A new book explores the subtly impressive design behind the sippable plastic lid.
The humble coffee lid doesn’t get much attention, unless you’re in the process of sloshing hot coffee all over yourself. But those sippable to-go cup lids are more complicated than you think. “The coffee lid is like a strand of our cultural DNA—a tiny, almost invisible detail that when looked at carefully can reveal lots about who we are,” writes designer and Mmuseumm founder Alex Kalman in the forward to Coffee Lids: Peel, Pinch, Pucker, Puncture, a book that explores the design evolution of the plastic hot-beverage lid.
Coffee Lids is a semi-exhaustive look at the extensive coffee-lid collection gathered over the course of several decades by architects Louise Harpman and Scott Specht, who write that “coffee lids are modest modern marvels hiding in plain sight.” Divided into four sections based on the way that you open them to drink—peel, pinch, pucker, and puncture—the book forms a gallery of up-close, detailed photos of the lids in the collection and images from the lid designs’ original patents.
Here are nine unexpected lid facts we learned from the book.
1. THEY DATE BACK TO THE 1950s.
Specht and Harpman trace the invention of the drink-through lid in the U.S. back to Delbert E. Phinney, who patented his design for an insulated, disposable cup and lid in 1953. It was a peel-type lid that included a piece that could be lifted up with a fingernail to create a hole to drink from. However, the drink-through lid design didn’t take off until decades later, when American drivers and other to-go customers sought to drink their hot beverages on the road, just like they already did with iced drinks that came with straws. So they took the opaque, flat plastic lids that their hot coffees came with, and ripped a hole in them to drink out of. It worked, but it wasn’t exactly a convenient practice. And so inventors, designers, and manufacturers began to make lids that were specifically constructed with drinking on the go in mind.
2. YOU’D BE SURPRISED BY HOW MUCH INNOVATION THERE IS ...
“To look at the endless variations of the humble coffee lid is to see humanity’s hopes and fears, its aspirations, and its limitless ingenuity,” Kalman writes in his forward. That may seem a little overzealous, but it’s true that plastic to-go lids have gone through many, many iterations to get to the seemingly simple raised lip design you sip your Starbucks out of every day. Beyond just improving the basic structure of the lid or the size of the hole, designers have imagined wholly different coffee-drinking experiences, like a lid that features blister packs that you can break to release cream or sugar into the cup, a lid with a French-press apparatus that would allow drinkers to brew and filter coffee on the go, and a lid fitted with an aroma pod that could be filled with vanilla, cinnamon, hazelnut, or other scents to enhance the flavor experience.
3. ... AND HOW MUCH DESIGNERS CARE.
Lid designers really do want to make drinking hot beverages on the go the best experience possible. In a 1976 patent for Drink-Through Slosh-Inhibiting Closure Lids for Potable Open-Top Containers, for instance, inventor Stanley Ruff claims his lid “improves previously designed lids in seven unique ways, including slosh reduction, nose accommodation, and enhanced ‘oral and olefactory [sic] satisfaction,’” according to Coffee Lids. Modern designers have continued to innovate on the basic lid design, offering “both small and large improvements to solve pet peeves but also to deliver better drinking experiences,” Harpman and Specht write. New lid designs purport to make drinking from the lid feel less like using a sippy cup and more like drinking straight from the rim of the cup, improve the speed of the liquid flowing through the drinking aperture, help cool the coffee, and channel steam toward the drinker to waft more of the aroma of the coffee toward them as they drink, among other features.
4. THOSE TEAR-OPEN PLASTIC LIDS ARE ENGINEERING MIRACLES.
When you rip a hole in a peelable drink lid, it has to stay stably attached to the cup, a feat that’s more structurally complicated than you’d think. “When coffee drinkers tore the rim and ripped an opening in the lid,” Harpman and Specht write of flat, peel-open lids, “the integrity of the diaphragm was destroyed, and the slightest squeeze of the cup would cause the top to pop off.” That’s why even the flattest of modern coffee-cup lids aren’t actually flat—they have raised ridges and trusses running across them, like the structural beams of a roof, that keep them rigid even when part of the plastic is torn away.
