IdeaMurals: a Graphical Interface for Supporting Ideation in Public Policy Knowledge Work

IdeaMurals: a Graphical Interface for Supporting Ideation in Public Policy Knowledge Work


Tools such as InkKit [2] and Denim [4] are inspiring because the creative expression of design ideas can be rapidly reified as functioning prototypes. Having been employed as a graphic designer, I deeply appreciate such tools that make easily visible the ideas formed in the mind. It seems that for designers, supporting their ideation is synonymous with supporting their creativity and innovation. As they ideate, they are being creative and we can see the visible results of their work in form of sketches, graphical prototypes and models. If ideation and creativity are linked for designers, then what about ideation in work that is textual or not inherently design oriented? Is such textbased ideation creative as well, especially given that visible artifacts attesting to creativity in non-graphical work are not easily available (as is the case with design)?

I ask these questions to highlight a difference between work that is design-oriented or inherently graphical versus work that is non-graphical or inherently textual. An example of work that is inherently textual is public policy research. Unlike areas such as engineering design or mathematics, the public policy domain does not have sketches or symbols that easily represent ideas. The majority of ideas are expressed textually with the graphics being mostly representations of statistical data. However, since the majority of public policy is not necessarily collecting statistics but researching government actions and dictates, this domain can be designated as text-based knowledge work.

This distinction between graphical versus textual knowledge work is important because it seems that much of the focus is on researching creativity support tools work that is primarily graphical; and this emphasis is understandable given that graphical knowledge work provides a ready-road map for how to support ideation. In many ways, supporting ideation for such work means digitizing existing practices and modes of creative expression, e.g., InkKit [2] makes sketched website buttons into real clickable ones. However, this emphasis on supporting mostly graphical knowledge work seems to imply that creativity resides in work involving design. Is this necessarily the case? I contend that creativity does not exclusively reside in graphical knowledge work but that creativity is present in all knowledge work. Evidence of this can be found in innovative policy instruments that have been created to influence government action. A more specific example is the MEMEX idea envisioned by Vannevar Bush, an engineer cum public policymaker, who wrote about it in 1945 [1]. Fortunately, he has been cited often by those seeking to reify his vision and so his creative idea remains visible.

It then follows that if creativity is also in text-based knowledge work like public policy, then those designing creativity support tools should not ignore such domains when researching ways to support ideation. However, this is challenging to do because innovation in laws, policies and regulations are hidden in many volumes of text and often, the only way to uncover it is to undertake a serial reading of dense text. This “hidden-ness” makes it difficult to find a ready-road map of how to support text-based ideation. Consequently, the state-of-the-art tool that is available to support ideation in text-based knowledge work is the word processor or paper [7].

In this paper, I discuss an approach which may be a starting point for supporting ideation in text-based knowledge work. The knowledge area that I focus on is public policy and the techniques I consider for use are drawn largely from information visualization. I focus on public policy because this is the knowledge area which gave us the National Science Foundation. Researchers in this discipline are responsible for shaping much of the government action that influences innovation activity across the country. Their knowledge work heavily influences the extent to which the innovation work of others is supported in terms of funding. Given what public policy researchers do for national innovation, it seems only natural to seek ways to support the creativity in their work.


Shneiderman offers a four-phase framework for supporting creativity which is entirely centered on what we do with information, i.e., we collect it, relate it, create it, and donate it [8]. He seems to suggest that our creativity in ideation seems heavily dependent on how we see and use information. With this in mind, the organizing principle of my approach to supporting creativity is to do so according to how people construct ideas. This approach is in line with the approach taken in providing ideation support to designers. Functions and features are crafted to work with how the designer develops an idea through sketches and the like.

However, my approach also involves making three assumptions or beliefs about ideation. The first is that ideation in knowledge work in general seems to start with a seed of an idea, possibly a trigger. This seed then is either fed or grown with new information or discarded or possibly forgotten. If the seed is grown, then a process of collecting and relating seems to occur, as described by Shneiderman [8].

