September 2021

The Many Faces of Stellar Café


The Mix Up
While moving things around on my website in early 2020, I realized I uploaded an earlier version of my Stellar Café project. I resisted the reflexive impulse to rework it. I realized it would've been the fourth version of this project, and it needed to be put to bed. I wanted to lay out a coherent narrative of the journey this project took, so I used a framework from writing called a "plot mountain." I'm sure that anyone who has had contact with  American grade school education will recognize this graphic:

The First Face
The first iteration of this project was for a branding systems class. We were to do extensive research into the existing brand of a small business and redesign it. I chose Stellar Café because I was charmed by their 1920's starry drink names, and I could conveniently walk to it from my dorm to interview the employees.

I tried a really light hand with the art deco influence in my first crack at it, and ultimately, I think it was lost. The only things that really survived in the final version were some of the brand analysis elements. However, I truly enjoyed working on the project. That joyful experience was a significant boost to my confidence as an emerging designer.

The Bubble is Burst
The next face for this project was in a summer portfolio development class where I was encouraged to abandon the art deco completely. This spawned a cleaner style and logotype.

I understood why I was encouraged to pursue this direction. In fact, the guidance is validated by the fact that Stellar Café changed owners and sported a sleek, up-scale style. The themed drink names were gone. Instead, a trendy marble motif blended in with the many "luxury" student apartment complexes being built nearby. Like these apartment complexes, the cafe could cater to college-aged customers from affluent backgrounds by using branding that evoked quality and class.

I felt conflicted. I struggled to find a connection between my earlier research and insights and this new style. It felt like I was abandoning something that could be memorable. I ultimately decided how to move forward based on how well I could talk about my rebrand approach. I interpreted this little struggle as an indicator that I needed to follow my instincts and pursue my original idea more robustly.

The Final Face
I went back a couple of steps and decided that the best way to reference a historical style would be to study it like I was a historian. So, I gathered my images from first and secondary sources. Even though I didn't have access to tools like focus groups or more accurate marketing data, I wanted to be more rigorous with my research than before.

Take another look here. 

My Forgotten Agency
Memorability is not the only thing to consider in branding.  An escapist visual style could turn Stellar Café into a tourist attraction instead of a cool place to study.  Design work is subject to marketing and business considerations, and I was working with the resources I had at the time.

Stellar Café survived the pandemic, unlike many small businesses in San Marcos, and even re-re branded. To my mild chagrin, I think it's a perfect blend of a strong brand voice and a minimalist style that fits in the Austin-adjacent design landscape. As a graphic designer, I fulfilled the brief and achieved my creative objectives. As a brand designer, I ultimately forgot that I could propose to change the existing brand message entirely.

While writing this, I realized that I had designed a cafe brand that would not be amiss in Houston. Siphon Coffee, for instance, is nearly steampunk.  I used the coffee place nearest my apartment for my menu mock-up. The Noveau Antique is a popular bar downtown, and if you take the MetroRail to the Preston Street station, there are at least two speakeasy-inspired bars on the same side of the block. Not to mention my desire to use imagery of outer space. I moved around internationally as a child, so I had this impression of myself of not having a connection to particular places. Through this process, I found that I have Houstonian sensibilities. Learning this about myself is exciting and now I can account for that attachment in the future.

Even when trying to design a brand, which is by definition distinct from the personality of a designer, things still end up in the finished product. I don’t propose to attempt complete ego-death every time you start a design project. This just means the designer must be well informed, must come with outside perspectives, and with assumptions expressed and tested. To be intellectually humble is to be a good designer.