Mapping the Future
Industrial designer Jon Marshall of Map explains why physical products are making a comeback in the virtual age
Founded in 2012, Map is part of a family of world-class design companies, alongside Barber & Osgerby and Universal Design Studio. They have a unique combination of design disciplines brought together by a common approach: a love of craft and of detail, materiality and innovative design thinking. Map’s founders are Edward Barber, Jay Osgerby and Design Director Jon Marshall. For the London Design Festival, Marshall came to Second Home to discuss Map’s work and how physical design is making a surprise comeback in the digital age.
Jon Marshall: Our studio is just around the corner from Second Home in Shoreditch. We’re lucky, we have a studio that’s three companies together — BarberOsgerby, Universal and MAP. MAP is industrial design, Universal Design Studio is architecture and interiors and BarberOsgerby is furniture design. It’s not quite as neat as that in practice, because there’s a lot of blurring of boundaries, but the core of the studio work in three dimensions.
At the core of what we do is industrial design, but it’s sort of bracketed on one side by a lot of user research and on the other side by manufacturing intelligence and UX. This is where it’s very interesting for me, because we’re a studio entirely full of people who practice three-dimensional design — so industrial design, product design, furniture design, architecture interior design — but you can’t design technology products without dipping into the digital experience.
Here a couple of examples of things that we’ve done. A lot of it is not technology based. This is an airline meal tray for Virgin Atlantic that was designed to be a bit smaller to save energy, to save cost, to save fuel and weight and provide a better experience to the passenger. We also made a spork — we call it the tritensil, it’s a mixed knife, fork and spoon designed for Fortnum & Mason to be given away in their cafés as part of their takeaway food offer.
Then we’ve also worked with some large brands on complex digital projects. Below is something called Web Lab that we worked on with Google. The idea of it was an exhibition that was on for one year at the Science Museum. The idea was to convey in physical experiments the power of the internet and how different parts of the Chrome browser could be used to generate interesting solutions. So for example, this one is kind of a physical periscope that demonstrates telepresence.
We also work strategically with larger brands, so this is a project for Honda that was taking autonomous driving and the technology behind that, and showcasing it in a fun way. So we designed seven vehicles for a global journey from Africa to Latin America. Each vehicle had autonomous driving technologies, but the idea was that they were for fun and not for keeping your distance on the motorway from other cars.
More recently we’ve started to work with lots of start-ups in London. So, Kano Computing, which is just round the corner in Mile End, it’s a computer that you build yourself for kids, gets kids into programming and they really own the experience because they build the computer and put it together themselves.
Hackaball is a connected ball and an app, which teaches kids the basics of programmatic thinking or computational thinking, developed by Made by Many. Made by Many originated the idea and we work with them on the industrial design. For me it was it was a very interesting project because we got to work alongside digital designers and creative technologists at Made by Many at the same time as we were working on the physical design.
Beeline is a cycle navigation product It is very simple, it just shows you the distance and the direction of your location. It’s kind of a uniquely useful way to navigate on a bike because there’s very little cognitive load in just looking down and seeing which direction you’re supposed to go. One of the key things was developing something that you could initially put your destination in on an app and then have a very, very simple interface on the strap-on product that goes on the bike to guide you on your way.
We also made Suzy Snooze, which we developed with a company called BleepBleeps, so it’s essentially a baby monitor, but it’s also a sleep trainer. So if your baby wakes up you can detect that on the app, you can also use soothing lights and sound on the product itself to calm your baby down and teach your baby to sleep rather than wake up. All these last four projects were actually launched on Kickstarter as well and all funded successfully.
Finally, this is SAM, which is an Internet of Things toolkit, again, a start-up based here in London, they actually launched the projects successfully on Kickstarter and then approached us to help them with the industrial design and with the look and feel of their app. You have a little box full of tiny modules and the modules are Internet of Things, sensors and actuators. Then you can connect them to this app on your computer and when you when you turn those modules on you can drag them onto the screen and you can connect them. For example, you can connect a light to a switch without any coding. It becomes really powerful when you connect, for example, a light not just to a switch but to Twitter or Facebook so that you’re using the internet to drive interactions.
