The Dogma of Design

Your coffee bag or tin is arguably the most valuable tool your business wields. The product is a micro chasm for the entirety of your company. It communicates your brand, ethos, and abilities on the outside, while the inside holds your physical product—the fruits of your labor. The bag is your company’s promise, and the product delivers that promise in one neat little bundle. Despite this, many companies invest as little as possible in their packaging and refuse to hire a qualified designer. Today we are looking at a brand with a unique aesthetic and approach to design.

Onyx Coffee Lab has a reputation for excellence as exhibited by its unnaturally high volume of superlatives and awards within the coffee competition sphere, including multiple US Barista championships, Brewers Cup championships and US Roaster Championship. They have continued this tradition with a win at the 2021 SCA Design Awards for Space, Brand and Packaging. Jon Allen is the Co-Founder of Onyx and one of the designers responsible for the company’s branding and packaging design. Jon started an in-house design firm with partner Jeremy Teff, and they handle all of Onyx’s packaging and interior design together. Jon and I connected to discuss their approach to packaging design and the decisions that led to their innovative design and materials. 

Jake Leonti: Jon, how do you begin the process when working on a retail bag? 

Jon Allen: The goal for us is always, what messaging are we trying to showcase and in what order? People make determinations about the product in seconds on all levels: morally, ethically, and aesthetically. We work to understand the order in which things flow. What is recognized first and of most importance and how that translates down to visual, which is first. Then to texture, which is touch and finally, form and function as it is opened. We walk through those steps. In our design firm, we practice creating three rules for each project to follow, and then we emphatically follow those rules and use them as a guideline for every decision we make. This also works for interior design or architecture. 

JL: So, you are creating a dogma for yourselves to create purposeful limitations and focus, correct? 

JA: Yes. For example, in our current packaging (our three rules were), we wanted it to be monochromatic. We wanted the texture to be as important as the visuals, and third, we wanted to find a way to put the farm, the producer or the station where the coffee was from at the forefront. So, those three things informed the rest of the design. For us, that meant debossing our brand and hiding it, making It more textural and less visual and then embossing and putting the secondary color of the coffee and allowing the rest to be monochromatic and focusing on different textural concepts. 

This is how we approach it; this is the same for the last café we built. We said, rule one, no sharp edges. Then from the fork to the cup, to the table to the drywall to the tile, everything follows the rule. Pretty soon, what you end up with is a very cohesive onset. 

This helps us filter every idea from there because if it doesn’t directly within those rules, even if we like it, we cut it. 

JL: I love that idea. It’s a great way to whittle down options quickly and, at the same time, create a game for you to play. So how do we make a café with no sharp edges? 

JA: That is so true. It is much harder to work within a box and yields much better results than if the sky is the limit. I usually find that companies often do their best work when they are on a budget and limited, stressed and pressured. 

JL: What led to using the cardboard box as an outer shell to the coffee bag? 

JA: There were two main factors for it; one was pure logistics. We were starting to do a lot more e-comm and sending in these padded mailers via USPS, which every roaster knows; it’s the only way to ship coffee if you are under thirteen ounces. The amount of returns we would get was honestly unbelievable. We would receive many emails saying, ‘Hey, my bag ripped,’ or ‘Broken coffee’. Stuff just happened. 

So, that was the beginning. Then as we started to redefine the bag, we started thinking we should find a new shipper. Then we started talking about, ‘What if the bag was the shipper?’ That led us to do some research. If we put everything in the box, how many returns would we actually get with completely damaged bags? The answer is zero. 

That was the practical side. On the aesthetic side, we were talking about not just being visual but trying to play with texture and making Specialty coffee special. Each box is special. The hope was that just like holidays, birthdays, or any time you’re opening something, there is expectation, mystery, and intrigue. You know, you’re not seeing the final thing. You’re seeing behind the veil. I think that always adds to any product. If our goal is to make Specialty’ up-culture’, which has been our defining goal lately… then it has to be different. 

Thus, a bag-in-a-box. Everyone loves cereal! They were way ahead of us with the bag-in-a-box. 

JL: What is the approach to the copywriting on the packaging? 

JA: To be clear and concise and as coffee forward as possible. We want to be open and honest. Instead of talking about light medium and dark roast, we wanted to discuss, from a flavor standpoint, development. So we use that scale (Traditional to Modern flavor scale) to this day which has been really great. It was a long adoption, honestly, for our customers. It has become a fantastic way for our baristas or others to talk about our coffee and point them toward what they might like. This scale was meant to distil all of that (roast, processing, etc.) into one measurement. 

From there, it is pretty straightforward and gives a preview of what you can find on the website, which is a significant amount of information. This year we even added Agtron color to the information we provide. 

JL: What do you consider a necessity for your bags? What are the critical functional components of your packaging? 

JA: We are pretty set on the BioTre system. We have followed them from the beginning. We were BioTre 1.0 and then BioTre 2.0 and now BioTre 3.0. I’m sure there are other great sustainable bags out there. Everything feels recyclable, but to be genuinely biodegradable is the key. So that has been a non-negotiable for us—the same thing for the box. We also need a valve, so that is non-negotiable. 

We recently got rid of the zippers to reseal the bags. That has become a controversial subject. We did that when we did the bag in the box. We thought the box worked as enough of a resealing mechanism because our goal was to get rid of plastic. This choice has generated the most amount of angry emails. 

JL: It’s great that you have stuck to your guns on this sustainability issue. 

JA: Thanks! We also always have a batch code and roast date. That batch code is directly connected to our roast log with the curve, who roasted it, etc. 

JL: Jon, what are you trying to communicate about your brand through the packaging design? 

JA: Quality, intrigue and, above all else, a buy-in to Specialty. I don’t know how else to communicate the value of Specialty coffee than first-hand. Specialty is not easy to adopt. We are selling an ingredient. In no way is it a finished product. Specialty coffee has such an uphill battle; We’re expensive, we’re hard to get, you have to brew it properly, or you feel like you wasted all your money because your experience was bad. There is so much to do. 

Encouraging someone to adopt a high-end product through packaging is of the utmost importance. So we need to showcase the most amount of value on the outside in order to ascertain the value on the inside. If the expectations aren’t set from the beginning… which is, “Wow, this box feels great. This is really fun to open. The colors are nice. It fits with my aesthetic.” If all of that meets an expectation, then you have buy-in. If you have buy-in, then all of that will follow through to the brewing and hopefully conscious drinking, creating Specialty fans. 

If we don’t get that buy-in from the beginning. If the expectation is low, that doesn’t create a memory, and that doesn’t create a habit, and that doesn’t change the industry, and that doesn’t grow Speciality. That, and it’s an art form, and we love design. 

JL: So rare that a coffee professional with skills and knowledge in the barista, roasting and green buying positions also has such qualified design skills. Jon Allen and partner Jeremy Teff bring this understanding of the functionality, design aesthetics and instincts to lead the curve for coffee packaging design. Onyx is pushed the status quo on transparency with customers, sustainability with materials and challenging the conventions that most roasters have come to accept. 

A rising tide lifts all ships, and the more we can make Specialty coffee accessible and create value, the more longevity and success we will all enjoy. Of course, packaging plays a significant role in this bridge between the roaster and the customer. However, especially when people shop for coffee online where they are physically disconnected from the object, visual communication through color and text is paramount to success.

by Jake Leonti 

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