Design Eats the World: ‘Fourth Place’ coffee shops

NOTE: This column is written for The Daily of the University of Washington, and was originally published HERE.

[Editor’s Note: Design Eats the World is a biweekly column exploring design as intention and how it affects the world around us.]

Laptop man (Public Domain)

Historically, coffee shops and other spaces where people could meet were the only “internet” we had. They were places where people could meet and exchange ideas at a relatively brisk pace. Though today the internet has connected people in new and exciting ways, there is still something to be said for meeting in person. Dates, meetings, and music festivals continue to thrive because of the benefits of real human contact. However, I think coffee shops have changed drastically in many ways because of the addition of one design element: Wi-Fi access.

The original English coffeehouses of the 1700s had such a rich variety of intellectual discourse that they were called “penny universities,” where education could be had at a very low price by reading the newspaper and engaging in robust discussions. They were different than alehouses, where the lack of stimulants dulled intellectual activity. Gradually, penny universities developed into something else.

Chairman and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz was captivated with cafes as a “third place,” outside of home and work, where people could meet and work. But since the addition of Wi-Fi, the trend has distinctly shifted to more work-oriented spaces, especially in universities like the UW.

“[Wi-Fi] is a really huge component now because mainly students come in here to study,” said David Lee, owner and manager of Ugly Mug Cafe & Coffee Roasters on the Ave. “It’s a pretty important part of our business.”

What’s notable is that meeting people isn’t mentioned as a big reason for people visiting. However, Ugly Mug has always had Wi-Fi, so older cafes provide a better before-and-after comparison. Cafe Allegro, which was established in 1975, first installed Wi-Fi in 2000.

“When we first installed Wi-Fi it was a novelty, and now we consider it a basic utility,” Allegro co-owner Kate Robinson wrote over email. “There are pros and cons to having it in the cafe. Pros include being able to attract a larger customer audience and cons include less rotation of tables by folks using their computers to do work.”

So while people were more conversational before, they now spend more time plugged in as they study, usually with headphones.

As someone who is frequently found chatting or working at cafes around the U-District, I understand the “third place” aspect that Schultz was talking about. And while I and many others do meet friends for coffee, the majority of the use is for studying, usually undisturbed. This means that while original cafes were for socializing, with the addition of Wi-Fi they’ve also become places to not socialize, to avoid forced interactions that might take place at home or work.

Nicolas Vigier, Café (Public domain)

Not socializing and using a cafe as a workplace creates its own business problems, as people are incentivized to use Wi-Fi at a relatively low cost.

“At a certain point, it’s like loitering,” said Steven Dang, a barista at Café on the Ave. “People order the cheapest thing on the menu and stay like eight to 10 hours.”

Some cafes are now starting to attempt to regulate this behavior, while still being acutely aware of the value of Wi-Fi as a customer attraction.

“I had a proposition that we could change the Wi-Fi password every two hours just because that can promote more business,” Dang said. “But that could also make customers feel like they are being forced [out].”

A California-based chain called Equator Coffees & Teas is taking an entirely different approach by not having Wi-Fi at its downtown Mill Valley, Calif., location. While understanding that people can still use Wi-Fi dongles and cellphones to access the internet, their business model seems to be bringing back some of the communal atmosphere of English coffeehouses in the 1700s.

“We want to foster a sense of family and community by giving people a space to sit down and communicate and bond,” said Cheryl Barraca, an assistant manager at Equator. “You have a different experience when socializing instead of studying.”

She says that while some people are surprised by the absence of Wi-Fi, most customers are understanding.

Some cafes have gone even further, with surprising results. August First Bakery & Café in Burlington, Vt., has banned laptops entirely, actually increasing sales.

Perhaps this points to the need for a “fourth place” cafe, designed exclusively for face-to-face conversations. While libraries exclusively handle study and research, workplaces are for work, and home is for your personal life, cafes with Wi-Fi have emerged as a “mixed use” space that’s increasingly emphasizing work and study. Most places for human conversation are highly curated (like debating halls) or converted (like a house party).

It seems to me that now, we need more fourth places that exclusively promote sharing of ideas and conversation over a good cup of coffee.