Interview

A New Roadmap?

London

30 November 2020

“For me, the most exciting challenge is to move the Map story forward.”

So speaks designer Richard Stevens, newly appointed as the principal director of Map Project Office, a London-based industrial design studio founded by Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby in 2012.

Brought in to work alongside director Will Howe, Stevens will be responsible for providing direction and strategy for Map. Having previously served as a creative director at British Airways, as well as co-founding the forpeople design consultancy in 2004, Stevens will work with Map's existing portfolio as well as expanding its network of clients and collaborators.

Stevens joins at a time of change for Map. Having initially operated under former director Jon Marshall, the studio built its name working with tech startups such as Kano, BleepBleeps, Beeline and Sam Labs, designing rigorously developed physical products that integrated digital technologies. Off the success of these projects, larger corporate clients began to work with the studio throughout the 2010s, but it was not until the 2019 launch of its IBM Q System One, the world’s first commercially available quantum computer, that the studio came to more mainstream attention.

Map designed the System One in conjunction with its sister studio Universal Design Studio, both of which were acquired in 2018 by the digital agency AKQA, itself part of the wider WPP group. Coupled with the disruption to all industries caused by the pandemic, 2020 has proven a period of reflection and change for Map. As the studio takes on new projects, as well as continuing to define itself within the framework of the larger group of which it is now a part, Stevens and Howe are responsible for shaping Map's identity as it moves towards its second decade of operations. To find out more, Disegno sat down to speak to them.


Disegno Richard, what does your appointment mean for how the studio structures itself and how Map works?

Richard Stevens I've known Jay and Edward a long time. I brought them in to do some work at British Airways over 10 years ago, and I've become good friends with them since then. Jay is still running Barber & Osgerby with Edward, and in 2018 Map and Universal formed a partnership with AKQA. In the past two years, Jay’s role at Map has therefore grown, looking not only at internal collaborations and logistics, but also how the Map portfolio has changed. With this in mind, I asked if I could help in terms of giving Jay some time back by taking on some of the newer responsibilities whilst also helping from a strategic standpoint. I was introduced to Will and the team at Map, and the question became how I could slot in without compromising the creative direction that Will and his team have developed. I’m there to take up some of the slack.

Richard Stevens.

Disegno So what's the difference between a director and a principal director? How do those two roles dovetail?

Will Howe I suppose my role doesn't really change that much, but Richard joining frees me up to do it better. At the moment, I'm over quite a lot of different things – creative direction, new business development, and thinking about the studio and how we can grow in different sectors. Richard joining allows me to concentrate on the day-to-day running of the studio in terms of delivering projects and increased production of projects, whether that's for multinational clients like Google and IBM or startups in the tech world. Since we formed a partnership with AKQA, Jay has taken much more of a role helping to shape the proposition for Map, but that was unsustainable. Richard takes over some of the role that Jay was filling and brings all his experience and wisdom from running a successful agency. He can help impart that knowledge to Map, and help us grow in the right ways and not in the wrong ways. During lockdown we spoke a lot about the company, what it stands for, what it should be doing, and what it shouldn't be doing. We're a small- to medium-sized studio, and that's important. We don't want to grow into a huge studio with lots of different layers of management. We want to remain an elite – if that's the right word – set of designers, who bring in people from different disciplines – whether it be design, strategy, research, photography, or whatever – depending on the projects. We want this to become a hub for talent, rather than building a huge studio. Richard’s going to help us do that.

Richard Growth is interesting in the sense that we don't need to look at it as a measure of success in the way that most independent studios do, because we’re part of this wider family. Map is this kind of mysterious, under-the-radar group of creatives who can bring things to life. When you look at the wider family, which is focusing on the digital aspects of advertising and marketing, the missing component is that tangible kind of magic Map provides. I used to look at Map for inspiration and insight, and it's now our opportunity to say that people look to Map for what's coming next. That's as exciting as the products and the clients that we're working with. The other challenge is that, through being part of a wider group, there are a huge number of requests for collaboration and partnership through the other WPP businesses. We need to be better at looking back into the group and targeting relationships that way, rather than just fielding requests to collaborate. That’s exciting, because it means we can start to be a bit more strategic in the way that we develop new opportunities. One of the things that really appealed to me about Map is that there's this unassuming, humble quality, but the team is uncompromising in getting to the right solution. There's a self-belief.

Will Howe.

Disegno Is there a desire to be more visible as a studio? The IBM quantum computer, for instance, was the most publicly visible project that the studio has worked on.

Will That was a milestone project for the studio; that was our Olympic torch. When we began, we saw an opportunity to work with tech startups to create our own portfolio independent of Ed and Jay. Now the dynamic has changed a little bit, because we’ve gone through that development and we're able to apply the same processes and mindset to much bigger projects. We’ve earned our stripes.

Richard It's a natural evolution where the work done with startups and tech ventures has attracted the corporates. Map’s process has become appealing because it’s something completely new and fresh compared to the typical corporate design work you see coming through.

Will We're trying to redefine what a modern design consultancy is and want to provide an authored proposition. We're not one of those studios which produces loads and loads of content; we only present what we want to present. The growth of the studio is going to come through excellence in the work and being able to dictate which projects you take on and which you don't. Jay's got a simple mantra for the studio, which is that we shouldn't take on any work that we wouldn’t want to talk about. So, the last thing you want to do is scale the team because we’ve got a big project, and then constantly be looking for work to service that. It’s relevant to any sector, if you scale up rapidly or for one project and then you need to take on projects to survive rather than out of desire. Through this route you can so easily lose your identity and the reason why you are actually doing what you.

Work in progress on the IBM Q System One.

Disegno Working with corporate clients, studios often undertake projects that exist under NDAs and which have no public-facing component. They’re projects that may take a lot of work, but which you can’t speak about. How do you manage that, particularly when thinking about positioning a studio and communicating its work?

Richard You may not be able to talk about the work that you're doing, but you can certainly share the sentiment and the reason that you're doing it. When you're working on highly confidential projects for automotive companies, or airlines, or tech companies, or whatever, you obviously can’t talk about that work, but you can build a knowledge of people – what you’re seeing and the insights you’re gaining. For me, Map is a far more cerebral and intelligent agency than most. I think people look to Map for that perspective, but it's not currently forthcoming. So how can we seek out the right opportunities to talk?

Disegno You mentioned having used this past period to reflect on Map’s future. With lockdown, the interaction between physical and digital technologies – the area that so much of Map’s work focuses on – has become so important. Has lockdown shaped your thinking?

Will It has shaped my thinking, for better or worse. In terms of doing our jobs, it's become more challenging, but we can't ignore the fact that this may be reality for a lot of people for quite long time going forward. So we are developing some quite strong opinions and we're doing work with more than one client about how we can digitally recreate physical interactions and make them feel more natural and reactive, and less formalised. Our profession is based so much on collaboration and being able to actually touch things, review proportions, and draw. How do we recreate those sort of serendipitous moments that you have in the office and studio, which can and be the starting point for an amazing idea or set of amazing ideas? It also has implications outside of working, and for interaction in general. We've gone through hundreds of years of building up laws of socialising in different contexts, and it's almost as if they're all being undone within the space of a few months.