iMAPS: The research process

What is an iMap?

An iMap (information map) represents the narrative, or story, of your research processes and ideas development in relation to a particular assignment. You might be asked to produce an iMap in support of an essay, for instance, or as an illustration of the enquiry behind a piece of practical work. Some students choose to use iMaps as a way of documenting and understanding their own research.

Unlike an essay, there is no set form for an iMap: because it logs a personal process, both your own learning style and the challenges of the specific project will shape it. Some iMaps will be paper-based, others digital, some will be diagrams, others physical objects. The ‘default setting’ for an iMap is 2–3 sides of A3, but they have been done successfully as interactive timelines, blogs, comic strips, videos, and physical models. The trick, perhaps, is to concentrate on mapping as a process (something you do) rather than the map as an outcome (something you have to make). The important thing about an iMap is that it forces you to think about your research as well as doing it: about how and why you do what you do, and how you might do it better.

A good iMap shows:

  • critical reflection
  • creativity
  • the ability to communicate the complexities of information gathering, the evaluation of these information sources, the selection of those relevant to your project and your use of them.

Although the physical nature of iMaps varies, there are certain things that you need to think about when designing and making one.

What does an iMap do?

The iMap has many functions:

  • it tracks how and where material has been found (web? books? journals?)
  • it records the understanding and evaluation of sources (useful? If so, why? if not, why not?)
  • it shows connections between sources, materials, and ideas
  • it shows how ideas develop, some being followed through, others abandoned
  • it shows how research is shaped into knowledge which can be used
  • it ‘utters’ your research so that other people can see it: this means that it can be discussed, explained and assessed

What does an iMap look like?

As mentioned above, there is no set form for an iMap. There are, however, a number of things which need to be considered:

  • as they are always an attempt to record a process visually, they have a structure or organisation that shows the process from beginning to end, and the flow of things in between
  • some iMaps follow the page layout convention where time runs from top left to bottom right, others start at the centre and emanate out in concentric circles
  • some iMaps use lines and arrows to show sequence, others may use colour codes; some use boxes of different shapes and sizes to show related information, or to show which ideas belong together
  • most iMaps use images to illustrate sources, examples, and ideas

All iMaps feature some kind of written text. This will include:

  • reflective commentaries
  • lists of sources, preferably annotated (i.e. if you list a book, note how it was useful)
  • key words
  • short summaries of key ideas
  • useful quotations
  • bullet-points showing the emerging structure of the assignment that the the iMap is supporting (e.g. essay, report)

Some iMaps play with forms of communication other than the visual or textual, experimenting with physical materials, textures, sound, and so on.

How are iMaps made?

Just as there is no set form for an iMap, there is no set method. However, the following list will give you a sense of the possibilities:

  • Hand-made – this allows for flexibility, especially if you want to experiment with physical textures, incorporate features such as lift-up flaps, raised surfaces, pouches, string, modelled components, scrolls, and so on
  • Word, Illustrator, Corel Draw, etc. – unless you are very confident in your artistic abilities, word processor or structured draw software packages will tend to result in a tidier, more designed appearance for diagram-based or comic style iMaps
  • Blog – as the record of an enquiry process (see separate section of the Study Skills Handbook) this can be a very effective form of iMap, but be aware that its chronological ‘diary’ nature is quite restrictive in terms of how material is organised
  • Web pages – the potential to link between pages, to link out to other sources, and to combine various forms of media, makes web-based artefacts a potentially rich format for iMaps
  • PowerPoint – this can be used to produce a good-looking sequential iMap, but it tends to place emphasis on ‘descriptive’ modes of communication and its linearity (A to B) is a serious restriction
  • Flash – this provides a very good way of making interactive iMaps, perhaps arranged as content-rich timelines

It’s important, of course, that decisions about form are always influenced by content and not simply by the urge to do something different, fun or ‘easy’. No cheap gimmicks in other words!

Some types of iMap are likely to appeal to particular groups of students (e.g. Model Design students might feel drawn towards the ‘physical thinking’ embodied in constructed objects, whereas a Interactive Media Design student is more likely to want to explore the possibilities of databases) but always feel free to be creative in your iMapping…

A warning: start early and don’t fake it!

An iMap has to be built up over a period of time: it should never be created retrospectively or at the last minute. If you try to do this, you are faking the research process – and it is very difficult to fake an iMap! Indeed, faking an iMap well enough to persuade an assessor that it is real will probably take more time and effort than doing the job properly in the first place!

Remember: the iMap is an evidence-based approach to the assessment of research practices. Done properly, it means that research activities and the development if research skills can be properly rewarded.

Further reading (not about iMaps, but about visual and physical thinking)

  • Ehmann, S (2007) Tactile: High Touch Visuals, Berlin and London: Die Gestalten Verlag.
  • Hubner, M. (2009) Tangible: High Touch Visuals, Berlin and London: Die Gestalten Verlag.
  • Klanten, R. (2008) Data Flow: Visualising Information in Graphic Design, Berlin and London: Die Gestalten Verlag.
  • McCandless, D. (2010) Information is Beautiful, London: Collins.
  • Tufte, E. (1990) Envisioning Information, Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press.
  • Tufte, E. (1997) Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative, Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press.
  • Tufte, E. (2006) Beautiful Evidence, Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press.

Some examples of iMaps

Examples 1-4 were completed for the Traditions and Location (2MMF0019) module, 2010; example 5 was completed for the 3D Games Art Degree Essay (3MMF0003), 2009-10.

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Example 1: Kaya Jabar (3D Animation) – details from a large-scale, richly detailed diagrammatic imap, submitted as a pdf

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Example 2: Faye Ruddick (Character Creation) – a playful iMap, presenting research into the culture of cinematic spectacle

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Example 3: Jemma Harwood (VFX) – a dynamic iMap, using Prezi to explore thinking and research about visual effects in cinema.

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Example 4: Jenna Hussey (Screen Cultures and Media Practices) – an interactive iMap, with embedded video and web links, created using Flash

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Example 5: Craig Gardner (Multimedia Design) – a blog-based mapping of research, using WordPress to present a content-rich journal of enquiry.

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Example 6: Jo Wand (VFX) – a successful iMap can be a brilliantly rich, detailed, expansive way of representing the complexities of effective research, as in this Level 6 (3rd year) example, composed across four interlocking A4 landscape pages

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