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Designing Philz Coffee Shops

Among the many moments Heather Keane Leonard ’98 remembers from her days at The Nueva School, the most vivid are the times she spent outside exploring the natural beauty of Nueva’s Hillsborough campus. Whether she was studying the shallow root systems of redwoods, playing the xylophone under the willow tree, eating miner’s lettuce along the Crocker Road fire trail, learning about Native Americans, or acting out Billy Goats Gruff on the “Billy Goat Bridge,” Heather understood that the outdoors were not only her playground at Nueva but also her principal classroom.

“I remember the shock of visiting a friend at a school in San Francisco and seeing that their recess was held on a fenced-in concrete rooftop,” said Heather. “I began to realize how lucky I was.”

Another favorite memory was the “Take Apart” elective where students dismantled old computers (donated by classmate Aza Raskin’s father Jef Raskin) and spread out all the pieces across the Ballroom floor. These knee-deep, hands-on adventures framed Heather’s perspective of the world at a very foundational level and influenced her decision to pursue a master's degree in industrial design and most recently to work as the Store Designer for Philz Coffee.

“My outdoor education at Nueva inspired my love of the physical and tactile world, which pushed me towards design where I can see and touch the things I create,” Heather said. “Nueva taught me to pay attention to my surroundings, which led me to want to create my surroundings.”

Though no longer a Nueva student building forts or swinging from tree vines, Heather continues to learn by doing and to probe the horizons of her boundless imagination, drawing from her largely unstructured years at Nueva where the only rule she remembers is “no sticks.”

“I have carried that free-spiritedness with me into adulthood. Nueva nurtured my sense of whimsy and spontaneity, which helps fuel my creativity,” Heather said. “My inner child is still a defining part of who I am and what I do. I credit Nueva with much of that.”

Heather has worked at Philz for just over a year now and has designed 14 different coffee shops, either as a redesign or from the ground up. She loves working for a small company where she feels stimulated by her many varied responsibilities and the opportunity to create with a lot of freedom. Her community-based, eclectic design aesthetic was recently highlighted on the Design District blogand in the San Francisco Chronicle.

When the going gets tough, Heather focuses on the store openings, where she clearly sees the impact of her hard work.

“The reward for designing the physical world is getting to see people using my creations,” Heather said. “Philz is not curing cancer or saving whales, but nevertheless we do something powerful every day when we make thousands of people happy. Everything I do is motivated by those moments.”

As gratifying as it is to see people respond to her creations, it’s not always easy to release creative work to the public. But Heather has developed a thick skin for critique and learned to appreciate how customers interact with and inevitably change her designs, always improving them.

“Rather than covet my work as something precious, I have to let my designs go and take on a life of their own. Design school taught me to never get too emotionally attached to something I create, and to always be willing to listen to feedback and revise. It is a thrilling challenge,” said Heather.

For other designer types who are looking to sustain their creativity, Heather recommends taking breaks throughout your work day.

“Always stay observant,” she said. “Inspiration is everywhere.”

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