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Mapping landscape

Visual thinking is slowly gaining recognition. Time and again, some guru tells us that the time of visual methods has come – this will be ‘the year’. It hasn’t happened yet, but it is happening.

Some who have been mapping out thought, ideas, understanding and information for decades, know the possibilities of the many techniques and we know the benefits missed by those who aren’t using them.

One of the reasons? The words we use: Mind maps, visual maps, information maps, mindscapes, concept maps, idea maps, visual thinking – there isn’t one that really fits all needs, though I’ve seen a few collaborative attempts to run one down.

Want another reason for slow adoption? The mapping fundamentalists who boldly assert that theirs is the only form that’s worth considering.

There’s a broad landscape of visual methods and mapping styles — and I believe nearly all have value in the right circumstances.

Click the above image to see the map in Mindjet. Other versions available: Full-size PNG imageMindManager .mmap file.

So I decided to map out that landscape, challenge some of the myth-makers and set up some pointers of where to go for more information. There’s a lot more to visual thinking than you’ll find here, but this post is just about maps, because they are powerful tools.

For details you’ll have to go to WikIT , the wiki dedicated to all forms of information mapping with a visual slant. This is accessible to all, no subscription needed, no long sales page, not even a request for your email address. That’s because the purpose of WikIT is to make knowledge of mapping techniques available to as many people as possible, without reservation.

In this post, I’ve added links to specific pieces there so that you can explore for more detail, but to see its full scope you can peek at the contents list.

Mind mapping
Mind mapping seems like good place to start, because it’s one of the better known. Tony Buzan claims to have named them first. He has published rules that he says a map should follow before it can be called a mind map.

Buzan mind maps

But maps that don’t fit the Buzan formula are now often called “mind maps”. Maybe they have straight lines, use boxes or bubbles for nodes, have a lot of text in each box, or do not use color or images. Spider diagrams, idea maps, bubble charts and others are widely referred to as mind maps. Buzan-qualified instructors are often jump in with tweets or comments on blogs to say that these are not mind maps. Too late: The term is out in the wild (btw although ‘Mind Maps’ is indeed a registered trademark, it applies only to training courses).

It is useful to be able to distinguish the types of mind maps. WikIT, the mapping wiki, makes the distinction by referring to “Buzan mind maps” and “common mind maps”.

What identifies all of these is that they start with a main topic and everything hangs off that in a hierarchy. Usually, the main topic is in the center.

Mind maps are good, amongst other uses, for breaking a topic into its parts – those parts into smaller ones and so on. Say you have an idea for a new business. You put a working name for the business in the center of a large sheet and you can quickly sketch in the services to be offered, radiating out around that. Against each service you can add items for needs, sources, differentiation from competitors, market research and niches to target, funding ideas, and costs.

The radial form makes it keep an overview and the focus on the center. It also makes it easy to make insertions at the right point. These are very appealing in comparison with a written list. Lists work well when planning is complete and the plan is being executed, but at the open-ended, thinking stage, an open diagram can help to bring out new thoughts. This is true for many people – it’s not guaranteed, but unless you have tried seriously, you may not know you’re missing an opportunity.
Mind maps are good for arranging information for learning. Again the hierarchical breakdown appears, this time for organizing notes and grouping related topics together. The mental process of organizing helps with understanding and remembering.

In a Buzan mind map, each node will comprise just one or two words. Many Buzan advocates say “only one”, but the examples that come with his own software (iMindMap) include examples with as many as five words.

The reason given for this rule is that writing a phrase can finish the thought while breaking the phrase into keywords and then looking for intermediate junctions can suggest other lines of thought and open up your thinking. In my experience it works very well in some cases. My argument with it is that it is presented by some of the gurus as the only way to make mind maps.

Here is an example of the benefits of bypassing the guideline in very different circumstances taken from a mind map summarizing the basic commands for editing Wikipedia. At the third level and beyond, substantial editing guidelines are given. Breaking these into single words would get in the way for readers trying to use this is a quick reference source.

