors to sort of name or call out the different flavor notes," Tyler said. All of the blends are named for landmarks or navigational terms from the pair's experiences in D.C. and the Marines.

A gradient of shades distinguishes each blend from light to dark roasts, with a different color representing each continent of origin. "For the Americas, the flavors are really warm. Some of the flavor notes are like toasted chocolate . . . that side of the map became the warm, earthy orangey tones, which were hard to pick out, because they couldn't clash with the orange of the brand," Tyler said. "We moved on to Africa, and I guess coffee from Africa is very much like berries -- it tastes like blueberry pancakes, it’s very sweet and juicy, so we went with the more pinkish and purply tones for the African side. And then the Indonesian coffee is very earthy and herbal, so we selected three different greens for that."

Compass Coffee marketing materials (Courtesy of Compass Coffee)
Compass Coffee marketing materials (Courtesy of Compass Coffee)

There are nine blends, but the number of colors that had to be selected far exceeded that.

Haft and Suarez can geek out about color and design, but the process was more complicated than they realized. "We printed out . . . proofs of Erin's designs, and they came back, and they looked really different," Suarez said. "I was like, what the [expletive]?"

Colors can be printed in CMYK (blended from four ink colors: cyan, magenta, yellow and black) or Pantone (printed from specialty pigments; more accurate, but more expensive); they appear on a computer screen via the RGB color model, which combines red, green and blue light. It's difficult to get colors to appear exactly the same between all three. And even in different types of natural light, colors will take on a variety of appearances. For a perfectionist, these basic principles of light are extremely irritating.

"You’ll drive yourself crazy moving it a pixel this way and a pixel that way," Tyler said. "With printing, especially, it’s not really possible. You have to make it the best you can."

"At this point, people understand that that's orange and that's blue, and that's good enough," Haft said.

Designing the menu was an easier task. Aiming to streamline the coffee experience as much as possible, the Compass menu will display espresso drinks with a diagram of the ratio of coffee to milk or water -- sort of like this one, but even more minimalist.

"We're new enough to coffee that we remember the time when it was intimidating and foreign and hard to understand," Haft said.

Once the cafe opens, Tyler will be called upon to design occasional materials for new products or coffees. She's also compiling a manual of brand standards -- a guidebook to how logos and materials can be reproduced, and the color combinations for various types of printers. She's laid the groundwork for a brand that she says conveys approachability and refinement.

"I’m a big fan of color in combination," Tyler said. "It makes you feel alive and vibrant, and really good coffee does that, too."

Maura Judkis covers culture, food, and the arts for the Weekend section and Going Out Guide.
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