Why Design Deserves a Seat at the Table

For the majority of indie start-up brands, design seems like something of a luxury. Indie operators end up doing a lot of the work on their own, relying on an ad hoc internet education to patch together something that feels like an image. Once they grow and have a bit of money, then investing in design might be on the table. Local Toronto brand Pilot Coffee Roasters took a different approach. They were fortunate enough to have today’s guest, Creative Director Michelle Wilkin, as part of the family, and as such, Pilot has been in a unique position to be able to leverage a design approach from early on. We’re going to talk to Michelle about the challenge and the value of design thinking as an integral part of your business, and how this approach has helped Pilot make a mark in a very competitive category.


Melinda: Hi. I’m Melinda and you’re listening to “Think Retail.” For the majority of indie startup brands, design seems like something of a luxury. Indie operators usually end up doing a lot of the work on their own, relying on an ad hoc internet education to patch something together that feels like a brand image, and once they’ve grown and they have a bit of money, then investing in design might be on the table. Local Toronto brand Pilot Coffee Roasters took a different approach. They were really fortunate to have today’s guest, creative director, Michelle Wilkin, as part of the family and as such, they were in a unique position to be able to leverage a design approach from early on. We’re going to be talking to Michelle about the challenge and the value of design thinking as an integral part of your business and how this approach has helped Pilot make a mark in a really competitive category.

Michelle, thanks so much for being with us today.

Michelle: Thanks for having me today, Melinda, and it’s so great to have such interest in our approach to business and design. It’s something I’m really passionate about as well as coffee, so all three things I’m sure we can talk about in depth.

Pilot Coffee Roasters is a specialty coffee roaster. We supply our beans to independent cafés, restaurants, and offices all across Canada as well as having seven of our own branded retail locations, and we actually have an eighth one opening next month.

Melinda: Awesome.

Michelle: Yeah, it’s exciting. We also offer barista training to the public and we have an e-commerce store with a flexible subscription plan and we also have a cold brew beverage division.

Melinda: Wow.

Michelle: Yeah, so it’s a lot.

Melinda: Yeah, you have your hands in a lot of different directions.

Michelle: It’s exciting though. We were founded in 2009, originally by my business partners, who are my brother and sister-in-law, Andy and Jessie, and in about three years into the journey, they approached my husband, Rob, and I. We were living in New Zealand at the time and they were looking to expand and they had a really great product and a fantastic vision, but they just lacked an extra set of hands. They needed some more support especially with this great growth plan ahead. And we came with skill sets that they needed. He has a background in finance and mine is in branding and design.

Melinda: Right. So when Pilot was just in those early years, you had another full-time job at an agency. You were working for Pilot on the weekends and evenings, and so given that you had such a limited amount of time, what did you focus on with those little tiny bits of hours that you had?

Michelle: Yeah, it’s very true. It’s typical startup fashion to have design as a consideration, and it was for us in everything we did, but we couldn’t afford the full-time salary. So, in the early days I’d focus on the immediate design needs of the business that translated directly into sales. Things like whenever we’d release a coffee, we might need a new label. We would have menu updates at a retail level and a lot of proposals for wholesale businesses and looking for new partners.

Melinda: How would you say having a designer as one of…because now you’re the creative director. You’re there full-time. Having a designer is one of the core members of the Pilot team, how does that influence the overall choices that you make? Of course, you’re in charge of the brand design, but beyond that, how does that influence your decisions as a company?

Michelle: When the time came to flip the switch and fold me in full-time, it was an obvious point of change for the Pilot brand. At this point, we could put all of my experience working in agencies, working on really big brands into our small brand but with big aspirations. So, we could begin to look at the whole picture, strategically using design to improve the customer experience across every touch point always with a forward-looking lens, which we could never do before. It was more of an ad hoc approach. So for us, as business operators, we’ve always decided that giving design a seat at the table has always meant that the needs of the brand are equally as important as the needs of the business and that there’s always someone in the room who’s advocating for the customer as well as agonizing over those finer details.

Melinda: Going back to sort of in your startup mode, Pilot couldn’t afford to have you full-time. Most startups can’t afford a full-time designer and sometimes they can’t even afford to pay somebody part-time or freelance. How can brands integrate design thinking right from the start if they don’t have someone like you in their family?

