13 minutesBy Canva Team

Creating concept maps: How-tos, templates, tips

Learn more about Canva’s free concept map maker, dive deeper into different types of concept maps and when to use them, and start inspired with free customizable templates.
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What is a concept map?

Ever tried untangling headphone wires? Concept mapping is the same but with ideas, processes, and systems. And trust us, it's less frustrating.

Concept maps (also called conceptual diagrams) are powerful visual tools that allow you to take complex thoughts or stacks of information and organize them in an easy-to-understand format. Just like laying out tangled wires on the table helps you see where things are knotted up, a concept map lays out concepts and ideas (or your recollection of them), showing you the connections, overlaps, relationships, and even gaps you might not have spotted before.

An example of how to write a concept map about defining a topic

An example of how to write a concept map about defining a topic.

Why use a concept map

Whether you're brainstorming a new project, exploring relationships between different ideas, studying for a big test, or trying to solve a problem, concept maps can make the journey smoother. They can also be incredibly useful for sharing understanding or conveying complex information to others by breaking down that complexity into a simplified diagram(opens in a new tab or window). They're not only for project managers or students; anyone trying to organize their thoughts or simplify a complex procedure can benefit from using concept maps.

A brief history of concept maps

The use of concept maps dates back to the 1970s when they were developed by an educational theorist named Joseph D. Novak. He based concept maps on the learning theory proposed by David Ausubel, which emphasizes the importance of prior knowledge in understanding new ideas.

Since then, concept maps have been used across diverse fields, from education to business, untangling ideas and enhancing understanding. They've stood the test of time and continue to be an influential tool in today’s information-heavy world.


Components of a concept map

Concept maps typically visualize and organize information in a hierarchical manner, with the most important concepts at the top of the diagram and sub-topics gradually branching out and below the diagram. This way, users can clearly see the relationships, gaps, or connections among different concepts or ideas. To visually achieve that, concept maps include the following components:

resource
More on Joseph Novak’s pioneering paper
Read more about Joseph Novak and AJ Cañas’ paper called The Theory Underlying Concept Maps and How to Construct and Use Them.
Concepts or nodes

Concepts or nodes

Usually represented as boxes, circles, ovals, or other shapes, they signify key ideas, topics, or concepts.

Connectors or linking words

Connectors or linking words

Shown as actual words or phrases embedded within arrows or links, they explain the relationship or context between linked concepts.

Cross-links

Cross-links

Visualized as arrows connecting different concepts or nodes, they point the connections between concepts.

Focus Question

Focus Question

The main problem or idea you want to solve, simplify, and/or visualize. Shown as the concept at the top of the concept map.

Parking Lot

Parking Lot

A list of relevant concepts or ideas that’s going to be added to the concept map.

Expert Skeleton Map

Expert Skeleton Map

A base concept map of a topic that serves as a guide to building the final concept map.


Types of concept maps and when to use them

Different types of concept maps can be used for different use cases. Let’s delve deeper into four types of concept maps, when to use each one, and how each type benefits its users.

Create different kinds of concept maps in various designs with Canva’s customizable templates.

Create different kinds of concept maps in various designs with Canva’s customizable templates.

A spider diagram, also called a spider map, is a type of concept map that features a central concept branching out to different sub-concepts, like a spider web. They follow a circular structure and are ideal for brainstorming, summarizing information, and exploring new ideas.

When to use:

  1. In education/learning: Great for breaking down a subject or topic when studying for a test
  2. In business: Ideal for brainstorming and generating new ideas from a previously learned concept or campaign.

Advantages of spider diagrams:

  1. Simple design and easy to build
  2. Encourages free-flowing of thoughts and ideas
  3. Easy to read and digest

Disadvantages of spider diagrams:

  1. Difficult to show connections or relationships between different nodes and concepts
  2. May oversimplify complex relationships between concepts

As a subtype of concept maps, flowcharts(opens in a new tab or window) visualize sequences or map processes in a step-by-step manner. Flowcharts use standard flowchart shapes and symbols to visually represent a series of steps, a flow of action, or a plan of work in a linear manner.

When to use:

  1. In education/learning: Ideal for lesson and curriculum planning and school management.
  2. In business: Great for employee onboarding and identifying customer or buyer journeys for marketing campaigns.
  3. In healthcare: Use flowcharts as guides and tutorials in the clinical setting to simplify information shared with patients.

Advantages of flowcharts:

  1. Easy to read.
  2. Information is organized following a linear and logical structure.
  3. Aids in identifying problems in a process.

Disadvantages of flowcharts:

  1. Information and relationships often only flow in one direction.
  2. Often reflect minimal and incomplete data and may not accurately reflect complex processes.
  3. Changes to the process will require updating the whole flowchart.

System maps combine what spider diagrams and flowcharts do best. That is, system maps are a visual representation of ideas and how they are interconnected with each other. Think, theory and practice, or a system and its environment, and all the interactions that connect them together.

