In our 2016 Annual, we named Map as our Creative Agency of the Year. While the award reflected the fact that the company’s work appeared twice in our Best in Book section (something we’d not seen before), it was also given in recognition of the way Map works as well. Both of the BiB projects that the studio was involved in – Hackaball, developed by Made By Many, and the ‘internet of things’ toolkits by SAM Labs – were collaborative ventures. “Today’s truly successful creative businesses work with their clients not just for them,” we wrote. “Map’s process is one of co-creation: clients are even invited to spend time in the studio working alongside the team.”
Map emerged from London practices Barber & Osgerby and Universal Design Studio in 2012 and inhabits the same large office space as its sister companies. The idea for the company evolved out the kind of work that the two established offices were increasingly being asked to do: research-led, collaborative projects, where a client might know what they want to end up with, but not necessarily how to get there. Naming the new venture Map was not without intent, evoking a sense that it could chart a clear course right from initial idea to finished product.
As Map’s design director, Jon Marshall has led the team since its inception (he was previously studio director at Barber & Osgerby), and explains that the studio came out of discussions around new projects that were coming in that didn’t feel like Universal or Barber & Osgerby commissions. “For the first year we actually did say [that we] were thinking of setting up a b different entity, called Map,” he explains. “We were quite open with clients. Actually, it came from clients, in a way.” Amid furniture, installations and limited editions, Marshall says that clients were approaching the team with “a consumer electronics project or a future-thinking project”, effectively envisioning “a standard consultancy-type programme, which was different from how the furniture world operates”. Working on the Sony installation Barber & Osgerby created for the Milan Furniture Fair in 2010, “we realised that suddenly all our clients were also designers, so the process became much more of a collaborative, co-creative one”.
This approach hasn’t come out of nowhere. Marshall believes that it’s partly the result of a shift in the structure of the design industry. Twenty years ago, he says, consultancies dominated industrial design and almost all products were developed by these kinds of studios. Gradually, this b became so specialised that design teams then moved in-house. At the same time, however, digital was in ascendance and so “there was a period where physical products were not so important because everything was put into screens,” he says. “So six or seven years ago, it seemed like there was a resurgence in the importance of tangible things, artefacts.” Clients then wanted different types of people to work with, he adds, to give a different point of view – this became “a growing part of our business”.
Part of Map’s philosophy is ‘designer-led research’, a process which enables the design team to “get ahead of the game”, says Marshall. “Research became a tool that we started to introduce. Previously that was done by external agencies or the client.” This approach inevitably adds a few weeks’ work to the front of any project but, Marshall adds, it’s become a valuable aspect to their offering. For its recent project with Honda, which envisaged a fleet of autonomous vehicles as 3D models, Map worked for two months researching the company and its technologies, the various terrains and climate systems the vehicles would encounter.
Bringing things back to the factory floor, what remains key to enabling all this is the shape and structure of the Map studio itself. Based below the floor containing the Universal HQ, Map’s space is nearer to the centre of the shared area that houses the workshop and materials library. “One thing that brings us all together is a love of materials,” says Marshall. “I think that comes from Edward and Jay [Barber and Osgerby, respectively]. Every project goes through the same place, through the workshop.” Inside, Map has all the hallmarks of a contemporary design studio: white-painted brickwork, a fleet of Macs, shelves proudly displaying finished work. But look closer and there are prototypes and off-cuts on show, too; desk space covered in cutting mats, blades and tools. The workshop is just that: a place to make things with your hands. And while Marshall believes that ‘making’ is part of the Map culture (tactility is in its DNA), it’s a practical solution, too, the fastest way to get results.
“People often ask, ‘Do you have a 3D printer?’” he says, holding a piece of foam-board used in the design of the Kano computer keyboard from 2013. “The thing is, to 3D-print something like this you have to design it in CAD, and sometimes you’re just not ready to make the investment to go ‘geometrically perfect’. You could spend ages. So you can just do a sketch, or a quick 2D drawing, go and make it in the workshop and have something in your hand – you can look at it, live with it. What I find fascinating is that you can go into the workshop and there might be three things there: one of them might be the beginning of a product you’re working b on; another might be the leg of a chair; and the other might be of a similar size but, actually, it’s a whole building.”
Unlike the more ‘authored’ nature of furniture, the products Map makes have the client in on the creative process from the very start; the ‘making’ is inherently a collaborative act. And it’s the client’s knowledge and expertise, Marshall explains, that helps drive the solution that Map can work towards. Having physical models to hand only helps with this. “We want to involve clients in the process,” says Marshall. “Ultimately, they’re the experts, so one of the main reasons physical models work really well is that anybody can have ownership over them. If we make a model out of blue foam, a client can break it, or take a pen and draw on it. We can say ‘Maybe that radius needs to be softer?’ – and we can take a piece of sandpaper and do that.” CAD, on the other hand, is so specialised that it can act as a barrier between the client and the product. “We can show renderings to clients, spin things around on screen, but they can’t get their hands dirty.” Marshall comes back to this point later, neatly summarising how it fits into the Map ethos: “It’s like having the design process out on the table,” he says.
A different tool that has reshaped the way Map works is KickStarter, which the studio has used since it worked on the Kano computer kit. “It was an entirely different focus – the outcome of the first phase of work is essentially a video,” says Marshall. “Inside a big organisation, it’s a really great tool because you can make a two minute film of an idea and send it around.” KickStarter has been used to launch the Ily, an augmented landline phone which offers video-calling and messaging (for which Map created a physical model based on the user experience, rather than the tech), and also the BleepBleeps monitoring devices for parents. To date, Sammy Screamer, a movement detector, and Suzy Snooze, a monitor with built-in night-light and music player, have made it through to production.
It’s within this space, typified by the BleepBleeps project, that Marshall and his team hope to continue working. There’s huge potential in connected products, he says, but how many of them are really changing lives for the better? “There are many things that are connected, which are great, but they’re not transformative in the sense that they are existing archetypes that then have tech added to provide some function,” he says. “Whilst I might like those things, many people are critical of them – whereas with products like these, it’s generally a different archetype where the technology is really crucial and central to what’s going on. Then it makes it really important that the physical experience – what we do, what we add to it – is great, or as good as it can be.”