4 types of concept maps (with free templates)

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2024년 2월 15일
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Concept maps are visual representations of information that help keep ideas organized and easy to understand. The different types of concept maps can help you visualize concepts and processes or illustrate systems. Depending on the complexity of what you're mapping, you can either use concept map templates, draw your maps by hand, or use mapping software for more advanced projects.

When starting a project, there's nothing more important than making sure that the entire team is on the same page. Everyone needs to be working from the same information, and you need to be confident that all team members understand that information correctly. Misunderstandings and miscommunications can slow down and even halt progress, which in turn can cost the project both time and money.

One of the best ways to make sure everyone is on the same page is with a concept map. Concept maps are diagrams that help you visualize information in a way that everyone can understand. You can use a concept map to visualize a workflow, break down complex ideas, or map out the different parts of a project system to see how tasks work together.

Anyone can make a concept map, but it's wise to first brush up on the different map structures and how best to use them.

What are concept maps?

A concept map is a visual diagram that organizes information. Concept maps can depict just about anything, like a process, a group of ideas and concepts, or a system of interrelated parts. You can use a concept map to record the steps of a product development workflow, to create a visual chart of the people in your company, or to map out how the marketing and sales departments collaborate effectively. 

Concept maps aren't just useful in business, either—engineers use them to plot out system components, educators use them to teach different ideas, and scientists use them to track key details of their subjects as they make new discoveries.

4 types of content maps

There are many different structures and formats that can be used to create a concept map. The four most popular types are:

  • Spider maps, which are used to diagram concepts.

  • Flowcharts, which are used to visualize processes. 

  • Hierarchy maps, which are used to visualize organizations.

  • System maps, which are used to visualize systems.

Though there are other types of concept maps, almost anything can be mapped using one of these four structures. 

[inline illustration] Common concept map types (infographic)

Spider maps

A spider map is a type of concept map that starts with a key concept and branches out into related ideas. Also called mind maps or idea webs, spider maps are useful for guiding brainstorming sessions or organizing thoughts, as they allow you to see the relationships between ideas at a glance. 

To create a spider map, start by drawing a circle in the center of a sheet of paper or on a whiteboard. Write the central idea in the circle, then draw lines out from the circle and label them with related concepts. Continue adding concepts (and sub-concepts) until you have a web of ideas that covers the page.

Free basic spider map

Since spider maps are often used during brainstorming and "sketch" phases of planning, many people prefer to create them by hand on scrap paper or together on a whiteboard. Spider maps usually don't wind up being published or shared with the wider company, so it's not as important to make sure this type of concept map is neat and well formatted. However, you can use the above mind map template to get yourself started with an initial set of map nodes.


A flowchart is a type of diagram that helps you visualize the steps in a process. They can be used to illustrate a wide variety of processes, from simple tasks like filling a purchase order to complex systems like financial accounting.

Flowcharts are often used in business and engineering, but they can be helpful in any situation where you need to visualize a step-by-step process. The key to making an effective flowchart is to use universally recognized flowchart shapes that indicate what each step in your workflow means. The most common of these symbols are:

  • Ovals for terminators (starting point and end point)

  • Rectangles for processes

  • Diamonds for decisions

  • Parallelograms for inputs and outputs

  • Flowlines that connect shapes and indicate the order and direction of the workflow

There are also standard symbols for documents, manual inputs, preparation steps, data storage, loops, and delays. By using these well-recognized shapes, you can ensure that anyone who looks at your flowchart will be able to read it, even without you there to explain it.

Because flowcharts have such different structures depending on the specific workflow they contain, using a paper template isn't the most efficient way to create one. Instead, use a virtual tool to create your flowchart. Then, bring it to life with workflow management software. 

Hierarchy maps

If you've ever seen your company's organizational chart or worked on your own family tree, then you're already familiar with the concept of a hierarchy map. These maps arrange concepts in a hierarchical structure, in order from most general to more specific. For example, a company org chart typically puts the people with the broadest authority—the founders and C-level executives—at the top of the map, then proceeds downward in levels until it reaches those at the bottom, who have the narrowest job descriptions.

Though hierarchy maps are most frequently used to organize people, they can also help you break down information into an organized system of smaller, more manageable chunks. If you created a hierarchy map to plot out this post, for example, you might start with "concept maps" at the top, then put each type of concept map in its own second-level box, and then put details about each concept map on the bottom level.

Free basic hierarchy map

The size and shape of your hierarchy map will depend on how many levels of information you have. You can use the template above to create a three-level hierarchical structure with your main topic at the top, up to five subtopics on the second level, and then details for each subtopic in the boxes below. You can also use colors or symbols to indicate different levels of importance.

System maps

Spider maps organize ideas, and flowcharts organize processes. System maps combine these two things to show the components of an organization and how they interact with one another.  You can use a system map to illustrate simple systems, like a printer, or more complex systems, like a company with multiple departments and teams.

A system map is separated into two main sections: everything inside the biggest circle is the system, and everything outside the circle is the system's environment. To map your system, start by adding each component of the system inside the larger circle, and each component of the environment outside of it. The template below can get you started.

Free basic system map

Let's say you wanted to create a system map for your company. You would start by creating circles inside the system circle for each department at your organization—for this example, we'll use accounting and HR. Inside the accounting department, you would create smaller circles for different teams like payroll, budgets, and invoicing. The HR department would also have a payroll team, plus others like onboarding, crisis management, and employee benefits. If just one team handles all of these things, that's fine too. There's no minimum or maximum amount of elements required for each circle. 

Outside the system circle, you would add components in your company's environment—things like customers and third-party contractors, which impact and interact with your company, but aren't a part of it.

After you have your components recorded, you need to add your processes. These are lines that connect different components of the system with labels that name the process that connects them. Process lines can span different levels and can connect components inside and outside the system. You may also have two components that are connected by two processes that work in opposite directions. 

For example, the payroll process involves both the accounting and HR departments, and the process flows in both directions. The HR team onboards new employees and adds them to the payroll system, then sends each new employee's salary and direct deposit information to accounting, which actually sends the paychecks. In the opposite direction, the finance team sends information about available budget for raises and salary negotiations to HR, which handles hiring and promotions. 

Continue adding components and process connectors until you have a complete picture of the system. You can also use symbols to represent different types of interactions, like the different flows of energy, information, or resources.

Benefits of concept mapping

Concept maps allow you to visualize complicated ideas and processes in a way that other people can easily understand. When you explain something verbally, there's more room for miscommunication and misunderstandings—not to mention the risk of forgetting the conversation as time goes on. But a central visual resource that's shared with all team members provides a single source of truth that ensures that everyone is on the same page.

Concept maps can also help teams:

  • Understand complex ideas by breaking them down

  • See the relationships between ideas at a glance

  • Brainstorm ideas or organize thoughts

  • Illustrate a wide variety of processes, from simple tasks to complex systems

  • Understand how different parts of a system work together

Every project flows more smoothly with adequate planning. Starting your process with a concept map will allow you to think through potential options, problems, and bottlenecks and solve them before they happen. As your project progresses, using your concept map in concert with your project management platform will help you remain on track, keep your objectives in sight, and keep the entire team united toward a common goal.

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