Concept Mapping

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Concept Mapping is a tool for collaborative Sensemaking. It is based on constructivist learning theories and uses visual and haptic representations of Concepts to facilitate the exploration of Concept Networks. It produces abstract, map-like Models of Complex Systems that show conceptual and causal relationships between components and properties of the system.



With a group of people familiar with the System to describe and understand (e.g. a team, colleagues, customers):

  1. Collect concepts
    • Everyone for themselves
    • In a fixed time box (e.g. 3 mins)
    • On Post-It notes
    • Using colour coding to denote categories (e.g. people, objects, places, events, beliefs, emotions)
    • Write down concepts relevant for describing the target system, one concept per note
  2. Consolidate and prioritise concepts
    • In pairs, then groups of 4
    • In fixed time boxes (e.g. 3+3 mins)
    • Collect notes and sort them into categories
    • Remove duplicates and merge equivalent concepts
    • Order notes in each category according to importance
  3. Map concepts
    • In the established groups of 4
    • In a fixed time box (e.g. 15 mins)
    • Put notes on a board, going from important to less important
    • In the process, arrange and re-arrange notes according to the relationships between the denoted concepts
    • Describe and visualise these relationships on fresh notes in a neutral color, using simple verbs
    • Once the emerging network stabilises, draw labeled lines between the concept notes, replacing the relationship notes
    • Visualise boundaries and cross-links between domains of the map
  4. Present and discuss maps
    • Going from group to group
    • In fixed time boxes (e.g. 2+2 mins each)
    • Present maps (without interrupting)
    • Ask and answer questions
    • Mark uncertainties, disagreements, possible additions in the maps
  5. Merge and consolidate maps
    • With all participants
    • Agree on a map to use as the basis for a consolidated version
    • Go through all annotations and amend the map accordingly
    • Add relevant notes from the other maps, rearranging notes and adding connections, boundaries and cross-links as necessary
    • Check the consolidated version for consistency and completeness

Concept Mapping documents all contributions and works bottom-up from individual insights to collective understanding, so that every perspective is being represented and taken into consideration.

Externalising and socialising the individual insights creates a process of Distributed Cognition and is an example for how Facilitation helps meaning emerge in social groups.

Concept Mapping can be a practical tool for the exploratory parts of Conceptual Engineering and design processes.



Like all bottom-up approaches to modelling complex systems, Concept Mapping has an inherent limitation: due to the systems’ complexity, the resulting maps will always incomplete or strictly wrong.Cilliers (2001), 137–138

With this in mind, the emphasis should not be on these results, but on the process of mapping and the insights, shared understanding and synchronisation of individual Explicit Models it generates. It is thus best understood as a Heuristic Device.


Concept mapping was developed by Joseph D. Novak at Cornell University in the 1970s as a means of representing the emerging science knowledge of students. It has since been used in science learning, expert knowledge representation and, more recently, the Sensemaking parts of design processes.

Concept mapping is based on constructivist theories of learning and knowledge, particularly the cognitive theories of David Ausubel, from whom Novak adopted the position that “in meaningful learning, new knowledge is subsumed by already existing cognitive structure elements.”Novak & Gowin (1984), 162