(4m reading time)
A mind map on mind mapping. Mind. Blown.

Many of us stop using mind maps as soon as we exit school. I think I’ve seen a mind map maybe once in my entire professional career. This makes me sad, and I want to convince you to give the underrated mind map another chance. With some love the mind map can pay big dividends for you.

Mind What?

A Mappio mind map template.

According to Wikipedia a mind map is an infographic in which a single concept is written or drawn on a page, and related ideas connect to it in a branching structure. The mind map is a popular brainstorming tool, as it is a great way to organize a collection of spontaneous ideas.

I was surprised to learn that this way of visualizing information has very ancient roots–I always thought of it as a pretty modern idea. Apparently the only modern part is the name “Mind map,” which was coined by Tony Buzan in the late 1970s.

I’m a big lister of things. I have lists of stuff to do, stuff to research, places to go, stuff to buy, people to call, you name it. I’m a huge fan of the list, but

due to its linear nature the list can miss important relationships between items.

I see the mind map as a valuable tool for fixing this issue, as it adds a new dimension to my previously one-dimensional lists.

But I Hate Drawing.


Me too. Well, that’s not strictly true. I enjoy drawing, but I’m not great at it. I have the handwriting of a 12-year-old, the spacial estimation skills of a toddler, and a few of the obsessive compulsive tendencies of Howie Mandel. Suffice to say, trying to organize and draw my ideas directly on a page (as they come to me at random!) can be a painful thing. And for many years that’s what stopped me from mind mapping. That was stupid.

Software abounds that can help quickly create attractive, legible mind maps. I recently tried out XMind and really enjoyed it. They offer a free version of their mind mapping software tool, and I found it pretty intuitive to use. There’s a whole plethora of tools out there. Not long ago Lifehacker.com ranked the top five mind-mapping tools–if you’re not into XMind I suggest checking them out.

Where’s the Spontaneity?

This is one of the most critical parts of a successful brainstorming session. Your ideas need to be captured in their free-flowing, unedited form. Creating objects, typing, and drawing lines in software can get in the way of that. Here’s how I get around it:

  1. aXXzT
    The microphone is your friend for free associations.

    I grab my iPhone and open up the “Notes” application. I create a new Note and click the microphone to start recording. If you’re not a fan of smartphones any dictation program will do.

  2. I close my eyes, think about the brainstorm subject, and start talking. I dictate a bunch of free associations and ideas related to my brainstorm topic into my iPhone. I like this type of unstructured idea capture method because most people can talk faster than they type, and there are no tools or distractions to get in the way.
  3. Once I am out of associations and ideas I email the Note I’ve created to myself. I open the email on my computer, and I now I’m ready to insert my free-recall ideas list into a mind map. Time to add some visual structure!
  4. Potato mind map starter
    Central concept.

    I open XMind and create a new, blank “Workbook” (mind map). I replace the words “Central Topic” in the starting shape with my brainstorm topic.                                                                                                                                     .

  5. Potato mind map first ideas
    Adding the first few related ideas.

    I copy each word or phrase one at a time into the new mind map. The first few terms I add just get connected directly to the “Central Topic” term. As I add terms I notice relationships between them.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   .

    1. Potato mind map branch type 1
      Recognizing a new idea is the “child” of an existing idea.

      Perhaps I’ll branch a term off from another existing term instead of connecting it to the center. (See “Tuber” branching off of “Vegetable”.)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               .

    2. Potato mind map branch type 2
      Recognizing a new idea is the “parent” of an existing idea.

      Or, upon looking at a new term, I’ll realize that an existing term should really branch off this new term instead of connecting to the center. (See “Cooking” taking the place of “Baked” as a primary idea connected to”Potato”.)                                                                                                                                                        .

  6. Potato mind map research ideas
    New ideas can come from further research.

    Once I have my stream-of-consciousnesses ideas on the mind map, I often augment this with ideas and terms from research. I’ll do some online searches about my central topic and see how additional information can either add to the mind map or suggest structural alterations.

I find that while I assemble my mind map, the emerging visual structure of it often triggers more ideas.

In this way a mind map can power greater creativity and insight for you.

When to Mind Map?

A mind map can come in handy whenever you’re looking to:

  • generate or organize ideas
  • visually organize attributes of a concept

In particular, I use mind maps when I need to:

  • plan a project
  • create or present brand associations
  • organize a feature collection for a specific user workflow

Try out a mind map for your next brainstorming session and let me know how it goes!