Visually mapping the system

I was recently asked to coach a group of undergraduate students who are entering the “Map the System”  from Oxford University.

 A global competition to learn more about the issues you care about and present your findings to the world.

As part of the competition, each participant is asked to submit a “visual map” to accompany their report, but there is little criteria to describe how to create the map, nor its intended role in the presentation.  As far as I have been able to determine, it is a supplementary document, which allows the students to show their creativity. Looking at the finalists from 2017, it seems most of the students took an infographic approach, or went into a full scale interactive website production.

I wanted to share a few resources that I have seen that may show some alternatives.

Truth be told I am not a master at creating or using infographics, most of my recent work has been creating visual summaries of conversations and keynotes, in the realm of graphic facilitation and recording. My ‘go to’ if asked to create a visual map would likely be some kind of sequential art, combining narrative and data with some eye catching visuals.

I have dug up some research though to help explain visual mapping and its variety and power. The landscape for visual work is expanding, and more often the discrete disciplines tend towards overlapping.  It is a good idea to zoom out and get a high level look at the space before we begin.

Having recently taken a visual leader workshop from David Sibbet, I am aware one of the best summaries of visual work is the “Map to the world of visualization” (Lindquist/Sibbet)

The first image that strikes me when thinking about a visual maps, is this amazingly rich chart on the history of nordic languages from Minna Sundberg.

~© Minna Sundberg~ 2014





Decidedly an artistic rendition, this has inspired me for both its use of natural forms, as well as providing a detailed analysis of data.

I often use trees as metaphors, and for visual maps they seem like a wealth of visual material.  Allowing for branches and growth in almost any direction, but for the scientific presentation of data there are many more templates to choose from.

This post from adiomia breaks them down well in “How To Think Visually Using Visual Analogies – Infographic

How To Think Visually Using Visual Analogies – Infographic




Using the spectrum from”charts and diagrams” to “allegories” this chart probably captures every single way information can be represented visually, and is worth in depth exploration. The spectrum from representational to abstract reminds me of an important lesson from Scott Mccleod, in which I remember as “The audience meets you half way”.  That is, your audience is willing to play along with out you representing your subject with 100% realism.  In fact, the more abstract you make an image, the more the audience is willing to see themselves in it.







Graphic Design Resources

Going Visual – Activities to practice your visual skillz.

Graphic Design Workshop

Icons to image PDF (Visual Literacy)

Visual Communication basics PDF




Additional readings

Back of the Napkin – Dan Roam

Understanding Comics – Scott Mccloud




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