There are two types of problems that designers try to solve: problems people have, and problems designers delude themselves into thinking people have. Venerable sugar tonic maker Coca-Cola has just released a new can design firmly in the latter camp: a chill-activated can to visually tell people whether their Coke is cold or not. First released as a 7-Eleven promotion six months ago, the chill-activated can is now available to everyone.
Chill-activation, of course, is nothing new. The designers at MillerCoors have previously rolled out a series of chill-activated Coors Light cans, glasses, and containers. When refrigerated, the outline of the Rocky Mountains on the cans turn a vibrant blue, indicating that the can is properly cold. Coca-Cola is doing the same thing here, only color-changing ice cubes serve as the visual cue.
It's all achieved with thermochromatic ink, a color-sensitive dye that has been used in cheap thermometers for years, and is increasingly being used by the big brands for packaging purposes. For example, Pizza Hut has used thermochromatic ink to show whether or not your pizza was delivered hot in an innovation they called "the Hot Dot." And Mountain Dew has also experimented with thermochromatic inks, releasing a limited edition 16-ounce can in a cross-promotional campaign with the last Batman movie that changed the color of the Dark Knight's symbol when properly chilled.
It's all innocuous enough, but with Coca-Cola getting in on the thermochromatic ink trolley, maybe it's time to call this what it actually is: faddish bad design.
It should be obvious, but for the most part, no one needs to be visually told when something is cold or hot. There are exceptions, of course: an electric stove burner that turns orange when it's hot is an important safety cue. But when safety is not a factor—and a lukewarm can of pop is not going to kill anyone—a can that shows you when it is cold is like a siren that goes off when it's bright out. It's self-evidently absurd. We don't expect to "see" cold. We expect to feel it, and our skin has been designed to do just that. When we want to know if a can of Coke is cold, or a pizza is warm, our natural instinct is to touch it. That's what our hands are for.
The design problem that Coca-Cola, Coors Light, Mountain Dew, Pizza Hut have tasked themselves to solve is how to convey the temperature of their product to people without hands. That's actually a noble pursuit in its own way—amputees need a nice frosty one now and again, just like everyone else—but something tells me, that's not why these companies' R&D departments spent their millions.