Michelle: Yeah, it’s a great point, and not everyone is that fortunate to have someone with my background in the family. I would recommend, spend time getting to know your customer. Put yourself in their shoes. Designers, we look at things really differently. We’re inherently problem solvers by nature, and our job isn’t just to make things look good but to make the customer feel good in their choices too. So, you’ve always got to look at it from both angles. When designers tackle a new brief, we deconstruct it to get to the core of the problem and what the customer needs. If you can start to think like a designer and look at every friction point as an opportunity to improve that customer’s experience you’ll flip your approach as a business operator as well.

Melinda: And I think a lot of people do assume design means making things look pretty and that is a hurdle sometimes for startups when they’ve thought about making things look pretty but they haven’t thought about what it means in the greater context.

Michelle: Exactly, yeah.

Melinda: Let’s talk a little bit more specifically about Pilot. Coffee is a really, really competitive market. If we were comparing Pilot to say, another cup of coffee that might cost about the same, what about the Pilot experience has made you so successful?

Michelle: Yes, it’s very true. Everyone loves coffee and so there’s a lot of competition out there, especially now. Ten years ago, when we began, our customers would walk through the door and they would order an Americano. If they enjoyed it, they’d come back the next day and order it again. But fast forward to 2020 and consumers are anything but predictable. The landscape has changed, and so have their expectations. They still want that Americano but they want it with a side of CX. So, you know, it’s not enough to just have a great space serving great coffee anymore. You really need to give them a reason to come back tomorrow. We’ve managed to keep our customers’ interest because we simply just aren’t the same brand that we were in 2009, and I think that’s really important. I think you need to evolve and grow and appreciate that that is going to happen.

We’ve risen up, really, to meet the customer’s needs and always looked forward in being prepared for that change, but I believe what’s given Pilot the experience edge is that we’ve remained committed to both our purpose and our values right from the start. Our values are of quality, innovation, and relationships. It’s how we source our coffee with our direct trade policies and our frequent trips to origin to meet with our producing partners. All of our baristas, they undergo three months of extensive training before they’re able to pour a coffee at the bar and serve any customers. We’ve also developed roles internally like head of innovation and coffee educators so that we can always continue to push those boundaries and better our offering. And every shot of espresso is weighed and measured to get the best extraction from the coffee and then we chose to pass on these parameters to our customers so they can equally do that themselves at home. We’re always committed to educating our customers and I think really importantly is that our roasting team, they cup every roast to make sure that the tasting notes that are clearly represented on our bags are always consistent. The coffee has to meet their specific standard every time before it leaves the roastery. So, it’s all these measures and many, many more across the business at every role with every team member, that in turn then create great quality product, great quality service, and then the reputation of the brand is ultimately improving our customer experience at every touch point.

Melinda: I want to talk a little bit about the values if you don’t mind. So, a lot of brands will talk about values, but they don’t always walk the walk, right?

Michelle: True.

Melinda: So having a three-month training–really making it important for everyone who works with the company to feel that their job is very important– do you think that gives you a greater edge on really being able to live those values, or how do you think that Pilot has been able to make those values meaningful all the way through to the front line, while some other brands maybe struggle with that?

Michelle: Yeah, I think the training is a really key part of it and we’ve done that right from the start. So that training is not just about learning how to make a great cup of coffee. It’s also training all our baristas about coffee education so that if a consumer comes up to them in a retail space, they feel confident in themselves and their role that they can then talk about the style of processing that the coffee has had or the varietal and I think because of that, that in turn then makes the brand really special. You can understand that quality is really important and that they’re passionate as well and they will be talking about these innovative approaches, and then as the third one being relationships for us, it’s that customer experience and that one-on-one connection. So I think for a brand, our team really inherently know those three things and it comes from a lot of different things we do internally whether it is expressing them through our wellness plans or other internal initiatives that we have, but I think that training component is really important, and we don’t just do it with our baristas. We actually have it with people who have roles that are maybe more at an administrative level, but they also do a slightly different training just so that they understand the language and again feel impassioned, and empowered, and confident.

Melinda: That’s a really interesting one because a lot of the time when we’re talking to clients, this piece is thought of as really secondary, but a lot of really great brands have this exact same process where everyone in the company undergoes this intensive training that really is about imparting the brand value and pride as well because that speaks volumes at the front lines especially.

Okay, so how has Pilot leveraged design to communicate all of these things that are making your brand unique to the customer?

