I remember many years ago my big sister moving to London and seeming so cosmopolitan: she did things like grab a quick bite from Pret, or go to the theatre, or eat sushi. She also carried with her at all times something called The London A-Z map in her handbag which she consulted in doorways when it was raining, or as we were rushing along busy pavements. It seemed so thrilling, but at the same time quite daunting: I wasn’t confident at map-reading and was nervous about having to rely so heavily on this minuscule printed map that had different parts of London on entirely different pages and expected you to match them up.
I think about The London A-Z quite a lot, particularly when I am now grown up and living in London, and I’m rushing through the rain in the dark trying to work out how to get from a pub in Haggerston to a house party in Kilburn. Now though we have Citymapper: an app that tells you exactly how to most efficiently traverse around an enormous, sprawling city at the touch of a button. For those of you that don’t have this free fountain of knowledge on their phone, get it immediately. For those that do, you’ll understand the joy that it brings in its cheerful design and sheer helpfulness. On that note, here’s an interview with its design lead, Gilbert Wedam, about the app’s enduring success and the process of making it so user friendly.
Gilbert reckons his passion for maps stems from his childhood. “My primary school was international – we were 90 kids, but from 80 different countries,” he says. “That heavily influenced how I grew to ‘see’ the world. The world was always connected, and what was beyond the horizon always felt close. Since my late teens, I’ve always lived in big cities. I like the mess, the endless crossroads – socially and geographically.
“Before the dawn of mobile, I always carried a big physical map of the city with me (shout out to FALK and their patented folding-technique!). There was always an urge to know where I am in the grand scheme of things, giving context to me and my surroundings.”
As a designer, Gilbert’s as excited by a city’s visual identity as he is by its geography, and that’s where his app comes in. He says: “London is really an exceptional example of how transport can almost become synonymous with the city itself. ‘Mind the gap’, the Tube roundel, the red double-decker bus, the Tube map. The city only works if people can easily navigate it.”
But what does he think is at the heart of Citymapper’s success? After all, there are numerous other apps doing a similar thing. “It’s one thing to build an app that ‘does something”’ well (in our case, getting you from A to B), but the tricky part is building a product that makes you ‘feel’ something,” he says.
"It’s pretty cool to work on something that you yourself can use every single day. Makes a big difference for the product you're building."Gilbert Wedam
“I think the one thing that sums up Citymapper best is its ‘Get Me Home’ button. Hard to put in words, but it’s a good example of the undertone of our entire product. I, as an app, dear user, I’m around, you do your thing, no matter where crazy life takes you. But you’ll always have an escape route. Get me home.” He adds: “It’s pretty cool to work on something that you yourself can use every single day. Makes a big difference for the product you’re building.”