Guide: A best practice approach to creating a meaningful Thought Canvas

This guide will show you a suggested best practice approach on how to create a Thought Canvas and get the most out of it for your needs. Thought Canvases complement the way you learn and how your mind makes meaningful connections.  You can create different Thought Canvases for different situations, such as solving problems, understanding something complex, making important decisions or coming up with new ideas.

The steps outlined in this guide follow the flow shown in the image on the left – our “Inquire. Connect. Enlighten. (ICE) Methodology“.  As you become more and more familiar with building Canvases and using the various features that are available, you will find that you are not limited to the approach outlined in this guide.

Before you begin creating a new Canvas, you should have some idea of the domain or focus of what your new Canvas will be about. What are the key concepts, individuals, places etc. that you already know of that are related to what you are thinking about?

As an example, we will create a Canvas focused on learning more about how “sustainability is about an enduring long term focus for society, the environment and for business“.

How best to take in this Guide

A good way to take in this guide as you read through it, is to think about a discussion, as most of us have had from time to time, where you are talking to someone and drop a person’s first name into the conversation to only have the other person interject at some point and ask which person you are talking about? Sound familiar?

You know exactly who you are talking about as a clear memory of the person is firmly implanted in your brain, but the other person may be thinking of any number of individuals that have that same first name. As a result, the other person, unknown to you until they ask (if they do at all), struggles to keep pace with what you are saying as they are too busy trying to work out in their heads who you are talking about.

The context of the discussion quickly blurs in the mind of the other person as you keep talking, until the facts of the discussion are well defined. The greater the clarity of what we are talking about in conversations with others, the better the conversation will be for all involved.

You can click on the images to enlarge them for better viewing and click on the “X” in the top right hand corner or off the image to go back to the guide.

Step 1: Create a new Canvas

To create a new Canvas, open up the Canvas Selection panel by clicking on theCanvas Selection” button (shown in the image on the right) located on the far left of the top tool-bar.

Type in a suitable and meaningful name for your new Canvas in the input field provided. This helps you focus your thinking.  Once you have entered in a name, click on the “Create” button.

Once you have created the Canvas, you will see it in the Canvas Selection list.  You can open up the new Canvas and begin working on it by clicking on the Canvas name.

Step 2: Creating Elements

This step is all about identifying and creating the Elements that form what you know so far (usually nouns).  Visually expressing the pieces of the puzzle helps set the context that can stimulate further thinking and help you identify potential gaps in your understanding. When you open a new Canvas for the first time, you will be prompted to create your first Element.  In the dialog window, select the appropriate Element type, such as a Concept, Person or Organization by clicking on the associated Element icon

Next, type in a suitable name for the Element in the field provided. It is best practice to keep Element names as concise and specific as possible.  If you are creating a Person Element, then use the person’s full name rather than just the person’s first name.  Think to yourself how you would reference the person in a conversation with others such that they knew exactly who you were talking about. 

Once you have typed in a name for your new Element, you are ready to create it by clicking on the “Create” button. To create more Elements on your Canvas, you have the choice of two ways of doing that:

  1. drag & drop the Add New Element Button  button located at the bottom right-hand corner of the Canvas to a place on the Canvas where you want to create the new Element; or
  2. double-click on a blank part of the Canvas where you want to create a new Element
Since we are thinking about “sustainability related to society, business and the environment”, then we will create 4 different Concept Elements, one for each of “Sustainability“, “Society“, “Business” and “Environment“.  The image on the right shows what our Canvas looks like after we have created the 4 Elements. 
Why Elements?

Elements are one of the core building blocks that you will use to create your Canvases.  Each Element represents something to you that has meaning to what you are thinking about or trying to understand. These Elements are yours to do with what you want and you should invest in spending time to ensure that each Element is up to date with all the information you know about it.  You will learn how to do this later in this guide.

Think of Elements as memories that you store in your brain.  When you need to, you recall relevant memories and use them as needed.  Within the InsightNG platform, Elements are treated the same way. Each Element you create, no matter what Canvas it was created on, is stored in a private Repository.  When you need to, you can re-use any Element from your Repository on new Canvases.

