Design That Can Change The World | Tobi Wray

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Tobi Wray is the founder and owner of Design Well Spent Co., a full-service interior design firm, specializing in retail and hospitality design. From Starbucks to Amazon, Tobi has spent her career working as an in-house concept designer and recently took the leap to start a business of her own.

She talked with MiND and walked us through her career and background.

Like many others at a young age, Tobi wasn’t sure of which path she should choose. She had always been a straight-A student and figured she would end up a doctor, lawyer, or a politician. What she really wanted was a career where she could be both a professional and a creative. After flying all the way out to the University of Michigan for orientation and realizing she wasn’t supposed to be there, Tobi went back home to Washington and decided to research careers that were both professional and creative. Interior Design came up and everything started to fall into place.

As a perfectionist growing up, her drawings had to be 100% perfect, or she would throw them out. She moved away from drawing and into music and the performing arts where she learned about stage presence, projecting your voice and how to be comfortable performing in front of large audiences. In high school , she had to do a group project on Thailand and she came up with the idea of dressing her fellow group members up as flight attendants to take their class on a “flight” as the basis for their presentation. They began the presentation giving the class the airline safety briefing and passed out basil ice cream near the end of the presentation for their “in-flight” snack. In hindsight, this presentation was all about creating an experience, and reminds Tobi of why she stumbled into this career and loves retail and hospitality design so much. “It’s about putting yourself into the “customer” or “guest’s” shoes to create memorable experiences that make people happy and the world a better place.”

Amazon 4 Star; Seattle; Washington. Courtesy of Amazon

She started design school at the Art Institute of Seattle and moved to Cornish College of the Arts after two years, following a professor who really inspired her. Cornish offered more artistic and conceptual courses and expanded her approach to design. Unfortunately, she had to face a harsh reality after graduation due to the economic crisis in 2009. While looking for jobs, she stumbled upon an internship at Starbucks on the Global Concept Design Team. “I was reluctant at the time because I knew Starbucks was very cookie-cutter, all of them looking the same, but – a job was a job. I got an interview and was SOLD. They told me I would get to work on what the future of Starbucks would be- next year, 5 years from now and so on (not cookie-cutter at all). I would get to design furniture, light fixtures, finishes and be part of a rolling these concepts out across the globe.”

Her years at Starbucks taught her a lot and she worked really hard to try and make herself irreplaceable. After several renewals, she finally made it to a permanent position. During those six years, she went from designing furniture to pilot store design; she was the lead designer of the TAZO tea store, the Teavana tea bar concept, the update to the Teavana mall stores and was promoted to lead the Concept Design studio as the Senior Manager. It is during her work at Starbucks that she started becoming more interested in retail design, even though, over the course of her career, retail and hospitality have blended more over time. “More hospitality is bringing in retail and more retail is bringing in hospitality. You see it in other fields as well – commercial office design, healthcare. It’s all interconnected.”

Courtesy of Amazon

Her career at Amazon started when a friend asked her if she would interview for a role on a top-secret project. She took the role not knowing what she would be working on, assuming (and hoping) it would be retail design. It turned out that she would become the lead designer for the Amazon Books concept, responsible for designing the kit of parts, scaling the concept for roll-out, and growing a team. “I got exposure to how Amazon does things differently – I was both having to move fast on all of these things I knew really well, but also slow down enough at times to learn how to be a designer at Amazon. I was one of the first interiors people to ever work for the company, so I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to fold my process into theirs and how to teach them about mine.”

These two big companies taught her important lessons. Starbucks embedded her in brand and storytelling, the difference heart can have in running a business and how that translates to the customer experience and brand perception. Whilst Amazon took her Type-A personality and put it into overdrive. Being surrounded by people who are top performers in their field, Tobi started to push herself to be more effective, a better designer, a better manager and a better leader. “I felt like I walked away with an MBA, the opportunity to work with the biggest names in tech, business and retail. It ended up giving me the knowledge and the confidence I needed to be able to go out on my own and start my own business”. Alongside the good things, working for big companies can have its challenges. Working as a in-house designer can be tough because you have to balance the visibility you have to the constant changes happening with the business and designing to meet those needs, all while staying on time and on budget. Tobi always tried to maintain a balance by keeping the team concentrated on what only they could do (design) while she would provide cover and be the bridge between what was happening in the business and communicate that to the team as was necessary.

