The Elements of Mapping

Filed Under Mindjet


January 9, 2006

I’ve been working at Mindjet now for just over 4 and half years. As you can probably imagine, I have seen thousands of maps both generated internally and (from my tenure managing Support) from customers. In that time I have noticed that one power of MindManager is that you are free to create a map structured any way you see fit. That’s fine for individual use, but when it comes to sharing maps with others, there is a danger that your map cannot be understood by the extended audience. For that reason I wanted to open a discussion on how to create good maps.

Everyone probably has their own idea on how to create good maps. While we were all taught in school how to write coherently (you may think while reading this that I was sick that day), there are very few people who have been taught how to properly use the power of MindManager. I do not profess to have written the book on MindManager, but I would like to get the discussion started with a few ideas:

MECE standards for “Mutually Exclusive, Collectively Exhaustive” and was developed by McKinsey as a framework for solving problems. I also think that it can be applied to mapping. The idea is that the topics should not overlap each other in their subject matter and all of the topics together should cover the topic completely. Easy for me to say, I know.

“Keep it Simple Stupid” Each topic should be treated as concise thought, not a complete sentence or a series of sentences. To me, that’s not what MindManager is for. The idea is to convey more information with a few words and use the map structure to show meaning.

1 Hand Rule
God put 5 digits on each hand to make counting to 5 easy for our arithmetically destitute ancestors and we got used to it. In the same vein, I recommend having no more than 5 topics at any one level. After 5 topics, the overall subject of the topics becomes muddled. Use the hierarchy.

Link It
Do not be afraid to create sub-maps or to link to existing maps. Create new maps for new ideas and link to the older maps. This will help keep your maps focused.

That’s enough from me. What are the elements of your mapping style?

10 Responses to “The Elements of Mapping”

  1. Martin Silcock

    – No more than 3 levels
    – consistency of symbol use between maps
    – use different standards for diffent map purposes

  2. Paul Shorock

    1. Where there are logical flows to your material take advantage of them as you depict it. For example, your brainstormers came up with the following list of phases in employees’ life cycle as; initial training, exit interview, hiring, orientation, applicant screening, and annual training. Resequencing it to applicant screening, hiring, orientation, initial training, annual training, and exit interview is much easier to follow. The first might be an accurate depiction of what the brainstormers came up with and the order they said it, but the latter would be more logical or easier to follow for subsequent users.

    2. During information exchanges we are concerned about velocity and viscosity of the transfer. Maps can help both, but it is important to consider whether the map is intended as a stand-alone document or one that will be have some supporting element such as formal presentation or some dialog. For the stand-alones, consider using more text, avoid jargon or assigning different meanings to the same word. If possible, test it out on a diverse group of people before launching it. Where there is the opportunity for some communication when presenting a map, include or update it based on what is said. Send a copy of the final map to everyone you spoke with along the way.

    3. The errors we make generally fall into two categories, commission and omission. Most times knowledgeable individuals using standard tools can spot errors that are committed, but mind mapped presentations significantly help ferret out the what is missing.

  3. Hobart Swan

    It still gets back to that basic question of: are maps better at capturing information for consumption by the people involved in the process? Or are they an effective way to communicate information to people who had nothing to do with the process of creating it?

    I tend to think the former: A map is such an idiosyncratic way to (re)present information. Odds are that, unless the information involved is common knowledge (like our March Madness maps last year), a map of any complexity won’t necessarily communicate information any faster to those who can’t get past the form to see the contents…But if we can stipulate that the people viewing the map all share a common knowledge base, then the kinds of rules you mention will aid deconstruction of the map.

  4. Tom Blossom

    Thanks for your comments. I emphatically agree with the following:

    -Use colors, images, fonts with a legend
    -Treat the first map as a rough draft and improve it

    Additionally I would add (for new users) that one should assume readers are going to review the map clockwise.

  5. Hobart Swan

    Good question, Tom, especially as a few of us met today to talk about a related question: how best to use MindManager as a presentation tool.

    Bettina (Jetter, a co-founder) never ceases to impress me with the Occam’s Razor-like ( quality of her thinking/mapping.

    I don’t have a handy rule about this, other than to suggest that MindManager users take the time, after having created a map, to go back and clean it up. This is actually one of the benefits of using a Tablet PC: you create the map with the pen then, as you go through and “recognize” the ink into text, you get a chance to really look at what you have entered and, hopefully, get rid of redundant and/or overly long topics.

    Yes, Buzan had/has some pretty definite ideas about how to create maps (I think he suggested no more than two words per topic)–rules that might not work too well in the complex world of business. But his general sense of it makes sense to me: brevity is best, and use visual icons instead of words as appropriate and possible. This is, after all, the premise of maps–to use our visual cortex to make information more consummable and memorable.

  6. Stephan

    Have a look what old-style topographic carthographers do (as a lot of other professions could benefit, such as web-designers). I do not claim to know about cartography nor do I claim to give you good references.

    But what about:
    – use (background-)colors to group and emphasize, but not too many colors (4 is enough). Use strong colors for strong topics, use identical colors for the same type of topics.
    – use font size to group and emphasize topics (similar to the above)
    – stick to your style
    – use a legend, if needed (as Bruno pointed out)
    – …

    Besides cartograpy, what’s wrong about the principles described in Buzan’s Mindmap book? For example, put words on different topics: e.g instead of “active participation”, write “participation” and then a subtopic “active”. Maybe you want to consider “passive”, too?

    Good lick

  7. Bruno

    use a legend to define your symbols, flags, etc. as different people interpret them differently.


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