In past years, right around November Starbucks’ cups would turn red and be dotted with white snowflakes and the shapes of ornaments. In 2015, the white designs are gone, and instead Starbucks’ holiday cups are simply red with their logo on them. While this might seem like a simple change and a move toward modern, minimalist design, it provoked an outcry heard from social media to morning news shows ’round the world.
“This is a denial of historical reality and the great Christian heritage behind the American Dream that has so benefitted Starbucks,” Andrea Williams of the U.K.-based organization Christian Concern told Breitbart. “This also denies the hope of Jesus Christ and His story so powerfully at this time of year.”
This controversy over the new Starbucks holiday cups design is fascinating, and while it’s easy to mock phrases like “The lack of snowflakes denies the hope of Jesus,” on a whole other level it can be unpacked as a (probably) secular and more wide-reaching critique that designers should contemplate.
It really boils down to some people’s distaste for the current trend of minimalist design; while many of us see it as clean, modern, and spacious, there are some who experience it as stark. For those without design training, it’s hard to speak in terms of anything but the emotions a design elicits. Stark can be jarring, and I suspect there are a lot of people walking around feeling something akin to “Man, these cups used to be so cheerful — now even though they are in Christmas colors, they feel cold and pretentious instead of welcoming.” even if they might not have the verbal or design skills to articulate that general sense of disappointment. I think that’s what “The lack of snowflakes denies the hope of Jesus” is really trying to get at, it’s just that the person who said it happens to see the world through an especially religious lens, and attributes Goodness and positive feelings to Jesus in their personal world view.
“I don’t like trendy design” is hardly a headline, so the only voices we hear are the ones with a somewhat oddball way of expressing that sentiment, like the Jesus Snowflakes woman.
If the goal is being inclusive, it’s probably irrelevant – snowflakes are not inherently Christian, or indeed, a symbol that can be claimed by any religion as exclusively theirs. From this point of view, I believe they can take or leave the snowflakes.
However, Starbucks’ brand is heavily slanted toward being trendy, modern, clean and spacious. From that point of view, adopting the minimalist red holiday cups is perfectly in line with their brand, and the mild controversy over the change to their cups is more likely to help them via free advertising than it is to seriously hurt them.
It’s only too true that you can’t please everyone, and the problem only gets more pronounced the larger your company grows. Having a well-defined brand and a clear sense of who your intended audience is can help to decide whether design critiques (even those couched in slightly bizarre turns of phrase) are relevant to what you’re trying to accomplish, or if they’re just proving that great design decisions repel a few of those for whom they were not intended, while exciting the audience they were intended for.