Step 3: Creating Relations between Elements

At this point, we have a set of Elements, but on their own they do not provide much context. 

Again, think about a conversation with another person.  You naturally provide the relationships between things within the sentences you use, such as “you remember Jeff, who used to work at Spanner Inc.”  Doing this helps the other person understand how things are related to each other and the context of what you are talking about.

With that in mind, you will want to arrange the Elements you have created with your mouse and link them together in a meaningful way to give you a clear and structured visual representation of your current thinking and understanding. 

Once you have your Elements arranged the way you want, select an Element and then drag ‘n drop that Element on top of another Element on the Canvas.  As you are dragging the first Element onto the second Element, you will see a line being created behind the Element you are dragging.  As you move the first Element over top of the second Element, the line will turn to green as shown in the image on the right.

Once you drop the first Element on top of the other, a window will pop-up to ask you to fill in the details of the Relation you are creating.  As with creating Elements, you want to be descriptive, but concise. For example, if you are creating a Relation between two people, than you might type in “is friends with” or “is married to” or “works with”.

In the case where you are unsure what the relationship is between the two Elements, but you are confident enough that there is one, then you can just accept the default that is provided in the text field.  The important part is that you are creating Relations where you believe there is one and doing that helps continue to build the context of your Canvas.

When ready, click on the “Create” button to finish creating the new Relation.

You can use this same method to create more Relations.  With our example, the image on the right shows what the Canvas looks like after creating 3 Relations between the Elements we created earlier.

Remember, context is king!  The greater you can improve the context of your Canvas, the greater the chances are that you will receive value from working with the Canvas and our intelligence engine.

Why Relations?

As with Elements, Relations are one of the core building blocks that you will use to build your Canvases. Creating Relations between Elements is a key part of the Canvas building process.  If you have ever created mind maps or concept maps, then this step should be familiar to you. 

When you create Relations between Elements on a Canvas, you not only make the context more evident and visual to yourself and anyone else you share your Canvas with, you are also providing the means for our intelligence engine to gain greater understanding of what the Canvas is all about.  You will see why this is important later in this guide.

Step 4: Providing some meaning to Elements

At this point, we have a visually structured map of the Elements and Relations we already know about as related to our area of interest.  Although the Elements have meaning to us in our heads, they may be vague to anyone else looking at the Canvas as well as to our intelligence engine.  As was mentioned at the end of Step 3, context is very important to how the Canvas works and can help you and others understand what you are visualizing and thinking about.

The level of context (i.e. what is known about) an Element has is represented on the Canvas in two different ways:

Indicates that the Element, in the example to the left for the Environment Element, has very little context associated with it.  It is either on its own, connected via a Relation with only one other Element or has nothing more than the name “Environment” associated with it.  Research indicates that our brains kick into sensemaking or critical thinking mode when pieces of knowledge have more than 2 related pieces of knowledge associated with it.

Indicates that there is some context known about the Element as there is 2 or more Relations with other Elements on the Canvas, but the Element itself is still somewhat vague as it only has the name “Sustainability” associated with it.

In either case, although our intelligence engine will provide you with some Suggestions of other potentially relevant content, it is strongly suggested that you provide more meaning in order to fully utilize the power of our intelligence engine and find better quality Suggestions.

One way to know if our intelligence engine has some Suggestions for what the Element may mean, is by the presence of a number in a bubble on top of the icon in the middle of the Element, as shown in the image to the right.  It is natural in some cases that our platform cannot come up with any Suggestions at all.

By clicking on an Element that looks like one of the two cases outlined above, you will open up the “What did you mean by…” panel on the left side of the Canvas, as shown in the image to the right.  In this panel, you may find a list of Suggestions, representing what our intelligence engine thinks the Element may be referring to.  

If there is a list of Suggestions provided, scroll through the list to see if there is something suitable that describes the Element created.  If you find one, click on the “Accept” button. Once you do that, you will notice that the Element no longer has that dull visual look to it.