5. THAT TINY SECOND HOLE IS THERE FOR A REASON.
The tiny hole punched in the top of your lid isn’t there just to tickle your nose. It’s an essential part of the drinking experience. When liquid flows through a single hole in a closed container, it creates a vacuum, as you might have noticed if you have tried to suck down a bottle of water particularly quickly. To make the flow of liquid more regular and less splashy, some structures, like sinks and bathtubs, have “overflow holes” that allow air into the drainage pipe. That’s essentially what that tiny hole punch in your lid is—it allows air into the container so that when you drink, the coffee flows out in an even stream. According to Specht and Harpman, almost every coffee-lid designer approaches this problem in the same way, and has since the 1970s. All but one of the lids in their collection feature a single air hole punched into the middle or toward the top of the plastic. (The outlier is the Philip Cup lid, which has a larger, rectangular vent on its outer rim that supposedly creates an even smoother liquid flow.)
6. SLOSH-PREVENTION IS A HUGE PRIORITY.
No one wants to end up with scalding hot coffee on their hand, the front of their shirt, or inside their car cupholder. And lid designers know this. According to Harpman and Specht, “total slosh prevention has been the issue that has most obsessed coffee lid inventors since the 1980s.” That doesn’t mean they’ve come up with an agreed-upon way to combat it. Some have a recessed channel in the cup with a punched hole to allow the excess coffee splash to drain back into the cup. Some lids can be opened or closed with a tab, or come with their own stopper. One lid, patented by Morris Philip in 1983, advertises itself as “splash proof,” since the lid itself is recessed to sit a full inch below the rim of the cup to catch errant liquid. But clearly, none of these systems work perfectly, since Starbucks and other chains have begun offering stand-alone stopper sticks to keep lids tightly shut against splashes.
7. THOSE GROOVES ARE THERE BECAUSE OF CARS.
In part thanks to the advent of the minivan, many coffee lids feature some type of groove designed to channel sloshed liquid back into the cup. In 1983, Dodge released the Caravan/Plymouth Voyager, the first car with built-in cupholders. This may have been a boon for coffee-loving drivers, but sticking a cup of liquid in a hard cupholder involves quite a lot of bouncing and sloshing. So lid designers had to figure out a way to minimize the amount of coffee lost to bumpy drives. As a result, most lids have recessed portions with a small air hole in them, while others have perimeter channels that run toward the hole you drink out of. That way, at least some of the liquid spilled out onto the top of the lid can drain back into the cup.
8. SOME DESIGNS ARE CELEBRITIES …
You probably don’t know the Solo Traveler lid by name, but you surely know it by sight. Patented in 1986 by designer Jack Clements, it’s not just a lid anymore—it’s a museum piece. Museum of Modern Art curator Paola Antonelli selected a Solo Traveler coffee cup lid for display in the museum’s 2004 exhibit Humble Masterpieces. The Solo Traveler lid joined other classic designs like the Post-it, the soccer ball, and the paper clip in the exhibition celebrating subtly world-changing designs.
“Instead of sitting flat on a paper cup, the Solo Traveler Coffee-Cup Lid features a domed configuration designed to make sipping more comfortable by accommodating not only the lips, but also the nose,” the museum’s catalog reads. “In an unintended bonus, the Solo Traveler can also accommodate the foam of the cappuccinos and lattes that became popular in the United States in the late 1980s, when it was introduced. Its success was rapid and universal, and in the cutthroat world of coffee-cup-lid production, imitations soon followed.”
9. ... WHILE OTHERS ARE QUITE WHIMSICAL.
The Kiss lid, by South Korean designer Jang Woo-Seok, provides an unusually intimate drinking experience. It looks like a face. The raised plastic is shaped to look like a nose and mouth, so that when you drink from the cup, it feels like you’re kissing someone. She now offers the lids in two different versions, one angular and geometric, and one smooth and curvy, just like a face. “I want people to relieve their morning tension with a bit of humor,” she told Metro World News about the design in 2015. And she worked hard to make kissing the lid-face feel realistic. “With my first design, I put only lips on the lid but it was a bit iffy,” she told the news service. “So, I added a nose and facial muscles to make it like a human face and tried to adjust their heights suitably. People know how important the nose height is when kissing. Also, I enlarged the lips to make sure there will be that ‘biting the bottom lip’ feeling.”
Coffee Lids: Peel, Pinch, Pucker, Puncture is available for $18 on Amazon.
All images courtesy Princeton Architectural Press.