Michelle: I think for us…we use design as…it’s almost like an anchor point. So, it’s in everything we think about. Obviously, having me at that seat at the table, but it’s also looking at it in a lens of “how are we going to improve this when you’re in a retail space?” So, is it that we need to open up the space so there’s more interaction with the barista behind the bar? We have amazing piece of equipment called a Modbar which has an under-counter espresso machine, so there’s no barrier between you and the customer, and that interaction between the barista is a connection between them and the customer.

We also look at the spaces. We have some locations that don’t get as much natural light and you often get that in a country like Canada in a city like Toronto. So, we’ve looked at really key tactics like how can we warm up this space, how can we use lighting, how can we add plants? Try and add ways that design can tactically improve and enhance people’s moods. And when it comes to the branding, we’ve always intentionally had a very simple and clear vision. We don’t follow design trends. We might know our customer implicitly, but it doesn’t mean they all have the same taste. So, by not following any trends, it’s given us a really flexible brand and then we can be flexible to the requirements of the brief whether that be a new product release or a retail space, we can really move according to whatever they require. And I think with coffee, it’s very sensory. We want to make sure that we’re appealing to people’s emotions, and their desires, and their senses, but we also need to help them with their choices and educate them in the process and that’s really important to us.

Melinda: Excellent. So would you tell us maybe one of the most exciting initiatives that you’ve been able to part of at Pilot and how you contributed as a design thinker?

Michelle: It’s really hard to choose just one.

Melinda: Okay, tell us a couple then!

Michelle: Instead, I think what I will do is…if I could roll it right back to maybe four or five years ago, I think a really pivotal moment for the business was when we chose to rebrand, and it’s a scary space to be in because it’s expensive and it’s a long-term lens, but for us, we were in the moment of looking really forward with the retail roll-out plan. We had a great idea with locations we wanted. We knew our customer. We were looking at beautifully architecturally designed spaces, but we needed a brand that we felt was worthy of this exciting and bold next step. So, we started out simply with a new packaging brief, very small, one idea, and then that quickly escalated and evolved and became the new aesthetic that we needed to align our vision with and that had to roll out across everything.

It’s taken a few years. Sustainability is a really important core value as a business, and so we didn’t want to waste money right out front with completely changing everything. So, it definitely took a few years and I would recommend that people look at things like that. Customers notice when you start rebranding and then everything has a new logo on or a new color, but we took our time. And now in 2020, everything is aligned and it’s fantastic to see that vision roll out. I think when you are working in-house, solely working on one brand, it can be tiring. It can be daunting, but it’s really exciting to be able to see your vision play out over time. So for me, if I think of all of these initiatives, they’ve all kind of been connected across the brand and across the business in different ways.

I mean, even more recently, we’ve been dipping our toe into convenience coffee, looking at instant coffee. A couple of years ago, we started looking into the ready-to-drink market and we now have a cold brew beverage item on our offering. These were still coffee, but they needed to fit with the brand in different ways to where a different unique point when the customer might be wanting a coffee. So being able to look with that lens right from the start in 2015 and decide, “Okay, we need to figure out how we’re going to do this long-term and then be comfortable and flexible in making these decisions.”

One really big example of when this can be a challenge, as a designer, is some items you may choose may be really difficult right upfront. We have one of our core brand elements is the color yellow. It’s notoriously known amongst designers as being very difficult to work with. It is not forgiving on-screen. It is very illegible in small point size. So, we have a few tricks up our sleeve. We might add a little bit of magenta that no one is going to know about, but those codes work for us. I have to be very careful when I use yellow, for instance, with our other main colors which is white and a dark charcoal. It starts to scream bumblebee very quickly. So, you know, you need to start looking at proportions, and space, and clear space, and light, and thinking about warm natural tone. So, I think this goes back to one of your original questions right at the start about what was the difference between when there was very little time compared to when we folded me in and I could start looking at a forward lens. I think it’s about looking at the big picture and making sure that at every point you’re still aware of how this is going to impact the brand overall.

Yeah, I think as an initiative, the choice to rebrand was really critical and then being able to see it roll out over many years and still evolve and still love it and want to be challenged every day with how far we can take it is really exciting as a designer and a business owner.

Melinda: So as you’re growing, what strategies are you using or thinking about using in the future to ensure that this brand that you’ve come to…now you’re at a place where everything is cohesive and you’re expecting it’s going to evolve more in the future. How do you plan to keep it cohesive and authentic as you get bigger?

