An ex-Starbucks designer just revealed what the first ever red cup looked like

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Harriet Little

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of their iconic Christmas cups, Starbucks has released a timeline detailing every design since 1997 and shared the surprising story behind how they settled on that distinctive shade of red. 

Red is the colour of Christmas – of robins, noses, party dresses and, of course, Starbucks’ holiday cups.

But fans of the coffee company’s stylish designs will be surprised to learn that the first cup wasn’t even really red, but a swirly magenta and lilac combination. 

Starbucks issued its first cup in 1997 and only switched to red cups in 1999 after an intense brainstorming process to come up with the perfect shade of ‘holiday red’. Jon Cannell, who was part of the design team at the time, recalls that staff were tasked with bringing in Christmassy items to try and decide on the most ‘joyous’ shade possible. They eventually settled on the bright toffee apple hue that we see today.

Back in October, Stylist did some digging into why exactly the Starbucks cup colour is so easy on the eye. Colour psychologist Angela White told us that the shade of red designers settled on in 1999 was an inspired choice: “The specific shade of red that Starbucks uses is spot-on for the purpose – a rich, warm red that’s not too lurid. It captures and expresses the Christmas spirit perfectly,” she said. 

This year’s Starbucks ‘red’ cup is a big departure for the brand, because it’s mainly white

Rounding up a full set of the cups released since 1997 wasn’t an easy task. In the early days no one had any idea that they would become so well-loved, so they didn’t make an effort keep prototypes. To add to the confusion, the original design files were lost in an earthquake in 2001. Luckily, designer Sandy Nelson came to the rescue. She’s the woman who drew the first ever red cup, and as a young designer she’d been so excited by the commission that she’d kept hold of all the early models, allowing Starbucks to reveal the full range. 

This year’s red cup, which debuted earlier in November, is actually a bit of a departure for the brand. The design features a pair of cupped hands holding a heart, and has been left mainly white so coffee-lovers can colour it in. 

It seems to be going down a treat on Instagram, where users are sharing their colourful designs. 

This is the second year in a row that Starbucks has made the holiday cups into something collaborative: last year it featured 13 customer-created designs from six countries. 

Hopefully the trend towards embellishment will encourage coffee-drinkers to think about their cups as something more than a throwaway commodity. We were shocked when we discovered that most coffee cups aren’t recyclable

Caffeine addicts, remember: a cup’s not just for Christmas.

Images: Starbucks