Starbucks, TAZO Tea – Courtesy of Starbucks

The most important part in my job is to understand the client, the brand, the customer and see things through their perspective. Seeing where they are headed is fundamental in the creation of the concept.

After ten years working for other people, Tobi has decided to venture on her own with Design Well Spent Co., a full-service interior design firm, specializing in retail and hospitality design. With her new design firm, she will be creating new concepts for brands and helping them with how to scale it. Every year she plans to donate a percentage of the profits to a charity doing good in the world, social and environmental causes alike. This year’s charity is “the Hydrocephalus Association. My first client’s daughter has Hydrocephalus, a condition causing fluid to build in the brain. She’s had to have 3 brain surgeries and 7 hospital stays. Locust Cider & Brewing Co., donates proceeds from every purchase to the association and I could not think of a better one to choose for my first year in business.”

The first six weeks on her own were the most challenging and difficult for Tobi, as after so many years working for Amazon and Starbucks, she realized that she had wrapped her identity up in the companies she worked for and had lost herself along the way. So the first things she had to do was to work on herself to gain back her confidence. To quote the book The War of Art by Steven Pressfield that helped her get through it, “The danger is greatest when the finish line is in sight. At that point, Resistance knows we’re about to beat it. It hits the panic button. It marshals one last assault and slams us with everything it’s got.”

The first months away from Amazon, she “focused on working through the self-doubt, replacing negative thoughts with positive thoughts, journaling and just flat out, sitting down and doing the work every day. I took incremental steps every day that needed to be done to get my business up and running and I kept meeting with people who know me and my work to remind me that I can do this.”

Courtesy of Design Well Spent Co.

At a higher level, the most important thing to Tobi is that the work she does makes a difference in peoples’ lives. She wants to know that she is leaving this world better than she found it. This is what lead Tobi to teach. She started teaching at her alma mater, Cornish College of the Arts, last Fall while working for Amazon. It is her second teaching stint and working with the students provides a source of inspiration and motivation for her. As an alumnus, she is able to relate to the students, knowing what they are going through and having the real-world experience they need to know to be successful upon graduation. She is teaching a studio class right now focused on retail design – the changing landscape and trajectory of the business and how it continues to innovate as customer needs evolve.

Retailers were already starting to figure out that if they can do more with less, they can be more profitable and can afford to open more locations. This new economy will force it.

Photo courtesy of Starbucks

Retail design has gone through rapid evolution with the onset of online shopping, but people are looking for more experiential stores and experiences. With the outburst of the Coronavirus, people are craving more social interactions and human contact, so it could be a probable outcome of this self-isolation. Store cost and store size will also continue to change, especially in this recession.

This is the reason why it is critical to find the right designer who is invested in the client and what solutions are right for them and not just an aesthetic. She would love to work on a concept for a restaurant, creating an experience that embodies their philosophy, food, values and their voice. A restaurant is as experiential as it gets and would allow her to apply her business savvy, her relentless approach to budget, and her love of food.

Courtesy of Design Well Spent Co.

But at the moment, with the current pandemic, the priorities are different.“It would be easy right now to panic and feel like there is no way I will ever be able to recover from this, but instead, I’m focusing on keeping my family safe and healthy, my students, and looking at the positives that are slowly coming out of this. For one – businesses and schools are being forced to innovate and think about how to do things differently – delivery services, working remotely, schooling remotely (at Cornish, we moved to 100% online instruction). It’s making us all re-think our priorities, it’s giving us more time with our families, it’s opening the world’s eyes to the fact that we’re all connected, and we all depend on each other for health and survival. There is no doubt this virus will forever change all of us, and I’m hoping it’s for the better.”

Hoping for a better moment to talk, MiND hopes that we will one day eat in a restaurant completely designed by Tobi and we wish her many new, exciting projects with Design Well Spent Co.


By Sarah Rossi and Carmen Mc Intosh