Share Language: Design + Cartography = Wow

by Marty Maxwell Lane

When cartographers make maps, they organize content according to relevancy, translate physical realities into visual representations and position elements to communicate messages. Designers appropriate these cartographic approaches and apply them to communication problems.

When designers make maps, we arrange information spatially to understand and visualize the terrain of an idea. Information rich mind maps and concept maps can initiate ideation, foster interpretation and suggest further inquiry.

Mind Maps = Brainstorming
Mind maps are quick, low-stakes diagrams that help generate ideas, develop themes, create naming conventions and much more. A mind map is structured like a tree, with related ideas branching out from a single word or theme. Starting from the center, you add associated words freely as they come to mind. It works much like a visual thesaurus might, growing to include closely related, tangential and antithetical words. Mind maps are great for brainstorming at the onset of a project. The flat spatial organization prevents certain topics from looking more important; this lack of visual hierarchy keeps all ideas on a level playing field for the time being. The only anchor in the map is the beginning central word or theme.

Concept Maps = Visualizing Connections
Academic Joseph Novak introduced concept maps in the 1970s as a means to represent complex knowledge to students. They continue to be used in educational and creative contexts to visualize complex ideas and relationships. Unlike mind maps, concept maps utilize two main elements: nodes, which contain big ideas (written as nouns) and links (written as verbs) that connect ideas. When combined, the nodes and links create complete sentences within the map. This creates both a written narrative and a visual manifestation of the concept.

Concept maps allow big picture concepts and smaller connections to be viewed simultaneously. This means of externalizing concepts is helpful for team projects where all participants need to have a shared understanding of a complex problem. When working solo, concept maps can be a means of clarifying obscure connections and revealing unconsidered relationships. The structure of a concept map is not anchored by a central word, like in mind maps; this allows the designer to convey meaning through visual hierarchy. Formal choices help to define, and control, the reader’s entry point and experience of the map.

Eye Candy
Designers have long since incorporated rough diagrams into their processes, but recently the concept map has been elevated from process sketch to refined artifact. These maps require that you spend time with them and think critically about the content. They look pretty fab hanging in office spaces too. Beautiful and smart, what else is there?


mind map illustration
concept map illustration

Images courtesy of Kansas City Art Institute


Quick Tips
1. Match the map to your task. Do you need to quickly generate ideas and get out of a rut? Go with mind mapping. Need to clarify complex concepts at the problem solving stage? Go with concept mapping.

2. When creating mind maps, work quickly and freely. Let your associations flow and don’t make judgements. There is time for reflection when finished.

3. When creating concept maps, allow yourself plenty of time. Concept mapping requires a great deal of focus, critical thinking and reevaluation.


Dig Deeper!
1. A Brief History of Mind Maps

2. A great book that covers concept maps: Learning How To Learn by Novak and Gowin

3. Detailed Steps on How to Create a Concept Map by Dubberly Design

4. Eye candy: Concept Map, The Creative Process by Dubberly Design, Jack Chung, Shelley Evenson, and Paul Pangaro.


2 thoughts on “Share Language: Design + Cartography = Wow

  1. Florence Haridan

    I am a business and life coach. I use mind maps all the time with my clients. It is a gret way for them to get it all out and to prioritized the thoughts. I use post it notes during many exercises. It allows the information to then be interacted with on a very fluid level.

    The act of sorting really helps the brain to organized. We do several sorting exercises that help them see how looking at the same information from a different point of view can lead to new ideas and actions…SOO MUCH FUN!!

    Thanks for the great article….

    “When cartographers make maps, they organize content according to relevancy, translate physical realities into visual representations and position elements to communicate messages.” Lovely!! This is what I work to do as a coach. Help map out skills and dreams, desires… & navigate to the next place in life, while paying homage to where you have been and where you are NOW.

    Being a C0-Designer of lives is rockin!!

  2. Traci Kaspar

    Have you hear of a software called mindjet mindmanager? I use it for all of my mindmaps. They have templates you can download if you don’t know how to get started or you just need some ideas. You can share the maps with a group and each person can update the map or mark it as in progress, done etc.

    They are great for business processes!

    Check it out.

    Traci Kaspar
    Creative Designer

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