How A Philosophy Of “Informed Creativity” Drives Design At Map

“There’s a misconception that design is a kind of mythical process,” Map’s Jon Marshall says.

Upon opening Kano, a DIY computer, you’re greeted with a vibrant orange keyboard, neatly coiled color-coded cables, a circuit board, and illustrated manuals are as artfully boxed as any Apple device. But here’s the kicker: it costs just $150—a fraction of what you’d pay for an Apple laptop—and it’s so easy to build that kids can do it. The cleverness and user-friendliness at the heart of Kano are hallmarks of Map, the London-based industrial studio that shaped the product.


Along with developing Kano, Map has worked on an interactive museum exhibition for Google, remastered the humble Spork, built throwable computers, and designed a line of bathroom products that anyone aged eight to eighty can use. The portfolio seems schizophrenic, but it’s borne from a deep-rooted philosophy that designer-led thinking yields smarter products.

Process is Map’s modus operandi—but not square-peg process. Design director Marshall and his team tailor their workflows to each project since no two are exactly the same. One day, Map might be called upon to hone a startup’s idea; on another day it might serve as a consultant to a big-name corporation like Virgin, Google, or Panasonic. What guides the approach regardless of scale or scope is a polestar of “Informed Creativity.”

Collaboration Drives Map
An eight-person multi-disciplinary team, Map is an offshoot of Barber Osgerby, a celebrated furniture design studio founded by Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby.


“Working in a multidisciplinary studio forces us to look at the different scales of the projects we’re developing,” Marshall says. You don’t get stuck focusing on the object—it always brings you back to the user.”

Barber Osgerby was taking on more and more industrial design projects and in 2012 decided to formally group them under the umbrella of Map. Similarly, Barber Osgerby started Universal Design Studio in 2001 to tackle architecture and interiors projects. While the three companies operate independently, they share the same physical studio. The larger 50-person group is welcome—and often invited—to weigh in on Map’s work.

For example, when Map developed the tritensil—a new take on the Spork—the team was unsure about developing both a right- and left-handed design. Posing this to the larger group and using the team as guinea pigs (it turns out that there’s a high percentage of southpaws at the studio) convinced them that it was the right functional approach and gave them the confidence to present this to their client, Fortnum & Mason.


Map also invites its clients to the studio to work alongside them for several days at a time. While Barber Osgerby is commissioned for a specific attitude and sensibility, Map is about working with its clients every step of the way to forge a solution in tandem—a sort of chameleon that morphs to the challenge at hand.

Designer-Lead Research Is The Foundation
Map doesn’t start a project with a blank sheet of paper, rather it starts with quantifiable research to inform its strategy. While some of its larger clients come armed with exhaustive documentation of their design problems, Map often conducts research itself.

When entrepreneur Assaf Wand approached Map for a collaboration, he knew he wanted to create products for baby boomers, but he didn’t know exactly what they should be. Map embarked on an ethnographic research project and spent time in the homes of people in their fifties through seventies. What Map discovered was much different from its expectations.


“We had this preconceived idea that aging-in-place was going to be about lack of mobility, about bad eye sight,” Marshall says. “In doing the research, the design team came out with a different view, which was those people don’t consider themselves to be old or aging and while they may have a bit of a bad back or some limited mobility, really they wanted to feel empowered. They wanted quick fixes to small problems in their lives and the single place that had the most issues was the bathroom.”

Sabi Space—a line of shelves, towel racks, hooks, grab bars, mirrors, and more for the bathroom—arose from that research.

In the case of Virgin Atlantic, the airline had clearly documented the deficiencies of its in-flight service trays and utensils, which the company thoroughly researched before hiring Map. When Marshall and his team embarked on the project, they had all of that information at their disposal plus access to the flight attendants who were using the products everyday. This proved invaluable in creating service items for economy class that were more lightweight, 25% smaller, 46% greener over their lifecycle, and had more style than the preceding items.


A Strong Strategy Keeps The Vision In Focus
After the research concludes, Map uses it to form its strategy. Sometimes it’s a sentence that captures a client’s core proposition—for example “a computer anyone can make as easily as putting together Legos” for Kano—or it could be a 10-page document with requirements that outline what success looks like.