In all these projects, and particularly with SAM, we as industrial designers in the studio have started to work with and collaborate with people from the digital world and from computing and programming. I find it very interesting — I’m somewhat of a frustrated digital designer — and I find it very frustrating that we’re separated into these two silos.
Second Home: Within Map do you have user interface and user experience specialists, or do you go elsewhere?
Jon Marshall: All of our design team are industrial designers. Some of them have more of a graphics background, but by and large they’re industrial designers. That’s what I find really interesting is that previously industrial design studios were industrial design studios, designing physical products, things that you could touch. Now with connected products you simply can’t — something like Hackaball, you simply can’t disconnect the physical product from the digital product, which is the app.
That was the interesting thing of working with Made by Many and being approached by them to support them to launch the product. What I learned from that is that there seems to be this wholly artificial divide between industrial design and digital design. In reality the product is the perfect combination of both. We haven’t been lucky enough on all our projects to be invited to partner so closely with them like we were with Made by Many on Hackaball.
What’s the difference between user interface design and interaction design?
Jon Marshall: I don’t want to be too harsh on my own specialist profession of industrial design, because I think people love objects and there aren’t many objects still that can be improved and can be designed that they don’t have that digital aspect. But where there is a digital side to it I’d say that becomes not necessarily the primary interaction, but of equal importance.
“People love objects. But where there is a digital side to it I’d say that becomes not necessarily the primary interaction, but of equal importance.”
We call it total user experience, which is not an official term but we kind of use that as a buzzword in studio to mean, ‘Let’s not forget that it’s not just the physical thing, but it’s the digital thing and it’s also the packaging, and the little book that comes to help set it up, and maybe the website, the brand and all those other things that contribute to the whole experience’.
I think, in a successful product, it’s just as important that it’s great industrial design, great digital design, great business behind it, and the packaging and the way you open it, and the way you first experience it, it’s all part of it. The brand, the phrases that kind of stick in your mind.
Could you just tell us a little bit more about this Internet of Things for open source design?
Jon Marshall: Yes, so basically the product is a series of modules. So the things of the Internet of Things, we call them sensors and actuators. A sensor might be a temperature sensor, and a switch is also a sensor because it’s sensing when you touch it, and actuators are things like lights or motors. Really with the Internet of Things, essentially you take those things and you connect them to the internet so you can control them remotely. That’s level one, and then level two is when you start using code to generate more complex interactions so that things are going on behind the scene — so that you can automate things or you can generate huge amounts of data that can be interesting and leveraged in the future.
I think that the great thing with SAM Labs is Joachim Horn, the founder, just felt that this was the preserve of people who could code, or engineers who could deal with the sensors and actuators and hook them up to the internet. So his idea was to make it something as simple as a game.
What else can it do?
Jon Marshall: Pretty much any of the things that you see in, for example, Smarthome, could be prototyped and built using SAM. So you could have things like the typical Smarthome thing — turn on some music when you when you walk through the door. So you could have a sensor, which is a movement sensor or infrared sensor, picking up somebody coming in, and you could hook up to Sonos or Spotify or something connected to your stereo and have it play music. Again, very, very difficult to do without lots of hacking electronics, but with this it would be drag and drop.
What’s so interesting about the Internet of Things as a phenomenon is that it’s not being driven by user demand at all, there’s simply no user demand for it, and yet it is this kind of dreadnaught coming at us. What’s the user’s perspective?
Jon Marshall: I think it’s an interesting point. I guess the interesting thing with SAM Labs is that it’s for creators, and so creators can come up with some kind of new idea, prototype it and then presumably have ownership over the data.
As someone who designed these things for users to be able to play with them and experiment with them themselves, what insights did you get out of that process about how we use things and the kind of things we might want to do with them?
