Back in the age of paper maps, trying to make head or tail of directions while cycling was a treacherous game. Navigating a city often involved terribly out-of-scale hand-drawn maps taken down with the help of a well-meaning local. Then along came the smartphone and the wonders of real-time GPS location and route planning were gifted to us - wherever in the world, there was a new freedom to find your way.

That era brought with it screen glare and the struggle to comprehend the digital device with one hand while countering wobble and maintaining direction with the other. The only solution seemed to remain dependent on memorisation – making your mind up about the imminent route and stopping sporadically to refresh the next section, breaking the flow and the fluidity of the journey.

A new device promising to finally overcome this clunky disconnect is BeeLine, designed by London-based consultancy Map. A compact device that attaches to your handlebars, BeeLine guides you to your destination with the simplicity of just one symbol – the arrow. Working in unison with an app, the user sets their destination and waypoints, after which the BeeLine device simply shows you the direction. The device shows the distance remaining with a constantly recalibrated route, rather like a compass. With BeeLine, the journey promises to be less prescribed – and returned to the user is the freedom to decide an inexact route. The smartphone stays in the pocket.

BeeLine was an early product of Map, set up by design duo Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby together with Jon Marshall in 2012. At the time, the increasingly successful and well-known Barber & Osgerby studio were often being approached to work on strategy projects – projects that didn’t necessarily result in a tangible product. Together with Jon Marshall, a designer on the team for over a decade, they decided to create a distinct practice for these sorts of projects: and so Map was established. Working often in industrial design, Map's clients have ranged from technology startups to multinational corporations – while benefiting from the shared infrastructure of sister companies Barber & Osgerby (furniture and product design) and Universal Design Studio (interiors and architecture).

Springing, as it were, fully-formed from the minds of the Barber & Osgerby studio, Map was fortunate to launch with a few clients. They found themselves operating a two-pronged business model, working collaboratively and discreetly with in-house design teams for Google, Sony and Panasonic, while in parallel developing tangible hardware solutions for new entrepreneurs.

Indeed, BeeLine started life in a casual discussion between founders Mark Jenner and Tom Putnam with Map. At the time, there were no investors and its creators understood the importance of tangible form as a way to attract initial backing. With a restricted budget, the team at Map developed ideas quickly, rendered them and made some initial models. Before long, BeeLine hit Kickstarter, when it raised £150,000 after an initial target of £60,000.

BeeLine introduced a new typology to the buoyant bike accessories market at an affordable price, while sending a signal to start-ups that they could work with an experienced design studio to turn niche ideas into viable businesses. The willingness of a studio like Map to discuss alternative fee models has opened up new avenues for the entrepreneur in recent years. In the case of a crowdfunded project, fees are released around investment stages, with design time front-loaded, remunerated only once the product gains market traction. You could interpret Map as investors but they prefer to think of themselves as partners, putting in expertise and experience instead of cash.

Five years after launch, Map is a team of ten working out of a studio in Shoreditch, London, with a portfolio of past work including the wireless electronic building blocks that enable anyone to build Internet of Things products and experiences (for SAM Labs); the build-your-own computers for the next generation of coders (for Kano); pollution monitoring and air purifying devices for babies (for Brizi); and the redesign of the economy meal service (for Virgin Atlantic).

“As a design studio, we’ve had to learn a lot of technologies and processes as well as source manufacturers,” says Jon Marshall, Map's Design Director. “In many ways, we’ve had to build processes to support clients who may not have the usual teams in-house to handle product development. As well as the design work, we look into supply chains, find factories, oversee production, undertake quality checks. We hire skills accordingly.”

The Map team comprises talent from a variety of backgrounds, including strategy, technology, furniture, graphics and interactive design. Their service includes work in all elements of products, from digital interfaces to packaging. “We’re obsessed with making, and see design as the tool to humanise the technology brought to us by our clients," Marshall says. "We try to focus our clients and resist the urge to stuff too much functionality into a product. We’re attracted to products that do one thing well. That work as expected.”

SAM building kits and BeeLine will be available in The Shop at A/D/O in February, 2018. 

Text by Max Fraser.

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