You’re jostled on the way out of Starbucks and your latte sloshes onto your pants. You deposit a cup in your car’s drink holder and by the time you get to work coffee has dripped down the side and puddled in the well. Or you leave a steaming cup on your desk when you duck into a meeting and when you return, all the heat has escaped through the lid’s sip hole. Bryce G. Rutter, who drinks decaf and lots of it, was already intimately familiar with the woes of on-the-go joe drinkers when the Solo Cup Company asked his firm, Metaphase, to improve upon the standard plastic lid.
Rutter and his team faced several hurdles. They had to come up with a feature that would allow the coffee drinker to open and close the sip hole repeatedly (unlike tear-tab or lock-back lids, which don’t reclose to prevent spilling). It had to be a design that the index finger on the cup-holding hand could operate—for times when the other hand is occupied with a briefcase or a steering wheel. And it had to be compatible with high-speed, high-volume manufacturing. “We had to strip out complexity,” notes Rutter, whose firm worked closely with Solo’s production experts.
Their solution: a two-piece lid. The designers took what’s essentially a traditional domed lid with a punched sip hole, added a curved slot on the opposite side of the top, and snapped a disk with an elevated slide tab into the underside of the lid (in assembly, the disk’s tab is poked through the curved slot). Sliding the tab to the right rotates the disk, opening the sip hole; sliding the tab to the left closes it. Best of all, when the disk moves into its closed position there’s a subtle click that you both hear and feel, so you know the sip hole is covered even if your eyes are glued to the road. “It’s completely functional,” enthused Bokuniewicz of Solo’s upscale offering, which retails for twice the cost of a standard domed lid. Not to mention elegant. “That coffee cup lid needs no more beauty in my mind,” said Carbone. “There’s beauty in the sculptural form, but also in the intelligence of a simple solution for a basic problem. That’s why it rose to the top of the heap.”
Bryce G. Rutter is the founder and CEO of Metaphase Design Group, a 13-year old design, ergonomics, and research firm based in St. Louis, MO. Metaphase worked with Microsoft on the first ergonomic computer mouse, which is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art.
Q+A with Bryce G. Rutter
Describe your design strategy.
We began by studying how people drink and what is the most effective lip-cup interface, beginning with lip anthropometry, to define the range of users that must be accommodated. We looked at flow dynamics to understand what causes dribbles and drips, and determined that the worst-case scenario for usability is drinking in the car or on foot. A one-handed solution was mandatory. Given that most drivers use their right hand, regardless of handedness, to pick-up and place their coffee cup in the holder, the final design had to be optimized for the right hand. We established that the “smart” finger for operating any open/close control should be the index finger; the other relatively “smart” fingers—the thumb and middle finger—are needed to hold the cup securely in unison with the ring and pinky fingers. Working closely with Solo’s in-house engineering group, we figured out the materials and manufacturing process for the final design through several prototypes and extensive solid modeling.
What was the biggest obstacle in the process?
The biggest challenge was manufacturing cost. This is a very high volume product and, as a result, each and every material and manufacturing nuance was critical to ensure that margins would be in line and that the design could be fabricated on current capital equipment.
What everyday product would you most like to redesign?
I would like to design a watch that shows how ergonomics get luxurious. I am not talking about the old military notions of ergonomics, but a watch where every detail has been thought through. Each complication (the technical name for a watch feature, e.g., a chronograph, date, or lunar phase) would be optimized for finger-tip control and intuitiveness: a stem you can easily pull out, dates and times that are clear so you don’t need your reading glasses, textures on bezels that make them rotate without the typical uncomfortable “bite” into your skin, a band that feels like a second skin which you can manipulate with one hand—all wrapped up in a stunning aesthetic that makes you grin every time to you glance for the time!
Solo Cup Company, Highland Park, IL
Metaphase Design Group, St. Louis, MO: Bryce G. Rutter, principal; Brian Bone, director of ergonomics; Heath Doty, designer
Thermoformed polystyrene resin
Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, ProEngineer, SolidWorks