If there is no list of Suggestions provided or nothing in the list is close enough to what the Element is all about, you can click on the  ScreenShot_0303 14-Jul-14 13.04  button at the top of the list to add in your own thoughts.  In the image to the right, the description field has been used to store some personal thoughts on what Sustainability is.  You will notice as you work with each Element type, that each type contains different pieces of information that you can fill in.

Once you have finished this step, you can change the information associated with any Element by either clicking on the Element or by using the right mouse button to bring up the Element’s “Action Menu”.  

Remember, once you create an Element, you can do anything you want with the information associated with it.  You are in complete control.

Why is providing meaning to Elements so important?

This step of adding meaning to Elements is a critical and powerful step in the Canvas creation process and it is very important for you to understand why that is.  The more meaning you give to an Element, the less confusing it will be to understood by our intelligence engine, to yourself when you go back to look at the Canvas in the future and to others you may share your Canvas with.

This step also provides you with the means to re-use Elements that you have created on previous Canvases.  By giving your Elements more meaning, they are stored in your Repository.  Previously created Elements will be identified in the Suggestion list with the words “from Your Existing Knowledge“. 

Step 5: Inquire and expand the Canvas

Once you have set up your Canvas by working through Steps 2 through 4, you are ready to engage in a period of inquiry, where you seek to expand your understanding beyond what you already know.  You may do this by talking to others (possibly sharing with them your current Canvas), reading books or exploring available resources online.   For our part in helping you with your inquiry process, every time you add a new Element and Relation to the Canvas, the context of the Canvas expands.  Our intelligence engine will automatically review what has changed on the Canvas, build a new understanding of the Canvas’s context and begin hunting for new content for you to explore.

Turning to your Canvas, with each Element you may see a blue bubble shape on the top right-hand corner of the Element with a “!” in it that looks like  .  If you don’t see this on an Element, then the Element may be too vague (e.g. you used an acronym or the name you used is too long and needs to be broken down into separate Elements). When you click on this button, you will open up that Element’s “Expansion Suggestions List” panel.  See the image to the right for an example of what Suggestions came up for the Sustainability Element.

From the list of suggested Elements, you can add one that you find relevant to the Canvas by dragging and dropping the Element’s card onto the Canvas.  As a result, a new Element will be created along with a new Relation.  Unlike Elements you create manually, these suggested Elements already start out with some level of meaning, such as a description or link to a website.  As with any Element, you can edit the Element details as you wish if you want to add more information.

If you look closely at the image to the right, you will see  associated with the Sustainability Element.  What this is telling you is that you have opened that Element’s Suggestion List at some point and that there are no new Suggestions for you to look at. 

Why are Suggestions helpful?

Discovering what we don’t know and need to know is what Expansion Suggestions are all about. As you continue to build canvases, Suggestions may include Elements and Relations from other Canvases.  Think of this as a powerful way of allowing you to reuse previous experience and knowledge, without the need for you to remember it yourself at the moment it would be helpful. Suggestions will also come from a variety of external sources, such as the Internet or from other users (sharing between users is coming in a future release). 

Step 6: Refine and repeat

At this point, let’s revisit the visual that was presented at the top of this guide, which outlines our ICE Methodology:   Through Steps 2 to 4, you will have created Elements and Relations that deconstruct and represent a contextually rich visual map of your current thinking and understanding of a situation you are dealing with.  At this point, you will naturally want to engage in a period of inquiry (Step 5), where you are looking to expand your understanding beyond what you already know.  This may include taking advantage of our powerful intelligence engine and the Suggestions it may provide for Elements already on your Canvas. As you continue to gain more clarity, your mind will start to refine your understanding.  To help you with this phase of your Aha! Journey, there are two things you can do with your Canvas to reflect what is going on in your mind:

1) Extract / Add new Elements 

Although expansion Suggestions, outlined in Step 5, can provide useful resources from online sources to review, it is important to keep in mind that what you find is published content from the author’s own perspective and needs.  If one of the Suggestions provided is a reference to an online article or journal, then it is in your best interests to take what you find useful within them and add that information and knowledge to your Canvas by creating new Elements and Relations.

