How do you take your coffee in the morning? I don’t mean with cream or sugar— I mean, what do you carry it in? Are you the sit-down type, with your favorite mug? Or are you an on-the-go person, grabbing a cup at your local coffee shop or gas station? Well, if you’re in the latter group, almost every day you are getting the opportunity to interact with a remarkable piece of human ingenuity!
The to-go coffee cup lid is perhaps one of the world’s most underrated little gems. But take a look at it and you’ll find small details that occur time and time again on your favorite lids. Really, you’ll start to notice you actually have favorite lids.
So, what’s going on here? Are there really complexities at play with this everyday object that you didn’t realize? Simply put, the answer is, yes.
So, you grab your coffee, affix the lid, go to take your first sip, and… it dribbles down your shirt. (This, my friends, is why you always wear a black shirt). You readjust the lid, and still, no dice. It’s a tricky situation, and when you run into a cup lid that doesn’t work, you know it right away.
The evolution of the on-the-go cup lid has been in the works for over half a century. Beginning in the 1950s, many many minds have gone through a riveting process of trial, error, and iteration to give us a spill-free, caffeinated commute.
But this isn’t just a story of modern innovation, it’s one that reveals how our society has shifted over time. Moreover, how the best designs are the ones that we tend to notice the least.
This video is a part of the TED Series “Small Thing Big Idea.” You can check out a few others from this fantastic series over on the TED site!
AJ Jacobs is the author of Thanks A Thousand: A Gratitude Journey, a book in which he embarks on a journey to thank every person involved in making his morning cup of coffee possible. It’s a world-crossing, life-changing adventure that explores how gratitude can spread connection, happiness, and generosity. You can find AJ on Twitter and Facebook as well!
We’ve actually featured another piece from this series a while back that’s all about buttons! Like this video, it is a wonderful look at one of life’s little, beautiful innovations. Take a watch and you won’t be buttoning up your coat the same way again!
Oh, and if you want to learn more about the history of lids, and dive deeper into this wonderful, quirky world of design we all come in contact with almost daily, there’s a book!
It’s written by architects Louise Harpman and Scott Specht called Coffee Lids: Peel, Pinch, Pucker, Puncture. Together they have America’s largest collection of independently patented plastic cup lids. You could say they are for sure the world’s leading experts on the topic! You can check out more from them in this great interview from Atlas Obscura.
Evolving Towards Something Better
Great design is a process that evolves as we do. It’s so easy to get annoyed at design because most of the time we only notice it when it’s bad. But good design tends to be invisible. And yet, hours of research, years of iteration, and thousands of failed attempts are at play in our favorite designs.
These little, ever-evolving pieces of our world are a lovely reminder that progress so often happens in small steps. As society evolves, so do our most beloved things.
Coffee was a staple of morning habits, but as we moved into a society on the go, so too did our coffee. Our on-the-go life led to the plastic coffee cup lid. Now that coffee on-the-go is our habit, and our society is moving away from single-use plastics and cups, so too will the coffee cup lid evolve!
We have a great article about how innovations evolve if you want to check it out:
How will our future continue to evolve? As our resources change, as society asks for new things, as our understanding of our future changes, so will the objects that make daily life possible.
There is unlimited potential for innovation out there—it’s up to us to shape it!
Stay beautiful & keep laughing!
Dive deeper into the quirks of design!
Ever wondered how the things you love came to be? Who designed them, what influence have they had on the world. Well, take a look through our library and you’re sure to find a few stories that will leave you looking at the world with fresh eyes!