The Humble Story Behind The Ubiquitous Coffee Sleeve

Why is the coffee sleeve in the MoMA? Because life is so much better with it around.


It’s impossible not to take design for granted, because design is the intent hidden in the smallest, most disposable objects around you. And nowhere is that tendency more pronounced than when slipping on a coffee sleeve during your morning caffeination commute.


Smithsonian Magazine’s Design Decoded recently paid tribute to the humble creation–an understatedly effective design that’s landed it a seat in the MoMA. It was actually created by Jay Sorensen after burning himself through a scalding hot paper cup of coffee while driving his daughter to school. And like any good design, the solution was not immediately obvious. From Design Decoded:

Sorensen initially set out to design an insulated cup that could replace paper cups and Styrofoam cups, which were slowly being phased out as cities across the United States began to ban polystyrene food containers. But he couldn’t figure out an efficient way to package the cups for clients, neither nesting nor folding would work. He also reasoned, correctly, that not all coffee drinks needed that much insulation; his research indicated that only 30 to 40 percent of drinks sold at coffee shops required protection beyond the paper cup. Iced coffee drinks and lattes aren’t hot enough. The cup idea wouldn’t be economical for stores, it would have to go.

Sorensen can’t say how he hit upon the idea for the cup sleeve. “It was kind of an evolution,” he says. He used embossed chipboard or linerboard after nixing corrugated paper because of the price point. (Starbucks, which obtained their own patent after Sorensen got his, used the more expensive corrugated paper on the inside of their cup sleeves and smooth paper on the outside.)

There are a few hidden lessons here: One is that Sorensen’s first idea–an insulated cup–was pretty lousy. It was expensive and more wasteful. He abandoned it quickly for a more flexible alternative. And in scaling down the scope of his project–it wasn’t going to be made for all drinks but specifically hot coffee–he narrowed in on a massive market by dominating an infinite cave of a niche.

Sorensen now sells over 1 billion of his patented java Jackets each year. And in turn, humanity says the F-word about 3 billion fewer times annually.

Read more here.

[Images: Coffee sleeve via Shutterstock]

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach