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Nate Green UX & Visual Designer hey@nategreen.design (330) 235-3306

Concept Mapping "Familiar" Subjects

I’ve found concept maps to be very helpful, especially at the beginning of a project.

What is a concept map?

A concept map is a diagram that helps show the relationships between ideas.

Example: mapping the familiar concept of a “portfolio site”

In the Fall of 2014, I started Kent State’s online Master’s in User Experience Design (UXD) program. One of the projects in my UXD in Practice class—the second of two introductory courses—was to apply the UXD techniques we’d learned in the course to the design of a portfolio site where we could post projects we’d complete throughout the rest of the degree program.

Already a graphic designer with two years of corporate work under my belt, I was very familiar with the concept of a portfolio site. I’d spent several years poring over the sites of some of my favorite designers and agencies for inspiration and insight. I created a concept map for this project mostly because I was required to.

What I found, though, was that the concept map helped me solidify my understanding of this “familiar” domain.

Step 1: make a list of all the ideas you want to include

In my class, one of our primary sources for learning about concept maps was Dan Brown’s Communicating Design. In the book, Brown recommends listing out all the ideas that will be included in the diagram.

In my previous concept maps, I found that laying out a web of complex inter-related ideas was easier said than done. For visual clarity, it’s best to minimize the number of arrows that cross over each other, but sometimes it can take several iterations to make that happen, especially if you’re adding nodes to the map as you think of them.

So, for this concept map, I tried a new approach: I doubled up my list with a sort of preliminary map-of-the-map. Instead of simply listing out my would-be nodes in vertical columns, I laid them out in a grid, trying to keep closely-related nodes adjacent to each other. Then, I connected the nodes with lines. These lines crossed over each other plenty, and they didn’t really make the list easier to read or anything, but they did show me a couple important things that helped me quickly lay out my full concept map.

  1. The lines showed that the nodes were related. They didn’t show how, but there was plenty of time for that later.
  2. The lines showed nodes which had a lot of connections and gave me a good idea of which nodes formed little shapes, so that I could sort them out in the first draft of my map.

Step 2: make the full concept map

Words of advice for concept mapping

I’m no expert. As I’m writing this, I’m still only one semester into my degree at Kent. But if you’re reading this, you may have been searching for some thoughts on concept mapping and looking to improve your technique. So here’s my advice, but take it with a grain of salt. :)

Get a bigger sketchbook

The sketchbook I used was 14” by 17”. Having a big area to work in allowed me to confidently explore the structure of these ideas in a visual way. I find that even though I start with what I think is a “central” node, my map often grows disproportionately in one direction or another. With a small sketchbook, that means I’m forcing my nodes into strange places and making lots of long, spaghetti-like arrows to avoid the edges of the paper.

Write the words, then draw the shapes

Not only is it faster this way, it helps a lot with the clarity of your diagram, which can help you make sense of everything more quickly when it’s all done.

Make your process efficient so your brain can take its time

These diagrams are intended only to show the way you think. The thinking is the important part here, not the diagramming. A well-thought-out concept map is an invaluable tool for communicating and solidifying our understanding of a complex situation. However, if finishing a concept map ends up being a chore because you’re sick of drawing boxes and arrows, take a break or just don’t finish it. It doesn’t do you any good if it’s not helping you focus and think more clearly.