Guide to concept mapping

What is a concept map?

A concept map is a way to visually display the relationships between different concepts, ideas, and pieces of information. Concept maps are hierarchical, with one main idea or focus question and several sub-topics, key concepts, and related ideas.

Although they look similar, concept maps are not the same as mind maps. Concept maps are generally more robust visualizations, with additional context and connections between ideas.

Concept map features

  • The focus question or main idea is the problem you're trying to solve. The focus question should be front and center in your concept map, with ideas branching from it.
  • A concept is simply an idea or piece of information. Concept maps help you organize ideas and identify how they relate.
  • Linking words and phrases, called connectors, describe the relationship between concepts. Without linking words, the ideas in a concept map would lack connection and context.
  • Cross-links connect ideas on different areas of your map, often tying together two concepts that once seemed entirely separate.
  • When two concepts connect with a linking word or phrase, they form a propositional structure. These statements provide meaning and inspire insights into the focus question.
  • Concept maps have a hierarchical structure. Generally, the broadest, most general concepts are at the top of the map, with specific, detailed concepts below. A clear hierarchy helps your concept map flow and makes it easy to read.
  • A parking lot is a word bank of concepts you intend to include in your concept map. A parking lot helps you generate initial ideas without immediately knowing where they fit on your mind map.

Types of concept maps

All concept maps have the features listed above, but there are variations in their implementation and arrangement. Here are four main types of concept maps and some tips on when to use them.

Spider mapping

Spider maps, or spider diagrams, are a type of concept map that looks like a spider web. Your main idea or focus question goes in the center, with topics branching out radially. Spider maps work best when exploring various facets of one central concept. Some uses for spider maps include:

  • Studying a topic with many sub-topics
  • Brainstorming around a central business concept
Concept Map


Use a flowchart to create a visual representation of a process or workflow. Flowcharts have a linear structure that naturally leads readers through the information step-by-step. Some common uses for flowcharts include:

  • Designing an employee onboarding workflow
  • Outlining a customer journey or sales funnel process

System mapping

Instead of relating all ideas back to a central concept, system maps focus on the relationships between ideas. They often lack a clearly defined hierarchical structure. System maps are often used to record and organize thoughts that interact within a defined environment or ecosystem, such as:

  • The elements contributing to an organization's culture
  • The complex factors contributing to an overarching issue within a community or country, like global climate change or poverty within a specific urban area

Hierarchy mapping

Hierarchy maps provide a visual representation of rank or position. In a hierarchy map, the main idea or highest-ranking concept is at the top of the map, with lower-ranking ideas flowing underneath. Some types of hierarchy maps you might be familiar with include:

  • Corporate organizational charts
  • Ancestry charts and family trees

When to use a concept map

Just as there are many types of concept maps, there are also many use cases for concept mapping. Concept maps make understanding complex, abstract ideas easier because users can visualize ideas and make physical connections among them by linking words, arrows, and lines.

Concept maps are useful for various projects across every industry—from individual study to corporate group brainstorming and beyond. Some common use cases for concept mapping include:


Concept maps are useful in learning environments because they help people organize and visualize information. They're a great teaching tool for educators and a great study tool for students. Some common uses for concept maps in education include:

  • Planning complex curriculums
  • Outlining research papers and writing projects
  • Organizing notes and study guides
Neurobiology concept map


Concept maps have become popular throughout the business world due to their visual and collaborative nature. Companies use concept maps to identify problems, brainstorm solutions, implement processes, and encourage innovation. Some ways to use concept mapping in business include:

  • Exploring new market opportunities for a product or service
  • Identifying organizational strengths and weaknesses to improve company culture
  • Modeling and streamlining department workflows for increased efficiency

Individual development

Concept mapping is also a useful personal and professional development tool, as it helps people visualize their goals and explore opportunities. Concept mapping for individual development includes:

  • Brainstorming different career paths and opportunities
  • Determining personal and professional goals

Benefits of concept mapping

Concept maps are a great tool for idea exploration and visualization. Still, there are hundreds of ways to explore and visualize ideas—so what makes concept mapping better than other brainstorming methods and tools?

