Mapping is a technique in design and innovation management, which can be used by teams collaboratively. It is a device that allows teams to get from one place to another place, while pointing the way. In design practice, maps can have a variety of shapes and formats, for example, a map can exist on a wall as post it notes, or it can exist digitally on a digital board such as Miro.

The map allows a team to negotiate a design space, and it is a means to innovate together within this space. The map is an artefact that facilitates shared understanding through visualising practices, activities and tasks that are sought to be innovated. It is a visualisation of the design space and of the design ideas within it.

In the collaborative work of visualising, the map takes shape, and continues to change shape as the work progresses. It is the map’s taking shape and changing shape in collaboration, that contains its capacity and potential, enabling teams to materially and imaginatively negotiate a design.

We used mapping to visualise the life cycle of clothing production, in order to identify areas of sustainable innovation as part of a student project in Management by Design. Before we dived into the mapping of our project, we explored the power of mapping. What is the use of mapping?

“All maps are wrong, but some maps are useful”.

Wrong? If a map is wrong it won’t bring us where we want to go. And why is it still useful? This quote from innovator and book author Simon Wardly (1) is a play on the dictum from statistics that “all models are wrong, but some are useful”.

From individual to shared understandings

The assumption is that we know where we want to go. However, the “we know” and the “we want” are not harmonious conditions of collaboration, but they are the very stakes that need to be negotiated. Some might know where to go, and others might not, or disagree. This is an important discrepancy to resolve. Many stakeholders collaborate on successful designs, as it is the multitude of experiences and imaginations that inform a good design. We do not want one person to decide for all. Neither do we want to design by committee – which might bring us to some coordinates where nobody wanted to go. We want an interdisciplinary design where everyone can be heard, and can have a stake in the outcome. It is the process of mapping that will create the shared vision of where we will be going.

Students voiced concerns that it seems contradictory to represent the understanding of where we want to go in a map, at the same time as developing the understanding while we are mapping. Do we need to have the understanding in order to make the map? Or do we develop the understanding while making the map?

These questions reveal precisely the nature of mapping. Each of us has a particular knowledge, experience and imagination. It is this individual understanding about a certain topic, that is the precondition for taking part in making the map. But the shared understanding is developed while mapping, and thus the map facilitates this change from my understanding to our understanding. This transformation is key, and is enabled through the map.

From the map as an activity to the map as an object

A map is a living artefact that actively contributes to collaborative design. It is not the thing in itself that is useful. The map is a communication device that enables teams to have conversations. It enables teams to have discussions and to move towards something that the team wants to create. The map is not useful as an object, it is useful in its coming into existence. We propose to rephrase the above quote in saying that maps are not generally useful for designing, but mapping as an activity is highly useful. A shared vision can be brought into being through collaborative mapping.

The map might also be useful as a device for measurement and accountability. If we can visualise as a team where we started off and where we are going, the map is a good indicator for who contributed where at what stage. It might also indicate if a contribution is missing, or if someone’s input is missing. The map as an object – as a representation – can thus be useful, it can serve as a visible account of what is there and what might be missing. So, it is not only the activity of mapping, but also that map in itself that does have some function.

The key capacity of mapping is the activity, but there is some capacity in the object. The map is a materialisation of a design vision as it shapes from individual ideas to shared experiences. As a material thing, the map is a hybrid artefact that has a material presence as an object in its incorporation of imaginations about possible future existences. The map as an activity, as a fluid design artefact, changes, and in its changing it changes designs.

*This blog post is based on a research workshop with Hayden Slaughter, in which we developed practice-based knowledge about “mapping”.