Diagramming the flow of ideas is a really helpful exercise to increase your ability to retain knowledge and better understand the material being displayed. Using a concept map is one of the most popular visualization strategies for outlining ideas and enables you to diagram a set of concepts and demonstrate their relation to one another.

In this article, we will define concept maps, talk about their advantages, and discuss the difference between concept maps and mind maps. If you like this guide make sure you check out our other similar guides on other visualization boards like the product roadmap or the lean canvas.

Concept Map Definition

What is a Concept Map?

A concept map is a visual organization tool that diagrams the flow between ideas and demonstrates the relation they have with each other. Concepts & ideas are represented in nodes, which are elements that contain the ideas and serve as the pieces that are connected by interlinking elements. These interlinking elements usually are accompanied by an action phrase that demonstrates the relation of the nodes.

Fresco concept map example
Example of a concept map on Fresco

Mainly concept maps follow a linear organization pattern, where one main idea or concept begins a chain reaction with the others following from that initial step. This is commonly referred to as the hierarchical structure of concept maps (we’ll touch on this later).

Concept Map Advantages

It can be easy to assume that using a concept map doesn’t provide any huge upside rather than a little helpful diagram. This assumption actually overlooks the staggering importance that visualizing your ideas has, and here we’ll demonstrate the biggest advantages to using a concept map.

Visualization

Visualizing data and concepts means people can pick up information much quicker than would be possible with text. Visualizing the relationship between multiple elements or concepts allows for better retention of the knowledge and a deeper understanding of their connection.

Not only does visualization help with understanding and retaining information, it also provides a platform where people can engage in expanding and manipulating these connections easily. Visualizing the information on a concept map allows people to directly engage with it, manipulate it, and change it to fit the flow of the concept map. 

Usually, when engaging on a concept map you’re using an online whiteboard, a tool that allows collaboration in real-time on templates like concept maps.  This direct engagement is thanks to the visual nature of a concept map, which is a huge advantage of diagramming ideas in this format.

Encourages Brainstorming & Innovation

Visualization tools are always breeding grounds for brainstorming and innovation, and using a concept map usually yields the same results. When using a concept map you are able to dynamically interact with it and create any relations that spring to mind. 

This interaction is commonly known as visual collaboration, allowing people to collaborate and create on an online platform. This is much easier than finding a relationship in your head and simply writing it down and opens the pathway for people to brainstorm new ideas and innovate.

Thanks to their interactive interface, concept maps are a great format for brainstorming and thinking of new ideas and applications. The interactions don’t stop at new concepts, however, and another thing concept maps enable is the ability to connect ideas through interlinking elements. 

The connections formed between ideas are sometimes linear and sometimes more of a reach, all depending on how the ideas are connected within your map. These links are a great forum for people to innovate and think of new and unique interactions between the ideas on the diagram. These new connections are another way that concept maps are able to stimulate innovation.

Person working on establishing innovative ideas through a concept map.

Helps Structure Ideas

Sometimes concepts and ideas can get very muddled in their relation and definition. Using a concept map to clarify the hierarchy of ideas and how they flow from one another is a great way to break down what different concepts really mean and how they connect with one another.

Additionally, being able to draw interlinking elements between the concepts is a great way to highlight their importance to one another and diagram how they could connect. These interlinking elements help provide a solid structure to the ideas on the concept map and are a great tool for people looking to organize a group of ideas.

Important Features of a Concept Map

Before beginning to create your own concept map it’s important to understand all of the different features that make up a good diagram and how they interact with each other. Here are the most important features of a concept map. 

Concepts

Concepts are fittingly the core feature of a concept map and are represented as the shapes that link together within the concept map. These concepts will highlight a certain process, idea, or question, and will discuss its relevance and possibilities through its relation to other ideas and features.

The concepts are not always general, and as you branch out and add more detail to your concept map you will begin to add specific questions and detailed processes to the map after defining their more general silos.