When to use:

  1. In education: Perfect for illustrating complex subjects or topics and showing the connections of each sub-topic or subject. For example, you can use system maps to visualize biological ecosystems or show how a computer system works.
  2. In business: Ideal for providing a comprehensive visualization of how specific business processes in each department or team works.
  3. In government: Use system maps to showcase nuanced socioeconomic issues like poverty and inequality, and how different factors interplay to resolve, alleviate, and resolve them.

Advantages of system maps:

  1. Uses complete data and shows all the different relationships between different concepts and sub-concepts.
  2. Showcases theory and practice well.
  3. Enhances strategic thinking and planning.

Disadvantages of system maps:

  1. It can be time-consuming to create.
  2. It can be difficult to update or revise due to its complexity.

As the name suggests, hierarchy maps arrange concepts in a specific order, usually in a top-down approach. They can visually look like a flowchart, but its content will include hierarchical relationships, rank, or order.

When to use:

  1. In education/learning: Use hierarchy maps to illustrate ancestry or genealogy.
  2. In business: Use as a company organizational chart to show employees’ roles and levels.

Advantages of hierarchy maps:

  1. Easy to read.
  2. Follows a definite pattern, the most important data/level/stage is on top.
  3. Useful for categorizing concepts.

Disadvantages of hierarchy maps:

  1. Shows no connections, relationships, or management styles between entries.
  2. Does not allow for critical thinking, as information is presented as is.
  3. Limited usage of information that follows a hierarchical structure.

Differences from other visualizations

When it comes to visually representing information in a simplified manner, we often confuse concept maps with other graph or diagram type. Below, we explain how each type of diagram is different or similar to a concept map, and how to best use each one.

Concept maps vs. mind maps

Concept maps and mind maps(opens in a new tab or window) often look the same at first glance. However, their difference lies in how they present information.

Concept maps distill existing knowledge or information from a top-down approach (often from something complex to simple) and reflect relationships or connections between sub-concepts. Use concept maps if you already have a clear central idea and you want to expand on it.

Mind maps, just like spider maps, are often simpler in structure—with a core topic in the middle that branches out into interconnected ideas, tasks, or concepts. Use mind maps if you want a free-flowing brainstorming tool and you want to capture anything that your mind comes up with.

Example of a mind map. Unlike a concept map, the main topic is in the center, with its supporting ideas branching out

Example of a mind map. Unlike a concept map, the main topic is in the center, with its supporting ideas branching out.

Concept maps vs. org charts

Organizational charts(opens in a new tab or window) are a sub-type of concept maps called hierarchy maps. They present information in a hierarchical manner and show connections related to subjects’ or members’ relationships, rank, and order.

Concept maps vs. topic maps

Both concept maps and topic maps help us manage knowledge, where concept maps are used mainly for learning, and topic maps are for organizing and finding information.

A concept map is like a graphic organizer(opens in a new tab or window) that shows the connection between different ideas. They’re useful for brainstorming, learning new topics, and explaining complex ideas in a simpler, visual way.

On the other hand, a topic map is more like an index or table of contents for information. It's about finding information quickly and efficiently. They're often used in digital systems to organize and easily access knowledge.


How to make a concept map

Concept mapping is like having your own thought detangler. Imagine taking a yarn from a knotted, tumbled mess, and gently straightening it into a neat, visible string. That’s what you’ll achieve when you learn the most effective way to create a concept map.

Detailed below is a step-by-step guide on concept mapping and how to make it a fun and insightful experience for yourself, your students, or your colleagues.

How to make a concept map

The key to effective concept mapping is to have a clear central focus. Choose a core subject or problem around which your entire concept map revolves. Start with thoughtful brainstorming and identify the main topic or focus problem. On your concept map, the main topic or focus problem is visually represented as a box or oval at the top of your diagram.

Your focus problem or topic could be a school subject you’re studying. It could be an entire work process that you want to simplify for a presentation. Or it could be a research theory that’s been floating around your mind, in preparation for your dissertation.

resource
Use a brainstorm template
As you plan your concept map, use a brainstorm template where you can list down, rule out, or expound on your ideas. Start with and choose from thousands of designs to choose from in Canva.

With your main topic or focus problem clearly defined, you next need to pinpoint the key concepts related to it. These related concepts should each illuminate an aspect of your main topic.

Use a Parking Lot to list down all related concepts and sub-topics. This is a separate section on your concept map that contains all concepts waiting to be added to the map. Parking lots are especially useful for teachers who want to give their students a starting point when using concept maps for lessons. In the workplace or business setting, parking lots can help users narrow down concepts or topics they can recall or already know about.

Once you have these key concepts and related topics listed, it’s now time to lay out your concept map. With your focus question at the top of the map, start creating nodes below it and connect related nodes or sub-concepts.

Feeling blocked on how to proceed with your concept map? Ask questions related to your main idea, deconstruct your focus problem or topic, delve into its various facets, and examine it from different angles. Use connector or linking words to establish relationships between concepts. Add arrows, cross-links, and lines to further simplify interactions.

