I met Elizabeth Chai in real life last year in Kansas City (the qualifying event). But I first knew of her when I learned she was doing a big camper coffee crawl across the US from Atlanta to Portland, where she is based now. Liz is a “coffee + design” graphic designer, illustrator, and photographer. We also have shared interests in donuts, dessert, and craft sodas. If you run into her at a coffee event, she’ll likely be dressed up in a colorful vintage fabric dress with a camera in hand.
In the last year, we’ve been fortunate to run into each other often enough that I could set up a short photo session and interview. It’s not often that I’m able to photograph and interview someone else who does similar work as me. I think highlighting other fellow freelancers in coffee can help others realize that there are other careers in coffee that may be outside the “norm.”
On a side note, while we do have some similar interests, I hope this interview also highlights how we are not the same person (please stop mixing us up at events).
Where do you pull your inspiration from?
Elizabeth Chai: Motivationally, I’m always inspired by observing those who pursue their dreams and make good things happen. I love watching my colleagues who are shaking things up or creating incredible work — whether it is in traditional “coffee professional” roles like roasters, barista/brewer competitors, equipment manufacturers, etc. or other “Coffee Creatives” like designers, photographers, podcasters, product designers, and marketers. I seriously get so pumped up seeing forward movement. I especially love when I see someone breaking rules and trying new things that haven’t been done before — I have a lot of respect for trendsetters, and people who do things differently.
Visually, I allow myself to be influenced in two ways. If I’m designing for a client, I try to focus more on what they stand for and what would visually represent that client’s taste and aesthetic. I really believe that is how “design” and “art” can be differentiated. If I’m designing for myself, as a personal expression or as a fun project for an event, I allow my personal taste to take over. I tend to be inspired by vibrant colors and patterns, systems and order (such as organized colors or icons), clean and modern stylized lines, and mood / experience (the way I feel if it’s raining or Autumn or I’m optimistic or In Love or traveling). I’m also heavily influenced by mid-century modern design.
What issue do you think the industry needs to focus on more?
EC: I’d have to say “Internal Beauty.” You know how…there are certain people you meet who have a beautiful exterior but a shallowness beneath the surface? I want to counteract that. That’s exactly what I don’t want in coffee. Because there are people who have internal beauty and when you get to know who that person really is beneath the surface, their heart / soul / whatever just shines through and the superficial exterior ‘flaws’ don’t matter.
I sort of see the coffee industry in that way…so…people tend to focus on surface-level things like latte art, or gossip, or trendy gear, or building flashy cafes to get acquired for big dollars. But I’d rather see our focus in continuing to build structure throughout the value chain from farm level to the cafe, and refining ethical and progressive standards and practices, and challenging the status quo. I think it is so exciting, being in coffee right now.
Tell me about an exciting project that you’ve completed- coffee or otherwise.
EC: I recently wrapped up Phase 1 of a big project for a new roaster in Portland, Oregon: Junior’s Roasted Coffee. I did their Branding & Identity, as well as the package design, and we just sent files to have 10,000 coffee bags manufactured. This has been a particularly special project, because when I moved to Portland it was with the intention of focusing my design work solely within the coffee industry — but of course I wasn’t sure if I would be able to find enough freelance “Coffee+Design” work! I ended up working on a number of small coffee-related projects throughout my first year in Portland, but Junior’s was the standout, being my first full branding project.
Additionally, Junior’s Roasted Coffee is my ideal client: They (founders, Caryn & Mike Nelson) care deeply about building direct relationships with the small roster of farms they will be working with, and paying them well. They understand how valuable design is to their brand, and have a budget for design because they know “you get what you pay for.” And they trust me, and allow me to share my professional knowledge and skill with them, for our mutual benefit. Not only that, but they work towards building up the coffee industry and community at large. We care about all the same things! This has been a huge factor in the project really clicking for us all.
I designed the brand and packaging with their purpose, values, and personalities in mind, and as I formulated my concept, there was this magical moment where the stars aligned and just…everything made so much sense. When I got to present this design and concept to them, it definitely was not what they had anticipated — it was better. I think that’s the moment every designer dreams of having with their client. I never would have gotten to that magical moment, had they not put their trust in me.
What do you find most fascinating from all the photographing and interviewing you do at coffee competitions?
EC: I absolutely love coffee competition. I think part of the reason is because I admire the competitors who continually challenge themselves and step onto the competition floor. They just put themselves out there, and I think that takes so much courage and devotion to the craft.
I truly love photographing coffee competitions. I know part of it has to do with hearing the presentation that has been so painstakingly built, and the story that unfolds about a coffee that barista carefully selected (and the reasons why). I also have an affinity for the art of [what I call] “Tweezer Chefs.” Barista/Brewers Competitions are a bit like watching tweezer chefs plate a dish, only instead of with delicious food it’s with my favorite thing: coffee. I see photographing and interviewing competitors as a huge privilege, because I get to literally see a zoomed-in version. I get to see and smell (and sometimes, taste) the coffee and then I get to talk about it with the competitor while they’re jacked up on adrenaline. It’s so much fun.
If given the opportunity to speak for 20 min on whatever topic you want, what would you choose?
EC: I would probably talk about Purpose. My entire view of my career as a designer changed when I found purpose in designing for something I cared about. I realized I can change the coffee world through design. My work is better when I have purpose, and in contrast to that, the quality of my work (and my morale) sinks when I don’t care about the thing I am designing for. And I believe that translates to other fields, not just design work.
“Boss Coffee Pros” is a portrait/interview series where I share the stories of inspirational people in the specialty coffee industry. You can follow along on Instagram with the hashtag #BossCoffeePros. The ultimate goal is to shine a light on a more diverse set of leaders, innovators, and pros who are getting sh*t done in their work and life.