Photo by André M. Pennycook
Recently, Cooper and the Speculative Futures group teamed up to conduct a joint workshop introducing designers to Concept Mapping Together, a collaboration protocol based on the work of Joseph D. Novak (see The Origin and Development of Concept Maps) and his fellow cognitive and educational researchers. The protocol is an adaptation of their methods oriented to design facilitation practice. Cooperista Kaycee Collins, Phil Balagtas, and I led the workshop with ten expert design facilitators to teach attendees the protocol and explore it’s powerful application to futures design.
Why Concept Mapping?
Designing for future scenarios is especially challenging given what designers must consider while speculating about what the world is today and may become tomorrow. Designers can best address this challenge by using a rich set of research and design practices. One such practice is concept mapping, which helps to organize and structure knowledge, thereby extending a designer’s ability to understand and be understood.
What is a Concept Map?
Concept maps are meaningful diagrams that organize and represent information. On a concept map, concepts are given labels which are typically enclosed in a box, circle, or on a Post-it note. Concepts can be object types like “Apples”, or event types like “Workshop”.
Arrows connect the concepts to each other. The arrows are labeled and used indicate a relationship between the concepts. The labels on the arrows are called linking words. These linking words define the relationship between the connected concepts.
The linking word “are” connect the concepts “Apple” and “Red”, forming the proposition “Apples are red”.
Linking words make concept maps powerful because they form propositions, the basic units of meaning. Concept maps are built by adding concepts to a map and then linking and cross-linking them to form propositions, generating a hierarchical network of meaning.
While mind maps also link concepts with lines or arrows, they leave the relationships between concepts unresolved.
A simple concept map describing concept maps.
What makes concept mapping valuable for facilitation?
Well-formed propositions are composed of a subject, a predicate, and a connecting verb. A concept map visually separates these elements while retaining the meaning of the proposition.
Seen this way, concept maps are similar to exploded view drawings used by industrial designers.
Exploded view drawing of a Shimano three-speed hub bicycle part (Image source)
The loose coupling of concepts and propositions enables important capabilities unique to concept mapping. These are a few that I have identified:
- The independence of each element enables iterative refinement toward accuracy and clarity, while not requiring perfection.
- The structure enables an additive “Yes and…” approach to collaboration in which people can build on each other's ideas.
- The ease with which concepts can be repositioned enables smooth assembly and disassembly of conceptual structure. During a concept mapping session it is not uncommon to completely restructure a map as knowledge is added or removed, and the intention of the map is refined.
- The orientation towards meaning helps to highlight knowledge gaps and enables teams to identify the areas where they want to learn more.
- The process of creating a concept map together enables people to consciously improve their teamwork. This is because they are required to express themselves with clarity, think, and learn together, come to an agreement, and generate shared meaning. The process will help to expose conflict and spark healthy debate. The team may learn to accept and integrate divergent viewpoints.
- Concept maps are excellent aids in the creative production of other design artifacts such as an information architecture, or a written report, and concept maps themselves can be prepared for presentation to wider audiences.
Refinement of the linking word from the word “are” to “may be” makes this proposition more accurate.
In the Concept Mapping Together protocol, concepts are written as words on Post-It Notes and connected to each other using linking words written on a whiteboard. Depending on the size of the team, roles, and responsibilities are assigned to each participant.
When a team creates a concept map together, they are required to express themselves with clarity, think and learn together, come to an agreement, and generate shared meaning.
A simple concept map that describes the relationship between the color and edibility of apples.
During the Workshop:
We started with a brief introduction to concept mapping and the Concept Mapping Together protocol. Participants were assigned to teams of four and given their own working space in the expansive Cooper offices where they were to spend most of the day learning through hands-on activities.
The first activity was to create a concept map for the focus question “What is email to you?”. Led by one of our amazing facilitators, each team practiced the protocol and rotated individuals through the team roles.
UX Designer and strategist Patrick Posta maps his personal concept of email. Photo by André M. Pennycooke.
After the teams were comfortable with the process, they were given three random prompts to inspire futuristic design ideas. For example, one team received the prompts “discomfort”, “school”, and “versatile”. Each team generated focus questions for their concept maps based on these prompts. Through this knowledge-sharing activity, they were able to define a product, service, or system that would address the original focal problem generated by the prompts.
Finally, the teams were asked to write a “Press Release from the Future” describing their invention, similar to the product development practice at Amazon of writing the press release for a speculative product.
We finished the workshop with each team giving a spirited, inventive, and often hilarious presentation to the audience of participants.
A few of the ideas that emerged for products in 2026 included:
- A prosthetic implant that people would install in their lungs to improve their health and the health of their community.
- A device that projects and transports your senses so you can experience your favorite National Park.
- An exoskeleton that monitors physical, social, and cognitive abilities to accelerate personal learning.
There is an online video course that teaches Concept Mapping Together protocol to designers in the works. For more information see: http://conceptmappingtogether.com
Videos by Henry Dombey
San Francisco Speculative Futures is a meetup community that focuses on work and practice in the fields of speculative & critical design, design fiction, strategic foresight and various approaches to designing for the future. Established in 2015 by Phil Balagtas, a Senior Designer & Researcher at GE Aviation, the group has grown to over 600 members. The group regularly hosts practitioners and educators from a variety of fields at monthly meetings, and delivers talks and workshops across the US. Workshops are tailored to teach methods & frameworks for future-casting based on a variety of design thinking exercises that are flexible for use in any context. For more info on Speculative Futures contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. Join the meetup at http://www.meetup.com/SF-Critical-Design-Speculative-Futures/. Join the Facebook Community at https://www.facebook.com/SpeculativeFutures/
Eric Knudston is a Design Technologist at GE Digital where he helps to bridge the gap between the world as-designed and as-implemented. Fascinated by the challenges design teams face on a day-to-day basis, and recognizing that the wireframes and code are the easy part when compared to the human challenges, Eric continuously seeks to improve his own practices and those of his team. Concept Mapping Together is one of the the most powerful design facilitation practices he has found and it is his professional mission to share it with the world.
Follow him on Twitter at @vikingux