Lesson From a Plastic Cup

· March 6th

I can’t help but experience the world through the eyes of a designer; everywhere I go I see things I like or, as is more often the case, things I don’t like. Like most designers, I really love happening upon inspiration in an unexpected place. I was in Starbucks about a month ago and noticed they created a $1 reusable tumbler in an effort to combat the extraordinary amount of waste produced by their disposable paper cups. I had recently retired my old cup, and this new tumbler looked intriguing so I bought myself one. Right from the beginning I fell in love with it. It lacked all the bells and whistles that most reusable cups had, like water tight mouthpieces and sub-zero insulation; it was just what it needed to be: a coffee cup. I immediately began thinking of the process that must have led to this wonderful object. It seems obvious this was the product of one of the commonly practiced methods employed by designers of every stripe: iteration.

The design of this new cup is simple: it looks just like the paper cup, only it is made out of a lightweight plastic. This may seem like an unimaginative solution at first, but it suggests to me that it is the product of a more sophisticated design process, employing lessons learned from past experience. The design of their disposable paper cup is the result of decades of serving coffee and learning what works and what doesn’t. It is probably safe to suggest that the paper Starbucks cup is the single most successful portable coffee cup ever designed. Have you ever held a Starbucks coffee cup and thought to yourself, “This thing just doesn’t work for me, I have no idea how to use it”? The answer is probably “no”. The reason for this is the cup is so well designed that it is practically invisible, you just don’t think about it. It does its job without you even noticing. When they came around to designing their new plastic tumbler, they started with what was already an incredibly successful design, proved out by millions of use-cases, and sought to iterate instead of starting from scratch. They recognized that the place to innovate was in the areas that the new plastic material afforded them. By adding a seamless plastic body with a textured exterior to improve grip, they were able to build upon the success of an already existing design.

As a designer, there is something to take away from this example. We are incredibly fond of iterating on a single project: tweaking a layout here, updating some copy there; but when it comes to iterating on ideas or concepts in the abstract, the process is much harder to define. Naturally, we are compelled to strike out on our own, tear a problem apart and solve it for ourselves, previous solutions be damned; but if there is something to be learned from this new Starbucks tumbler, it is that previous solutions might provide a foundation for newfound brilliance.

Examples of building upon the success of pre-existing solutions can be found throughout the history of design. Jonathan Hoefler said about the typeface Helvetica:

“…there’s something about it that does have the feeling of finality to it, this is the conclusion of one line of reasoning, was this typeface…”

Max Miedinger (The designer of Helvetica) picked up a pre-existing line of reasoning and took it to a point of finality. The only way to reach this end point is through iteration, and not just iteration within the confines of a single project, but across an entire line of reasoning, which might extend through many people and across perhaps decades of time.

How this lesson applies to projects we might work on in the future is up to each designer. One thing can be stated with certainty, however: Great design is the product of iteration, and that process does not exist in a vacuum, but in a world full of prior context and evolving lines of reason.