Structure

There are two main structural pieces to a concept map. The first is the concepts that exist within each node, and the second is the layout of the nodes (nodes are the shapes that hold each idea). 

Each node holds a concept, idea, or logical branch from that idea. This is how you expand outwards from an initial concept and branch into other applications and possibilities for it. For example, if your concept is trees, you might follow it with the two main types of trees, deciduous and coniferous. 

After you understand that each node holds a particular idea and those nodes branch outwards from your core concept, you already have a rudimentary understanding of how a concept map will be laid out. Concept maps are meant to be hierarchical in how they’re read and understood, meaning they will be read either from top to bottom or from the inside out.

This hierarchical structure means that concept maps have an order of importance that begins with the main concept or idea and flows downward to the branches that come from it.

Understanding these structures is critical to creating a good concept map and will make it much easier for you to organize and execute your map.

Teams creating solid structure for their concept map.

Idea Bank

It can be important when conducting a brainstorming exercise or creating a concept map to start out with as many ideas as possible and then try to find links to them, instead of narrowing your scope to one possible section at a time. 

This means that creating an idea bank can be a great starting point for a good concept map. An idea bank is where you and your teammates can store ideas and brainstorm as many new ideas as possible before finding relevant places to place them. This is critical to establish beforehand and can result in far more possibilities and connections established in the long run.

Interlinking Elements

Interlinking elements are the lines, or arcs, that are drawn between concepts to clarify their relationship and link them from a user’s perspective. The pieces of information that link the concepts together are just as integral to the concept map as the main concepts themselves, and without them, it would just end up being a confusing pile of information.

As well as describing the relationship between different elements, interlinking elements help clarify the overall direction of the concept map and what purpose its expansion serves. Most of the text on the interlinking elements will either pose a question that is expanded on in another element or will describe a use case and link two ideas through that relationship.

While linking elements can demonstrate the flow of the concept map and set a precedent for its purpose, they can also demonstrate relations between two very different concepts. When two concepts are linked over entirely different domains of the concept map they are referred to as cross-links.

Cross-links are really helpful when aligning various concepts and ideas and can provide a visual connection between elements that may seem separated but are actually moving towards the same end goal. In this way, we see that interlinking elements are not only helpful to demonstrate the flow of a concept map but also how the map is aligned holistically.

Concept Map vs Mind Map 

Concept maps are very similar to mind maps and can be commonly confused with each other. While they do share some similarities, concepts maps and mind maps are distinguished diagrams that both have their unique importance. Here are some distinct differences between the two.

Mind Map

  • Much more flexible in their application, can accompany a diverse range of ideas.
  • Ideal for quick note taking and idea expansion.
  • Mostly a one-to-one connection between nodes as ideas expand outwardly.
  • Usually expands in all directions without a linear, directional flow of information.

Concept Map

  • Concept maps are usually diagramming an existing idea or concept and the tangential relations to that existing concept. While you can extend this to your own application it’s usually based on an existing set of ideas.
  • Concepts will generally flow from the top of the map downwards and become more specific and directed towards the specific endpoints.
  • Demonstrates a more logical flow of information rather than a spread
  • Can connect many different nodes to each other across the diagram with a lot of interlinking.

As you can tell, while maintaining similar elements, concept maps and mind maps are used in very different ways to diagram information. Concept maps have a more structured and logical flow to them while mind maps are more about brainstorming & expansion, and they usually have a one-to-one relation to each other. These elements make using a concept map and mind map very distinct entities, both being very effective in their own ways.

Conclusion

Concept maps are a great tool for teams to use to diagram their concepts or ideas and visualize them on a shared collaborative platform. While they enable collaboration and innovation, they are also great templates to provide linear structure to a litany of ideas. If you liked this guide make sure you check out our recent post on the Lander blog about inbound marketing and take a look at our guide to virtual workshops where we talk about the best strategies to implement concept maps on Fresco.


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