What Starbucks Taught Us About Redesigning College Campuses

Think about how Starbucks changed coffee drinking. Can those lessons be applied to higher education?


Equating education with a cup of coffee might seem like a stretch, but your choice of college, much like your choice of coffee, says something about the ability of a brand to transform your day, and for that matter, your life. When Perkins + Will was offered the chance to help re-think the learning spaces of Miami Dade College, we started by thinking about how our choice of morning coffee has changed over the years, and how we could apply those lessons to education.


The Starbucks Experience

Before I became one with the Starbucks brand, I used to find comfort and delight in a cup of coffee from my corner deli: There were no changes and no surprises. It was sustainable and utilitarian. It did its job. Then came Starbucks, that great paper cup of coffee that came in three different sizes, a huge range of flavors that could accommodate any mood, and that was available any time of day. What a concept! It was a cup of coffee that came with great music, free Wi-Fi, and the opportunity to support worthy causes. Who wanted the old beat-up cup of coffee anymore? A cup of Starbucks coffee gave comfort and status.

Our Challenge

Miami Dade College (MDC), the largest institution of higher education learning in the country, asked Perkins + Will to create a plan for the college that would create a new educational experience — to transform college the same way that Starbucks changed coffee.


MDC asked Perkins + Will to create a Basis Of Design (BOD) document that would prototype the learning spaces of their institution to allow for a common platform of growth and facilities development among all of their 8 campuses. The challenge was to redefine learning, teaching, and relevance in the region and to package all of this into one recognizable, nimble, tailored container that would facilitate the college’s basic learning outcomes:

?Communicate effectively using listening, speaking, reading and writing skills

?Solve problems using critical and creative thinking and scientific reasoning

?Demonstrate knowledge of diverse cultures, including global and historical perspectives

?Create strategies that can be used to fulfill personal, civic and social responsibilities

Incorporating the Starbucks Experience into Education

Today’s students want to attend an institution that will not only provide them with knowledge, but actually define them. MDC needed to become a brand that went beyond educational needs (just as the Starbucks brand was more than just a cup of coffee). A cup of Starbucks coffee sends a message about who you are, and it represents your commitment to quality, social responsibility, community building, and sustainability. We needed to help brand MDC so that it would have similar connotations for its students.

The BOD that Perkins + Will developed has 14 prototypical spaces using a 30′ x 30′ (900 square foot) classroom as a baseline component, creating a “Lego system” of spaces that can transform into educational spaces for 30, 50, 80, 100, and 200 students, along with three main “menus” from which to choose levels of technology, furniture, and infrastructure. The 14 components were created to be able to plug into three more flexible components (equally analyzed and defined), such as the informal learning spaces called student streets and administration and support areas.


Once again, this was a system not unlike Starbucks: The BOD gave MDC the ability to tailor the educational experience for students just as Starbucks tailors their drink within their branded container. By using the three main “menus? for levels of technology, furniture needs, and infrastructure, as well as size of classroom, the institution has, in effect, the ability to customize a classroom based on the educational model needed, whether it is project based, interactive, distant learning, a seminar round-table discussion, or team based.


Colleges need to understand how they can provide a fast-growing student population in their regions with state-of-the-art formal and informal learning environments. In an ever-changing and competitive world, connectivity and immediacy are key. Free Wi-Fi and good music at Starbucks create the perfect environment for creativity and thought leadership. This is the same philosophy behind the learning environments of the 21st century: One that speaks to creating the new leadership for this country and our communities by fostering creativity, collaboration, and social interaction within a state-of-the-art environment.

Three Basic Planning Principles


Spaces, buildings, facilities need to accommodate the educational needs of an evolving student community and offer a range of college curriculums. Typically, an institution may need to offer many varying levels of degrees while providing high schools, government agencies, and business partners with facilities for continuing education, as well as spaces for testing centers and Advance Placement courses.

In modern educational environments, spaces need to be defined by these basic planning principles:

?Flexibility to allow for multiple and diverse teaching and learning activities

?The creation of social interaction spaces to promote informal learning and foster communication

?State-of-the-art and secure facilities that provide sustainable solutions and incorporate day lighting and energy conservation, as well as modular planning to enable ease of facility operations, changes and cost modeling

A Basis of Design, or BOD, for the MDC Learning Environments of the 21st century emerged, transforming the concept of a prototype into a brand, a philosophy, and a vision. The underlying theme of collaboration resulted in the following concept:

The student streets, or social informal learning areas, include zones in front of each classroom, which would consist of a module dedicated to casual social uses such as: Display, Think, Observe, Search, Interact, and Teach. It is vital to providing these spaces in high circulation areas for interaction and collaboration in order to extending communication and learning outside the classroom. Informal student study areas, seminar or meeting rooms, cafes, and media centers should be convenient within each facility to encourage interdisciplinary learning and discourse. Building configurations will vary based on each campus context.


The examples included in the BOD (node, street, connector, and courtyard) all incorporate the planning principles and create learning communities with shared spaces and collaboration zones. Social spaces are given a high priority in planning to make learning visible and interactive. The facility should enable learning methods that are hands-on and evolve over time, including peer-to-peer teaching/research, group and individual study, and faculty mentoring. MDC’s vision for learning as a pervasive and inclusive activity based on social interaction is accomplished within this framework.

This BOD not only defined the criteria for interior reconfigurations of existing facilities, but also created a business model for growth, finishes, technology, operations, and maintenance across all campuses. The criteria also provided the possibility of creating entire new buildings that could house any variety of facilities, respond to different climates, orientation or campus context in a consistent, equally sustainable manner, by putting value not only in programmed areas, but also in exterior learning spaces and putting a context to natural and informal social learning spaces.

The BOD gave MDC, for the first time since their last campus was designed in the late ’60s, with a cohesive branded environment. It truly represented and supported those learning outcomes that were to become the guiding principles of our design process.

Customizing the College Experience


A cup of coffee will taste better in the Starbucks cup, with the extra shot of espresso and the hazelnut syrup, instantly done just for you. The journey of discovery, investigation, and classification of proto-typical learning environments for an ever-transforming institution was ultimately an intriguing challenge and one that required extreme design thinking and strategy.

Just as your barista at Starbucks customizes your drink to your taste, prototyping learning environments is essentially creating a kit of parts that allows for institutions to adapt to the ever-changing technology and educational models that constantly evolve. The ability to customize your needs and wants simultaneously creates the opportunity for rapid cost modeling, more accurate projections for facility planning and budget allocations.

We compete in a global market and that requires the need for our educational models to evolve faster and to accommodate a generation of rapid change.

Our journey took us back to the basic premises of prototyping, of generating the containers and the components of a vision that could transform the days, and for that matter, the lives, of many, and by doing so, delving into the basic needs of the 21st century educational facilities.

The Design Director for the Perkins+Will’s Miami office, Pat Bosch is internationally recognized for her design work. She has nearly 25 years of experience specializing in higher education, corporate headquarters, science and technology , K-12 schools, library and museum facilities.