Helps you see the big picture

When trying to solve a problem, it's easy to get stuck on details and forget the bigger picture of what you need to accomplish. Concept mapping encourages you to zoom out and start with a broader perspective before diving into the details.

Appeals to different learning styles

Many popular strategic planning tools and frameworks are based around written exercises, which can be tedious for visual learners. Studies also show that visualization can help with memory retention. Concept mapping is visual by nature, helping visual learners participate and thrive.

Makes complex ideas easy to understand

Concept maps provide a hierarchical framework and structure to organize ideas, breaking down complicated concepts into smaller pieces. Not only is this helpful as you generate ideas, but it makes it easier to present a large amount of information in a dynamic, connected way.

Promotes collaboration

Although concept mapping can be a solo activity, it's great for idea generation within a team or group. Concept mapping helps teams synthesize ideas from diverse contributors who each bring their unique and valuable perspectives to the table.

How to make a concept map

Creating concept maps is easy. Start by identifying a concept or focus question at the top. Then, using lines and arrows, add information that flows from the focus. Follow these steps for making a concept map:

  1. Identify your main topic

    Select a focus question or main idea. That should be a broad concept with many subtopics to explore. This main idea will be at the top or center of your concept map and guide its hierarchical structure.
    Example: What should we do for our next marketing campaign?

  2. Identify key concepts

    Key concepts are the first tier of information branching off from your main topic. These ideas can vary in specificity, and it helps to list them out in order of broadest to most detailed. This list of key concepts is your parking lot, a place to put ideas before organizing them in the concept map.
    Examples: Marketing platform, audience, product, goal, social media, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Mailchimp

  3. Organize and connect the key concepts

    Begin to move key concepts from the parking lot to the concept map, starting with the broadest ideas that connect directly to your main idea. Use linking words to establish the relationship between different concepts.

  4. Finalize the map with formatting and fact-checking

    Make sure your linking words make sense and add cross-links to connect concepts in different areas of your map.

  5. Revise concept map as necessary

    Concept maps are dynamic and intended to grow as you generate more ideas. Feel free to edit or add to your concept map whenever you think of a new idea.

Why use MindManager to make concept maps

You can draw a concept map by hand or use concept map software designed specifically for creating visualizations. MindManager is a concept mapping tool that helps you turn ideas into plans and plans into action.

MindManager is an industry-leading collaborative concept mapping software with many features and benefits, including:

  • User-friendly interface that is intuitive and easy to learn
  • Large image library—over 700 topic images to use within your concept maps
  • Convenient and simple file management
  • Topic styles and filters to aid in data categorization and sorting
  • Powerful integrations with file storage apps like DropBox and OneDrive
  • Google Docs integration via Zapier
  • Built-in templates for different concept map styles and various use cases

Concept map templates

MindManager comes pre-installed with many templates. To use these templates:

  • Open MindManager
  • Click NEW in the navigation menu
  • Select the template you want to use
  • A preview screen will appear - check to see if you'd like to use your selected template
  • Select 'Create Map'
  • Customize the template for your specific project

Concept map FAQs

What is the purpose of a concept map?

A concept map is a way to convey concepts, ideas, and pieces of information visually. Concept maps help you understand the relationships between various ideas, see how concepts are connected, discover related concepts, and organize your findings logically and visually.

What should a concept map include?

A concept map must visually display concepts and ideas in a hierarchical fashion. Most concept maps highlight one main idea and depict subtopics as boxes or circles connected with lines, arrows, and (or) linking words.

What is the difference between a concept map and a mind map?

Although their structures look similar at first glance, there is a difference between a concept map and a mind map. Mind maps are a brainstorming tool with a radial configuration. Concept maps are hierarchical, with one main idea, multiple sub-topics, and linking words and phrases that provide additional meaning.

Make your ideas into plans with concept maps

Concept mapping is a way to visually display and arrange ideas, helping you solve problems, create plans, and encourage new ways of thinking. Anyone can make a concept map to inspire creative thinking and problem solving—from students and teachers to project managers, business leaders, and beyond.

Visualize more with MindManager

Ready to make a concept map? Try MindManager for free for 30 days, and start building concept maps right away with premade, customizable templates.

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