Jon Marshall: Watching people play with the SAM Labs kits for example is fascinating, and for me it’s no different from watching kids play with Hackaball or kids play with Kano. They suddenly find that technology is not frightening. That’s my real interest in working on technology projects is to kind of demystify it. So design is just one layer that we can put on top to make technology feel friendly and approachable and to make sure the user experience is really clear.
But I think what’s coming from our clients is this really strong desire to democratise the ability to code, how to think in a programmable way, or how to understand computational thinking with SAM Labs. How to build things that work and that are connected to the internet without electronics and coding skills. That’s my real interest and why I’m so passionate about what we’re doing. If that means we have to leverage a bit of Google’s power or IBM power to have their back-end servers then I think it’s a trade-off that’s worth making.
For me, one of the potential drawbacks of the Internet of Things is that we’re creating products with huge functionality and digital prowess, but there’s this sense that more functionality we load onto things, the more there is that can go wrong and the more there is that needs to be updated and replaced. There’s also a big grappling for standardisation across what platform you’re using to connect all of these things this sense of proprietary systems and everyone fighting for that territory.
Jon Marshall: I think we have to be responsible. I think as industrial designers it’s our duty when we design things to make sure that the environmental impact is low. But nevertheless what we’re doing in creating products is sometimes educating people profoundly, solving people’s problems, and I don’t think we should stop doing, we can’t stop progress just because it means making things.
“As industrial designers it’s our duty when we design things to make sure that the environmental impact is low. In creating products we are educating people profoundly, solving people’s problems, and we can’t stop progress just because it means making things.”
It’s annoying that there’s this epic struggle between all the big guys who run the platforms and once you’re on one platform as far as I’m aware it’s difficult to switch. I find that frustrating and [the fact that] you have to pick a winner and go with who’s offering the best. Google, Microsoft, IBM and others are all providing open-source solutions to help people get people on their platform for free. But we just don’t know yet at what point down the road they’re going to start charging for those and monetising it and the data.
The funny thing that you alluded to is where all these connective products become physical things that are reliant on a platform and reliant on digital services that might someday be switched off. Then you’re left with just the physical skeleton of the thing.
I’ve heard of an interesting one, I think they’re called Roombas, they’re robotic vacuum cleaners and then they learn to hoover your home. Then you get bored of them so you sell them on eBay like any other device. But the problem is that when somebody else buys them they’re not kind of naked and fresh and new, they’ve already learned how to clean somebody else’s house. So before they work properly they have to sort of unlearn what they learnt in somebody else’s house. So that’s feeding into the design of not the physical device, or the digital device, but the algorithms behind those things. Somehow you need a reset switch to give things a second life [for] second users and the sharing economy and so on.
There’s this sense that as things go virtual, as everything gets sucked behind the black screen, that ‘the object’ becomes more important again. Because there was a moment not that long ago when it felt like everything was going to become an app.
Jon Marshall: That was a dark time to be an industrial designer [laughs]. We had a period when we were working with some larger clients, and we were trying to come up with product ideas for them. And they kept saying, ‘You can’t do that, that’s the app trap. Anything that you come up with that could be an app, we can’t sell it as a product’. And pretty much anything can be an app so we just painted ourselves into a corner. But fortunately, and I don’t really know where it comes from, people have a kind of emotional connection with things.
So the good thing about the Internet of Things as an industrial designer is the things, they will need to be designed and they need to be designed to work as part of a coherent user experience with the digital experience and with the data.
Are people coming back to the idea of product?
Jon Marshall: I believe so. One example we cite lot is the Kindle. That’s a specific product which does a very, very specific thing — it could be an app that runs on an iPad. That level of specificity I think it is actually a direct reaction against the smartphone becoming this sort of centre of attention in your pocket that has so much stuff on it that it becomes something not pleasurable to use but that becomes an annoyance and something you become dependent on. So therefore it seems that when given an opportunity to take something out of that and turn it physical, people like that.