The entire user experience—packaging, industrial design, user interfaces, onboarding—can fall under Map’s purview. The studio can be brought on at any point during product development, but Marshall says the sooner the better. That way design is part of the core strategy instead of being applied at a later point when its subject to pre-determined engineering parameters.

When products are developed, design is typically added late in the game to make them more user-friendly and marketable. “We try to get clients further and further back in the process so we can engage with them before the briefing stage,” Marshall says. “We want to be involved with the research that leads to a business case and to support that.”


For Ily—a new take on a household phone that combines video and voice calls with Wi-Fi and a standard landline—Marshall spoke with the start-up’s founder, Ilan Abehassera, during the company’s nascent stages about engaging with design straightaway. They started collaborating on a fully fledged visual mock-up. “This way the user experience is baked into the core proposition before engineering constraints come along and change things,” Marshall says. “This gave them a clear vision to work with and ensured the process was streamlined.” The product went from initial discussion to launch in about one year, a short time for a complex product.

In the case of SAM—an IoT electronics kit—the product was fully formed. “They had a good product, but felt like they needed support to make it great,” Marshall says.

Co-Creation Yields Stronger Results
“It’s not just coming up with creative ideas and innovative ideas but being able to explain why those are the right ideas for our clients,” Marshall says. To that end, Map works incredibly closely with its clients throughout the entire process.


Map doesn’t operate in the typical client-agency model of spending weeks holed up with no communication, then making a splashy presentation a la Mad Men. Rather, it hosts workshops, asks its clients to come to the studio, and often goes to the client’s office (if its a big brand). Map frequently works with in-house design teams and other designers, which Marshall says can lead to some friction since so many people are involved.

During the ideation phase, it’s about getting many ideas flowing then navigating through them to find clarity and make decisions. “By doing that not only do we create really great work, out clients feel as much ownership over it as we do,” Marshall says. “We also don’t have to ‘impress’ our clients with big time-consuming presentations about how good our ideas are because they’re also their ideas.”

Map can sometimes operate as an editor, refining and honing concepts and adding to the mix. When there’s debate, Map brings in designers from the larger group to serve as an unbiased opinion. “While Edward and Jay’s core focus is Barber Osgerby, they’re also interested in the work we’re doing sat Map and can provide a fresh and provocative viewpoint,” Marshall says.


Apply a Software Model of Build It Fast, Then Build It Better
Rapid iteration is important for Map and its clients therefore it uses a design-sprint model that’s common in software development. There’s a three-to-four-month phase of very intense work and for about eight weeks of that, Map is side-by-side with its clients or meeting regularly over Skype, Slack, the phone, and video conferencing. The team often uses tools like Pinterest and Tumblr to share ideas.

Then it moves to a prototyping and proof-of-concept phase where it builds digital models using CAD. After the heavy lifting is done, it takes about four to six months to sort out manufacturing logistics, pricing, and building the business case.

“Some of the bigger brands we work with are really interested in how we’d apply that process to getting them to market more quickly,” Marshall says. “With tech products, it’s super important too because the technology is changing so rapidly.”


A Love of Making and Manufacturing Drives Design
While 3-D modeling and Slack help with prototyping and communication, Marshall thoroughly believes there’s no substitute for spending 10 minutes making a cardboard mock-up. “You don’t get in the door here unless you can make something in a workshop,” he says. “That’s part of the culture at this specific studio. It’s not exclusive to us, but it’s a really strong theme here.”

The love of making carries through to industrial manufacturing. Map’s designers relish the chance to visit factories and learn how to apply the new techniques of production to their designs. “We’re very interested in manufacturing, how it is changing, and how it enables us to create great designs that can be translated into great products in people’s hands,” Marshall says.

Informed Creativity Arose From Necessity
“There is perhaps a perception, or misconception, that design is a kind of mythical process carried out by incredibly talented creative people and there’s a slight mystery and magic to it,” Marshall says. “What we’ve found with Map through necessity is we needed to make that process transparent. Informed creativity is about engaging all stakeholders in the design process and making it transparent for them. In doing so, we produce better designs that are more relevant for our clients and therefore better for business.”


Map currently has about nine projects in the pipeline—some in the connected home space, wearables, and in cycling—and expects to launch them in the next 18 months. If they’re anything like the past projects, we’re in for a treat.


About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.