Michelle: That’s a very, very tricky question and it’s a juggling act. You know, you can’t do those things simultaneously. You can’t be cohesive and authentic without being very mindful of your choices. You know, to be cohesive is to go back to those points we spoke about earlier about your values. You need to be really strict with yourself and you need to be considerate of what those are. For us, as a business, quality is so important, so we need to make sure that we are consistently delivering a great cup of coffee. We’re consistently looking at the brand the same way and being flexible within it. But to be authentic, you need to listen to the customer. You need to be prepared for change. You need to see that the goal post today will be different tomorrow. So, to do both at the same time, I think you need to have the confidence in yourself that your choices today may not necessarily ladder up to that five-year strategic growth plan tomorrow. So stick with it today, have a forward-looking lens and be prepared for change.

Melinda: And do you think that, as a smaller brand, you’re able to pivot more quickly than a big brand can?

Michelle: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. Having our creative team in-house, design having a seat at the table, all those decisions, you can be so agile and reactive in your responses. I think when you are a slightly smaller brand you are a little bit closer to your customers’ needs. You do understand them a little bit more. You don’t get so bogged down in the choices and you can react quickly.

Melinda: Right. I mean, we hear this over and over again from big brands and small brands is that when you’re smaller, you’re closer to that customer. You’re closer to that experience. You’re in the stores more often and a lot of times, you know, if you’re working for a huge brand, your head office is somewhere in a suburb of a big city. And how often are you in all of those different stores and seeing them? It’s harder to be in touch. So definitely, I absolutely agree with you.

When it comes to this integrated design approach that you’ve taken, are there a couple of big lessons that you’ve learned along the way that might help someone else who’s in your position 10 years ago.

Michelle: Yeah, absolutely. I have three big ones I’d like to mention. Firstly, stay true to your purpose. Don’t forget it. You know, as brands grow, they often diversify into new products, and many with great success. But choosing to remain true to those values throughout this growth is very hard, and if you can maintain a sense of purpose throughout it you will make your decisions a lot easier and you’ll also have your customers’ loyalty. Secondly, it does not have to be expensive, but it does have to be considered. And that is true very much so with retail spaces. CX is the ultimate reason to invest, so it will differentiate your brand in the long-term investment and will absolutely pay off. And embrace change and look at it as an opportunity. I am a self-proclaimed perfectionist. All my friends know this and that used to be a really hard one for me, but I’ve learned along the way that, you know, settling for perfect right now, it’s absolutely a fine comfortable place to be in. And this thing really opens you up to positively evolve the brand as the market or technology or your customers’ needs change.

Melinda: Great. That’s fantastic advice. Thank you so much for coming in. Where’s your new location going to be?

Michelle: It’s on Richmond Street at Spadina.

Melinda: Excellent. Thank you so much for being with us today.

Michelle: Thank you. I appreciate it.

Melinda: So, first of all, I do love listening to a New Zealand accent. It’s definitely one of my favorites. In terms of Michelle’s experience, listening back to her conversation, she talks so much about taking the customer’s perspective. She mentions it numerous times. Every brand talks about this, and as you get bigger, it gets harder. Ensuring you’re connected to your consumer is really the only way you can deliver a truly superior experience. It’s logic. You have to know what your customers want today and anticipate what they’re going to want tomorrow, and to Michelle’s point, to be really flexible and to allow yourself to evolve.

The other thing she talked about really passionately was values. It’s another one that brands talk about all the time, but making it a reality is so much bigger than a few corporate videos from head office. Pilot’s training model is really similar to what some brands like Airbnb and Nike do. It’s required for everyone at every level. It’s intensive. It speaks about the brand’s history and values which ignites a sense of pride and passion. And as I said in the interview, understanding how to get your employees to live the brand values is something we see a lot of retailers struggling with, but it is possible to do as evidenced by Pilot’s success. It just requires making it a real focus.

You can find out about the barista training program and Pilot’s other initiatives at their website. Thanks so much for listening.


Michelle Wilkin is the Creative Director and co-owner at Pilot Coffee Roasters. Pilot Coffee Roasters is a full-service roastery, cold brewery, training provider and cafe operator with multiple locations across Toronto and wholesale accounts from coast to coast.
Think Retail is a podcast where top designers, strategists, thought leaders and business people discuss what’s coming next. For more information, email