In a way the crapness of the internet on the Kindle it’s real saving grace, isn’t it, because you can’t be distracted from your book. But what about the physical inside the virtual? What about the form that things take inside virtual space like skeuomorphism? This is one of those topics that gets people hot under the collar.
Jon Marshall: I am a bit puzzled by it, because I understand I completely understand why it was a useful tool when touchscreens for example were new to us. So the idea of the calculator looking like a real calculator at its most simple, but then the wooden bookshelves? It sort of somehow became not about enhancing the user experience, but it became aesthetic in its own right. I think skeuomorphism is about comfort, it’s about comforting people. It’s just those little signs that let where you are in physical space.
I’m not a historian by training, so I kind of view this through this classic mode of modernist art history, which is that painting from mid-19th century to mid-20th century is really just a journey from depth to flatness. This is kind of a Greenbergian theory, basically you go from Manet who starts to introduce a little bit of flatness, to people like Pollock and the abstract expressionists who are just treating the painting as completely flat, and that is more honest. But this is kind of classic modernism — truth to materials, it’s just paint on canvas so don’t pretend it’s depth, pretend it’s perspective. This just seems to be a process we go through with every medium. So we did it with painting, we did it with the internet — all the first web browsers were called ‘explorer’, ‘navigator’, ‘safari’. Why? Because this was a kind of cyber-space, it had depth, it was this kind of three-dimensional world that we had to navigate.
“All the first web browsers were called ‘explorer’, ‘navigator’, ‘safari’. Why? Because this was a kind of cyber-space, it had depth, it was this kind of three-dimensional world that we had to navigate. Now, no one does that. No one pretends that we’re navigating space, it’s all flat again.”
Now, no one does that. No one pretends that we’re navigating space, it’s all flat again. When Jony Ive got given supreme power at Apple over user-interface design as well as product design, they got rid of the beloved wooden shelves and the funny camera icons and all of that. It just went and became flat graphics.
Kids are increasingly giving up on their cuddly toys for iPad and iPhones. This Kano DIY computer that you kind of designed and designed the packaging for sold 80,000 units in very little time. It seems to me that this is actually weirdly more intuitive to them than it is to us. Is that fair, or?
Jon Marshall: Definitely, in my experience of working on a couple of projects that have been targeted at kids, they don’t distinguish between physical and digital. For them it is one user experience. They’ve always grown up with that, they’ve always grown up with being able to navigate digital devices. They don’t know a world before touchscreens. So it’s very obvious to them that you can navigate your way around a device that’s a touchscreen that is connected to the internet, that all their screens are connected to the internet and that those things should interact with all sorts of physical objects that they’ve got in their lives too. It’s just what they’ve grown up with.
With the emergence of technologies like augmented reality, now you’re starting to overlay virtual objects onto physical objects, how are you going to see design evolve to kind of take this into account and make really intuitive user experiences that blend seamlessly the two spaces?
Jon Marshall: For me, [true virtual reality] is just another digital space. It’s just like being really close to a screen. But a mixed reality where you have, for example, clear glasses and then you have three-dimensional, real objects in front of you, I think is really interesting. Those three-dimensional objects need to be designed and put into context and be culturally correct in just the same way as every other thing that we design as industrial designers. So that’s going to open a completely new line of work for the industrial design profession, working very closely with digital design.
I think, like all things, it’s a new technology at the moment, it’s gaming and porn, I think, but once it becomes mainstream — particularly when it’s used in industry — I think it’s going to be probably one of the most exciting step changes industrial design and digital design in the last 10/15 years.
My historical perspective on it is that moment when everyone was running around parks chasing Pokémon Go — chasing things that weren’t there.
15 years ago the first time you saw someone walking down the street talking to someone without holding a phone to their head but actually having a little earpiece… It’s just that kind of weird double take of this literally virtual world. Many people believe that virtual reality is the next medium and that’s where you should be putting your money. But I can’t possibly comment on it.
This talk took place at Second Home, a creative workspace and cultural venue which brings together diverse industries, disciplines and social businesses. Find out more about joining us here: secondhome.io