For more about mind maps: WikIT has What is a mind map? / Buzan mind maps / Buzan’s mind map guidelines in practical use / Common mind maps / Large mind maps and more.

I use mind maps of all types and find them stimulating to use. I had a great time making the mind map “Mapping: So many options” that was the starting point for this article.

Concept mapping
Then there are concept maps. These describe relationships between things – ideas, abstract concepts, places, substances or names of a material object.

If you want to be sure you understand a subject, or have a student prove to you that she has a grasp of a topic, they do a great job. And they have been widely accepted in the field of knowledge management, where groups work together to create knowledge on concept maps.

Defining characteristics:

  • Concept maps sometimes start with a “focus question” which tells you what the concept map is about – the question it was made to answer;
  • The main subject is usually at the top;
  • Nodes are boxes containing an idea, object name or concept;
  • Associated nodes are connected by a line with a “linking phrase” between;
  • Any node may be connected to any other node (it is a graph), so a concept map need not be limited to a tree topology.

If you want to organize files, notes and web shortcuts, allowing “any node may be connected to any other node” is particularly useful because you are not limited to placing a link under one parent. Multiple paths may lead to the same item and this reflects a basic reality of documents: They often relate to two or more topics.

The value of concept maps in demonstrating knowledge is that they are made up of propositions that may be verified. Each triplet of concept – linking phrase – concept can be extracted and discussed. So if a tutor found this on part of a student’s concept map: A node “Sydney”, connected to a node “Australia” by a linking phrase “is the capital of” she would know that the student had not mastered this aspect of the topic. The proposition can be read as “Sydney is the capital of Australia” and this mistake would show that a student had not grasped the difference between a financial center and a capital.

Concept maps are used in business to collect and record knowledge where subject experts discuss much more subtle propositions than the example just given.

For more about concept maps, WikIT has Concept maps, and Concept maps or mind maps? the choice, which are good starting points.

Skimming through more map types

Tree diagrams and organigrams (organization charts) are used in business to represent business functions and units and show the hierarchy of reporting. These are one of the most familiar visual forms. Tree diagrams on WikIT.


are unlike mind maps in several ways, but they share attributes like color, images, visual expression of ideas and organic or natural feel, all aimed at inspiring creative thinking. WikIT has an extensive and stimulating article by Nancy Marguilies, the noted proponent of Mindscapes.

Cluster maps are one of the early forms of graphic organizer used in schools and still work well for beginners. Using clusters of Post-It tags on the desk or wall allows for continuous change as the map develops, and can be drawn up as a mind map when the beginning mapper feels confident. Clustering on WikIT.


Visual aids
are used in teaching thinking in schools. A superb collection of these aids is at Exploratree, a website with 23 mind-jogger diagrams. Many of them will be useful to creatives and critical thinkers of all ages. More about visual thinking guides on WikIT.

Flowcharts, swimlane charts, control flow diagrams and other step-by-step diagrams are used to document and envision behavior, decisions and processes. These are often prepared in black and white, but purposeful use of color, shading and shadows can enliven them and improve their ability to communicate. Flowcharts on WikIT.

Southbeach notation

Southbeach notation is a visualization and extension of TRIZ in map form. It’s for problem solving, innovation and product improvement. The visual components of Southbeach notation help in analyzing details of a problem: What might be changed, the negative and positive aspects of the present situation and of the proposed changes, and the causes and effects of elements on one another. This is another whole post, though. The example is from Jangan Dabla and here is Southbeach notation on WikIT.

Annular maps
Annular maps maintain a strong focus on the central subject. In concentric rings around that, subsidiary thoughts or goals are arranged. Annular maps on WikIT.

If you have time, patience and the skill, you may want to try these technically-advanced isometric projection maps developed by Arnaud Velten. As far as I know there is no application developed to make these, you’d have to use image manipulation software.
Why map?

