Mapping Words

| October 26, 2011

Check out these word-mapping projects: digital vocabulary development through interactive design! Each project is slightly different from the next, but all highlight the potential of mapping words to facilitate aesthetic learning.

A Visual Thesaurus

Thinkmap, Inc. develops and markets software that uses visualization to facilitate communication and education. One of their projects is the Visual Thesaurus, an interactive online dictionary of sorts that (apparently) maps words the way the human brain does (rather than say, synonyms you’d look up in an alphabetical paper dictionary). You look up a “meaning” that you’re looking for related words to, and the thesaurus helps you discover them. For example, searching “fire” would connect you with “kindle” or “bake.”

An aim of the project is for it to be educational in that it provides users with a “more precise” understanding of the English language by providing this innovative way to navigate the semantic relationships within their base of 145.000 English words and 115,000 meanings. The map that’s created from a search is also color-coded based on meaning, which is particularly useful for visual learners.

Special features include the chance to save and share your word maps (you can look at up to 17 at a time), explore words in 5 different languages, and also read the Visual Thesaurus online magazine. This tremendous amount of content comes at a price, however, as users must subscribe to use the service.

A FREE Visual Thesaurus

A very similar but free new project is Graph Words by Alex Tautarov (who also developed the iphone app AdSense). On Graph Words, you also look up words and map them according to meaning. You can learn definitions by mousing over a word and you can save your images. The search is fueled by WordNet, a large lexical database of English words in which vocabulary is grouped into synsets (cognitive synonyms). The relationships from this database are revealed through the Graph Words HTML5 canvas.

What’s interesting about both projects is that they don’t just visualize pre-determined data sets as information, but allow a user to create their own data sets through a pretty educational experience. Though actually learning vocabulary seems to me more of a side-effect than the main goal for learners, word-mapping is a wonderful resource for creative projects (particularly writing), and also to study word relationships.

The Human Brain Cloud

A reader left a comment left on this Infosthetics article considering another similar project: The Human Brain Cloud by game designer Kyle Gabler. Though the site doesn’t seem to be up anymore, a review explains that players would be given a word, and then must enter the first thing that comes to mind. In this way, word associations are collected into ‘the cloud,’ which is essentially a user-generated word map. The project was purely created for fun; Gabler said he hoped it would not get clouded with spam. Interesting trends emerged from its short-lived existence though, which Gabler posted on his blog.

The interactive elements of these kinds of word-mapping projects could be particularly appealing for students, especially visual learners, in reading, writing and vocabulary learning exercises. The above examples are interesting considerations as a preliminary project of that sort.

Mapping Taste Buds

Another kind of word mapping project that comes from acclaimed designers David McCandless and Willow Tyrer is Taste Buds, published in the 2009 Informational is Beautiful book. It’s an elegant, simple visualization of complementary flavors based on research of about 1000 recipes for common flavor patterns–and ideal for a budding (or seasoned) chef!

This project is not user-generative or interactive like the others, but a wonderful example of a polished project that could come of well-researched word-mapping. I could imagine such a project even being assigned to students to explore the interrelationship between words, concepts or information in vocabulary, science or history. Or perhaps a similar visualization could be used as a teaching resource — a breath of fresh air from textbook-style information. Food for thought.