Once upon a time, beer cans had no tab. They were sealed cans, and you used a church key to punch holes in them. In 1962, the “zip top” tab was invented, letting you open the can by peeling off a (razor-sharp) tab. John Updike was not impressed:
This seems to be an era of gratuitous inventions & negative improvements. Consider the beer can-it was beautiful as a clothespin, as inevitable as the wine bottle, as dignified & reassuring as the fire hydrant. A tranquil cylinder of delightfully resonant metal, it could be opened in an instant, requiring only the application of a handy gadget freely dispensed by every grocer… Now we are given instead, a top beeling with an ugly, shmoo-shaped "tab," which after fiercely resisting the tugging, bleeding fingers of the thirsty man, threatens his lips with a dangerous & hideous hole. However, we have discovered a way to thwart Progress… Turn the beer can upside down and open the bottom. The bottom is still the way the top used to be. This operation gives the beer an unsettling jolt, and the sight of a consistently inverted beer can makes some people edgy. But the latter difficulty could be cleared up if manufacturers would design cans that looked the same whichever end was up, like playing cards. Now, that would be progress.
I love this. It conjures lots of questions for designers as we seek to improve existing experiences:
What do innovations cost in social and physical pleasures when they disrupt familiar experiences? What price do we pay (or extract from others) when we design for efficiency? Whose efficiency are we designing for anyway? How do we distinguish nostalgia from real loss (and does the distinction matter)? How can we take useful lessons from the hacks our customers employ to work around our designs?
Related: Eater covers the history of beer-can design. You’re welcome.