UX inspiration from history: the Jerrycan – UX Collective

Today I am going to tell you about the design of jerrycan of the 1938 model which is an example of great industrial design and how UX should be applied to products.

image by sandleford

For a long time, people did not need to think about a radically different design of fuel canisters. Up until 1938 people used square, rounded and even triangle-like jerry cans. If you look back in history, few people might need to transport huge fuel reserves in canisters of 20 litres or so.

In 1936, Germany created a secret project to build a universal canister for Wehrmacht. As a result, one of the greatest masterpieces of industrial design was created and copied by other armies and can be set as an example of the fantastic user experience design to this day.

Let’s take a close look at the main differences and features of this design, what advantages it has and why even after 80 years from the moment of creation it is still in use. What we can learn from it and what we can borrow to the digital world.

The Shape

The jerrycan has the shape of the parallelepiped, and it is easily transportable in large quantities without risk. As you can see in the picture below the German troops had to carry fuel in vast amounts, and that’s why the design had to be as ergonomic as possible. This design allows you to fold up to five jerrycans by stacking them one on top of the other. Rounded corners reduce the probability of damage to the canister itself and surrounding objects. Also, the jerrycan can be easily attached to a car or a tank. This feature allowed to have one kind of canister for all types of troops. Plus, it saved a lot of money in production. The production of the body shape is two halves which are welded to each other to prevent leaks.

The design of the shape teaches us a few things:
1. Use less details as possible to reduce the cost and simplify the design in production.
2. Do not overcomplicate your product. (Despite the fact the American version of jerrycan had a more accessible way of cleaning and faster emptied and filled it wasn’t successful because of a large number of seams it flowed heavily.)
3. Start with one product in the line. (At that time there was only one size of the jerrycan — 20 litres. They didn’t start with 3 different formats like nowadays: small, medium and large. Later on, this canister has been modified and more sizes appeared.)

Steel was the primary material that was used to create canisters at that time. Today, factories are using plastic and various kinds of polymers which make canisters more durable and lightweight. Besides, at that time metal was a very cheap production material for making millions of jerrycans.

Also, you can see a concavity on the sides of the jerrycan; it increases the rigidity and prevents deformation of the entire structure. Additionally, as I mentioned earlier, it has rounded corners, and it’s not for beauty. Rounded corners are adding safety to the construction and prevent it from damaging people and other objects. So, as you see this is a very thoughtful UX solution which prevents us from some future problems during transportation. I would encourage you to do the same with interface design, problem solution first and only after we can add beauty to it. I would bet there were no people at that time who would say: “What a beautiful jerrycan” but a lot of people who have said: “This is a handy thing.”

The Handle

image from commons.wikimedia.org

The next is the handles of the canister. This part demonstrates the perfectly thought out user experience design and full understanding of how to assemble this object in production. In the picture above you can see that the canister has three handles in one.

Suppose you are strong enough to carry a full jerry can of gasoline, but if you need help you can always ask another person to help you by using the second handle. In other words, two strong people will be able to carry 3 canisters at the same time. As we can see, the design of the handle was maximally tailored to the needs of the army where time was a valuable resource and moving canisters from one place to another could take more time by using handle just for one person. Also, having three handles will give us the ability to move empty canisters much faster. In this case, each person can have up to four empty jerrycans in hands.

The best about handle that it’s fully replaceable part. You can detach it by using welding as well as attach it to another jerrycan. So, we can see that the handler is a reusable part of the canister and it gives us a lot of flexibility in fixing. The handle reminds me React library where you have a lot of flexibility with components. For the canister, engineers came up with literally all the option that can happen to the jerrycan. They knew that the weakest place of the jerrycan is the bottom part. Usually, canisters have been placed on the wet ground and because of that metal bottom could rust and in this case, you could easily reuse the handle by detaching from one jerrycan and reuse it in another place.

The Cap

image by retrozakaz

A canister cap is also a work of art. The lid itself performs the same function as the triple handle — it saves a tremendous amount of time when opening and closing the canister. Before this mechanism appeared, all jerrycans used a classic screw cap that you can see on each water bottle in stores today. Plus, this design has better endurance compared to screw cap which has the way of being erased from frequent use.


As we can see every piece of this object has been created for the convenience of people, who will use it. I think that creatives who are designing interfaces can learn a lot from this design. Sometimes we are to attached to the visual side of the interface, and we forget about the practical side. And let’s do not forget about the fact that this is a physical object that has to be created once and then produced in large amounts. But in the digital world, we can test our solutions in one click and make changes instantly.

Author: Taras Savytskyi

Collect by: uxfree.com