Thinking, learning, organizing, problem solving, presenting, analyzing. planning, managing, creating, innovating, … there’s no end to ways of using these maps.
WikIT has an article on this – “Uses of information maps”.

100-reasons and Paul Forman (Mindmapinspiration) has an entertaining list (yes, a list) of 100 reasons to mind map. He uses “mind map” in the Buzan sense.

The tragedy is that few appreciate just how many uses there are.

How should you make the map?
The options are hand-drawn maps, computer-based maps and maps made on smart-phones. Oh, and Post-It tags (see Cluster maps above).

I started back in the 1970s when making maps by hand was the only way – there was no software for mind maps then. My experience has been that hand-drawn maps are better for personal creativity, reinforcing memory, and if you have some artistic talent, for inspiring others. They are limited when the map is expanding rapidly, or has changed a lot over time, but the flexibility of layout is enviable when compared with most mind mapping software.

Map changes and expansion are not always a problem, because re-drawing a map that has become too big for its paper, or too messy, can bring out new ideas.

If you are an artist of limited ability your strained drawings and messy writing may be inhibiting if you’re working in front of others. Working with a projected computer mind map may then be quicker and more comfortable.

Making maps on a computer is good when the map will expand and change continuously. It is better for readability, and allows something that is impossible with hand-drawn maps: Organizing attachments, notes, computer files and website links. Images are easy to find and add as well.
Organizing your thoughts on the computer gives you more freedom to move sections round as the thinking develops.

Computer based maps may limit your ability to express yourself when creativity is what you aim for. WikIT has a list with screenshots of free mapping software of many types.

Mobile apps for Mind mapping

Making maps on smart-phones has become popular because of the convenience of mapping anywhere – even  standing up. The screen size makes it a limited, but most software allows exporting maps for later work on your computer. WikIT covers mobile mind mapping applications as well.

So keep your options loose – a hand-drawn mind map, computer made one, smartphone, iPad, … your needs and resources will change from tasks to task and suit different purposes.

Some people even add hand-drawn map sections to computer made maps and find it useful.

Do read the comments here for a variety of opinions on hand-drawn maps.

Who is the map for? Who will make it?
Unless it’s just for you alone, the audience for your map will affect the tools you use, the style and type of map.

If it is for a scattered group, then one of the collaborative tools like or Mindmeister may be helpful. If it is for a group gathered together, your options will be wide open and you can consider the next section.

How long have you got to make it?
In a meeting, a flipchart or whiteboard may be quickest and it will certainly be best if you are able to own the room, work the meeting, and inspire the group with your brilliant sketches and color.

If you can type quickly and are familiar with the operation of specific software, then a laptop and projector will beat handwriting for speed and may be more suitable in a conservative business setting.

How will you make it exciting?
For memory, inspiration and creativity, color, pictures, sketches and icons make a real contribution. Just take a glance at Nancy Margulies Mindscapes to see that. Even if you are involved in a business planning or knowledge management project, icons and colors can make finding what you want on the map quicker, but do pre-arrange a coherent color plan and make sure everyone involved knows what the colors represent.

The One Map Guys
Some will try to persuade you that only one type of map works, and that type works best in all circumstances.

Sometimes this is because only the type of map they promote can be produced by something they have to sell.

Sometimes it’s because they have only ever used one type of map and never seriously explored others.

Often it’s because their background means that they view maps through a particular lens: They are in knowledge management and believe that only concept maps work. They give seminars on creativity and value colors and pictures highly without regard to other uses. They only use maps for business analysis and think colors and pictures are frivolous. They are project managers and believe that only maps made with software with added task information are useful. They are teachers and believe that only hand-drawn maps work.

Be skeptical of claims that “there’s only one way”!

Know the options, know what is best for which circumstances and be willing to try new methods. And happy mapping!


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