Step 5 is also about taking the opportunity to chat and share with others what you are working on, seeking to tap into their experiences and know-how.  By doing this, you may pick up on some applicable knowledge that you should add to your Canvas. 

In these ways, you can continue to expand the Canvas context with your own perspective and needs in mind, which in turn enhances the context and value of the Canvas and your Aha! Journey.

2) Declutter the Canvas

One of the key outcomes of this period of refinement that your mind goes through is that you will naturally dismiss bits of knowledge that you feel are no longer relevant.  On the Canvas, this means that you should remove any Elements and Relations that are no longer relevant.  Don’t worry, you will have the ability to restore what you have removed.

You can remove Elements and Relations on your Canvas by selecting one of them and then right-click with your mouse to view a menu that provides the action to “Remove from Canvas“.

Repeating Steps 3 through 6 Once you have refined your Canvas context and depending on the complexity of the context you are dealing with, you may need to cycle through Steps 3 to 6 a number of times until you have been able to connect all the dots in your mind and reach that new moment of insight you are looking for.   The number of cycles you will need to work through will depend on how complex the situation you are dealing with is.   If you are still struggling after a few cycles, you might want to think about breaking down your problem definition further and create more than one Canvas to help your thought processes.

Why bother with refine and repeat?

“A graphic is not ‘drawn’ once and for all; it is constructed and reconstructed until it reveals all the relationships constituted by the interplay of the data… “, Jacques Bertin Reaching new moments of insight is a journey that takes you from a state of confusion to a state of clarity, where you finally “get it” and know what to do next.  Solving complex problems or reaching an understanding of complicated issues and subject matter simply takes time for most people, with the greatest challenge being in identifying “the” critical factors that will connect all the dots. By refining your Canvas and if necessary, repeating the cycle of Steps 3 through 6, you will move closer to gaining the clarity you need to reach new and unimaginable insights.  Adding new knowledge and know-how, obtained through the process of inquiry, along with decluttering your Canvas of Elements and Relations of little to no relevance, allows you to achieve a number of important things. First, you will de-clutter the visual representation of your thinking, making it much easier for yourself if you were to come back later to continue on from where you left off or if you were to seek input from others you share your Canvas with. Second, if you haven’t yet reached the moment of insight you are looking for, repeating Steps 3 through 6 may be necessary and much easier to work through.  Finally, you will provide our intelligence engine with a more clearer understanding of the Canvas context to work with in order to provide you with further, more refined relevant Suggestions.

The end result

The image below shows the end result of following the steps outlined above.  This is actually a real Canvas created by one of our early adopter users.  It helped her discover some content and knowledge that she had not come across before or even thought about.



This guide is intended to provide you with a suggested best practice approach to creating new Thought Canvases and getting the most out of them as you search for new insights.  Here are some points to take away, reflect upon and put into practice when creating new Thought Canvases:

  • As stated at the beginning of this guide, you are not pinned down to one specific way of building and harnessing the power of your Canvases.  As you become more familiar with the Canvas environment and we continue to bring you more features, you will find different ways of achieving the outcome you are looking for that work best for you.
  • Each Thought Canvas starts with you creating “seed” Elements to represent the pieces of knowledge you already know about.
  • Creating Thought Canvases is more about your self-directed Aha! Journey than it is about seeking a bunch of facts.  Spend time building out your knowledge map, using the techniques outlined in Steps 2 through 5 repeatedly if need be, organizing the Canvas as you expand it.
  • The more you enhance the context of the Canvas, the greater the chances are that you will discover what you don’t know and need to know, until you are satisfied that you have gained the timely understanding you are looking for.
  • Context can be enhanced by adding Elements (manually or suggested), adding meaning to Elements (e.g. ensuring that Element properties are filled in, such as the description; adding Notes) and creating Relations between Elements.
  • Refining the Canvas context is just as important as expanding it by adding more Elements and Relations.  As you continue down your journey to reaching new insights, it is often a good idea to discard Elements and Relations that are no longer relevant.  Doing this will help our intelligence engine refine Suggestions for you.