The second is that ideation can be framed as being analogous to art compositions. Specifically, in creating an art piece, disparate elements are combined together to form an integrated whole; and a variety of visual elements are used in different ways and at different times. The canvas upon which the art is being composed can accommodate varying degrees of completeness. There are no functions which force the artist to complete their graphical ideas. I frame ideation as being analogous to the formation of art compositions in order to use it as a roadmap for how to support ideation. For example, a large complex idea in public policy is what is known as the “innovation system”. This large, complex idea is pivotal for understanding how science and technology policy should be formulated and is responsible for shaping government support of innovation activity in a country. This idea forms the basis of many other ideas and like an art composition, many disparate information elements need to be integrated into it.

The third is that I define the information used in ideation as intentional information. By this term, I refer to unstructured nuggets of information (not necessarily files) that have been gathered purposefully with the intention of being used again. This intent of reuse differentiates this type of information from other types that are more unintentional, e.g., the extraneous data that surrounds the two sentences one wanted to save from a web news article or the many unsolicited emails one has read but not yet deleted. Intentional information is different from other data because it has effectively been “berry-picked” and stored to provide present or future support for a person’s tasks. A user’s intention is specifically associated with that piece of data.

In addition to these three assumptions, I plan to use a set of design criteria defined in the NSF Workshop Report on Creativity Support Tools (2005) to guide my proposed solution. It states “any Creativity Support Tool should allow the user: to take an holistic view of the source data or raw material with which they work; to suspend judgment on any matter at any time and be able to return to that suspended state easily; to be able to make unplanned deviation; return to old ideas and goals; formulate, as well as solve, problems; and to re-formulate the problem space as their understanding of the domain or state of the problem changes.” [5]

IdeaMural Interface

What follows is a description of a proposed interface called IdeaMurals. It provides knowledge workers whose work is primarily text-based such as public policy researchers with features that allow them to create idea compositions. The basic “canvas” for these idea compositions will be an art piece which will be used to make the idea mural. For the discussion in this paper, the art piece I will use is Thunderstorm by Grandma Moses [3]. Each art piece will represent a large idea that the user is developing. For the purposes of this discussion, I will use the previously mentioned idea of “innovation systems”.

The user will be able to create regions within the art piece which represent a sub-idea as shown in figure 1. The idea is to let users choose a meaningful region which they can use as a visual landmark to associate with their sub-idea – a technique similar to the one used in Data Mountain [6]. Even though sub-regions within the art image will not necessarily semantically match the sub-ideas placed there, there are benefits of doing this over using a blank canvas. For example, suppose two sub-ideas of innovation system are “government actors who set science and technology policy” and “non-government organizations that implement science and technology policy” are placed in subregions as shown in figure 2. To appreciate the difference between these two ideas apart from the canvas, one must read them in serial. Now suppose there are seven supporting documents associated with each of these sub-ideas. Since the sub-regions involve similar graphical elements, it will be difficult to distinguish between them at a glance. To add some distinction to these similar graphical elements, the image provides distinctive regions on which to place the two different sub-ideas.

As a graphical interface, IdeaMural will support three primary tasks. These tasks are defined based the design criteria which stipulates that supports should be provided for using information for idea development, seeing the information or “raw data” used and being able to “take time off” from an idea and then come back to it at a later date. #Task 1 – idea play or developing the idea: Being able to play with an idea is critical for development. This idea play is almost like a “pre-conceptualization” task where the idea that starts off as a seed is grown. Supporting this task may require giving users the ability to play with their ideas much like how they do on paper. Thoughts are written down, possibly in a concept map-like form; lines are drawn to show connections between these thoughts. However, one function that paper does not afford is fluidly moving the ideas so that they can be easily be associated with others according to attributes such as topics or time. It is likely that there are other aspects of idea playing which need to be supported, but more study is needed to identify what they are.

  1. Task 2 – idea status or taking time off and coming back to an idea: In order to take time off from an idea and to be able to come back to it, there needs to be a way to indicate the completeness (or incompleteness) or an idea. Furthermore, the visual representation of an idea should include memory triggers to facilitate the “coming back”.