With Canva Whiteboards(opens in a new tab or window) and its infinite canvas feature, enjoy an unlimited canvas to map out any process, roadmap(opens in a new tab or window), subject, or system. Then, smoothly expand related concepts, sub-topics, and relationships with automatic connectors and customizable shapes.

Now that your concept map has taken shape, it's time to reflect, evaluate, and revise. Remember, an effective concept map is an accurate concept map.

Evaluate for the usual typos and grammatical errors. Make sure you use the correct linking words and phrases. Check if the connections between concepts make sense, and verify that no crucial concept has been omitted. Don't be afraid to revise, reorder, or even remove concepts if the logic or flow demands it.

Concept mapping is often a collaborative experience. This is made easier on Canva, where you can readily work with others in real-time or async. Share a link to your concept map and engage with your team or students with features like real-time cursors, sticky notes, emoji reactions, timers, and comments.


Get inspired with concept map templates

Make concept mapping easier and faster with these free, professionally designed concept map templates. Each example template is fully editable on Canva Whiteboards.


All the features you need in a concept map generator

It’s now easier—and more fun—to craft stunning concept maps with all these collaboration and customization features on Canva Whiteboards. Everything you need, all in the best concept mapping software for school or work.

  • Unlimited space for unlimited ideas

    Unlimited space for unlimited ideas

    With a free infinite canvas and unlimited number of whiteboards, fully develop your ideas and still have room.

  • Your ideas visualized

    Your ideas visualized

    Build stunning tables and graphs with automatic flowcharts, or sketch them to life with Draw.

  • All your work, in one place

    All your work, in one place

    From plan to execution, it's all here. Take notes, brainstorm, collaborate, and more on the same whiteboard.

  • Workshop ideas to perfection

    Workshop ideas to perfection

    With your team, develop ideas through comments and stickies, and keep sync sessions on track with a timer.

  • Share your work effortlessly

    Share your work effortlessly

    Share a link to your doc and control your team's access. Present directly from the editor with Presenter view.

  • Expand your presentation into a whiteboard

    Expand your presentation into a whiteboard

    With just a single click, expand your presentation slides into infinite, collaborative whiteboards.


Concept maps best practices

A good and comprehensive concept map doesn’t make itself — it helps to have an eye for visual balance, while keeping your information accurate and up-to-date. When creating a concept map, keep these best practices in mind:

Keep it simple

From how you state your focus problem or topic to your choice of linking words and phrases, keep it short and simple. When it comes to concept mapping, clarity in design and content wins. This ensures that the end user of your concept maps can readily digest the pieces of information presented on the diagram and make the necessary connections without much prompting.

Follow basic visual design guidelines

When it comes to formatting your concept map, simple and minimalist lines and shapes work best. Be consistent when using symbols, colors, font styles, and font sizes for related sub-concepts or sub-topics. Follow basic visual design guidelines(opens in a new tab or window) to make your concept map easier to read and understand.

Easily customize the sizes and colors of your shapes, lines, and fonts to match the visual guidelines you aim to follow

Easily customize the sizes and colors of your shapes, lines, and fonts to match the visual guidelines you aim to follow.

Keep it updated

Stay on top of your concept maps and keep it updated for new knowledge or obsolete systems and workflows. This is especially important when creating hierarchy maps as their content changes over time. Or, if you’re using concept maps for studying and learning new things, recreating and revising your concept maps as you learn new things can promote active recall and enhance retention.


Concept maps FAQs

Canva’s free concept map maker lets you create any type of concept map—from simple spider maps and hierarchy maps to complex system maps and process flowcharts. Start with a blank whiteboard template, retrospective(opens in a new tab or window), process map(opens in a new tab or window), or get inspired with our collection of free and fully editable concept map templates.

Treat explaining a concept map like presenting a report in front of your managers or telling a story to your students. First, you must study what the concept map is all about and remember that the main topic or focus problem is always placed at the top of the diagram.

Sub-topics and other related concepts are presented as branches or nodes and linked to each other using arrows, connectors, and linking words or phrases.

Start your story with the focus problem. Then, gradually expound on related sub-topics and talk about their connection with the main concept. Explain relationships, gaps, and overlaps as needed. Start with the details and end with how everything tells the big picture and why it’s important for your audience.

Concept mapping is an effective study technique as it allows you to organize different pieces of information (from different subjects or topics) and combine them into something whole and easier to understand.

To study effectively using a concept map, it’s best used right after you learn new material (e.g., after a lecture, reading a textbook, or watching a documentary or tutorial). Once you have acquired the knowledge, start mapping out the concepts you’ve learned. You can do this on paper or using an online whiteboard tool.

The act of mapping out the key concepts and related sub-topics signals your brain to learn or relearn the connections between each idea and even gain a deeper understanding of a topic. To retain what you’ve studied better, test yourself by asking questions about your concept map and recreate each concept map as you learn new things.

For more study tips, check out this guide on how to stay focused(opens in a new tab or window).

The concept mapping method in healthcare is the application of concept mapping in our healthcare industry and its related fields. In nursing, concept mapping is used as a visual and systematic tool to gather, organize, implement, and evaluate patient care strategies.


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