  1. Task 3 – idea storage or seeing the raw data: A meaningful place and method for visually storing and idea is needed to give the knowledge worker a sense that the idea that is being incubated or developed is not lost or scattered in a folder hierarchy. Doing so will enable all the raw data to be seen [5]. Furthermore, the data relationships that have been defined should also be preserved so that they do not have to be reconstructed each time the information is used.

Supporting idea play

The thrust behind supporting idea play is to provide what would effectively be a richer concept map. Figure 3 shows a zoomed-in view of a region of the idea mural specified as a sub-idea #1. In this view, users would be able to shift ideas around. For example, this sub-idea has several examples as supporting evidence. The flow of argument for this sub-idea is captured in the text-boxes and shows how related information is connected.

The important function that the idea play feature gives to users is a better means for expressing the degree of relevance between the information pieces. If a user wanted to express degree of relevance, it can be done in using spatial proximity, the closer a piece of information is to the central thought in a sub-idea, the closer the visual representation object is. Relevance can also be shown by drawing a line where the thickness of the line indicating relevance; the thicker it is, the more relevant. Degree of relevance can also be shown using color encodings; the more relevant it is, the more closely the color of the idea matches with the central thought of the sub-idea. The overhead to express degree of relevance using these three means in a word processor is often not worth cost. At a glance, the user might be able to assess that PITAC and the Competitiveness Initiative is highly relevant, whereas the Department of Transportation is less so.

Supporting idea status

To depict idea status, I propose using two sliders and “spotlights”. The first slider would show degree of completeness by allowing the user to make the sub-idea region with less developed ideas look more sketch-like or more like the original picture. The second would be a history slider which would show how a sub-region had changed over time. As the user moved the history slider, they would be able to see what information bits were added or subtracted. Finally, the spotlights (as show in figure 4) would be colored regions which users could designate as sub-sub-ideas they would like to focus on for later; or they could indicate that those particular sub-sub-ideas were complete.

Supporting storage of idea and related information

The ways in which IdeaMural supports the tasks of idea play and idea status also provides indirect support for storing the ideas a policy researcher or other text-based knowledge worker is developing. Relevant documents are kept in close proximity to the ideas or sub-ideas they support. However, more direct support of idea storage could be achieved by allowing the user to create multiple idea murals. Each idea mural would then shrink to a thumbnail view and be available on the desktop for any-time viewing. If a policy researcher has 11 different ideas murals, he or she can easily can the murals to determine which one he is looking for since the images will be distinct. Once the thumbnail is selected with a mouse-click, it would expand to a full-view showing the entire set of ideas and information associated with the idea.


The ideas presented here are nascent and certainly in need more development. More understanding is needed in how public policy researcher ideas in order inform the interface design. By participating in the graduate symposium, I am hoping to receive direction in how to go about investigation the relationship between ideation and creativity. Does one necessarily entail the other? If so, then how do people use and re-use information they collect to ideate? I am also interested in receiving guidance in clarifying the issues or problems with my proposed solution. In the end, am I proposing a heavyweight visualization for tasks that can be better supported using a more lightweight visualization?


  1. Bush, V. As we may think. Atlantic Monthly, July 1945.
  2. Chung, R., Mirica, P., and Plimmer, B. 2005. InkKit: a generic design tool for the tablet PC. SIGCHI New Zealand Chapter's international Conference on Computer-Human interaction: Making CHI Natural (Auckland, New Zealand, 2005).
  3. Grandma Moses. Thunderstorm.
  4. Lin, J., Newman, M. W., Hong, J. I., and Landay, J. A. 2000. DENIM: finding a tighter fit between tools and practice for Web site design. SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (The Hague, The Netherlands, 2000).
  5. National Science Foundation Workshop Report Creativity Support Tools. (2005)
  6. Robertson, G., Czerwinski, M., Larson, K., Robbins, D. C., Thiel, D., and van Dantzich, M. 1998. Data mountain: using spatial memory for document management. Proceedings of User interface Software and Technology (San Francisco, CA, 1998).
  7. Sellen, A. and Harper, R. Paper as an analytic resource for the design of new technologies. SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (Atlanta, GA, 1997).
  8. Shneiderman, B. Creating creativity: user interfaces for supporting innovation. ACM Transactions on Compuer-Human Interaction. 7, 1, Mar. 2000