Build a better brainstorm with mind mapping

As a junior-high student I learned two strategies for tackling writing projects: brainstorming and outlining. The former was free-form and messy; the latter tightly organized and formal. The idea was to brainstorm first and get all the ideas out of your head, without hesitation or editing. Imagine a dump truck depositing a payload of sand onto the ground. It’s effective, but you’ve got to do some clean-up work before you can move on with your project.

After sifting through to find the usable nuggets, the next step was to arrange them in a tidy outline, which served as the backbone of the final project. Today, I still do these things, but with one change. The brainstorm has given way to a mind map, which combines the avalanche of sand with a little more order, akin to an outline. In short, think of a mind map as an uncluttered brainstorm.

There’s lots of great software to help you create a mind map, though a pen and paper will do. Here’s how to create one, reap the benefits and find a software solution that works for you.

You’ll find many definitions of what a mind map is, but mine goes like this: A mind map is a diagram used to organize a brainstorm. It starts with a single word — often the topic or heart of your project — inside a circle. Supporting ideas are drawn around the main idea inside their own circles and connected with lines. As an example, here’s a mind map I used for this article (at left).

I started by writing “Mind Mapping” in the center, and then began to think about the topic. What about mind mapping do I want to share? That triggered the brainstorm and ideas came, like why do it, software available, organizational benefits, and so on. Each idea got its own “node” on the map. You’ll notice that “Software options” has three nodes of its own: Mac, PC and iOS. Those are referred to as “children,” as they all relate to the “parent” node, “Software options.” That’s where the organization comes into the process. Instead of generating a simple list during a brainstorm with no rhyme or reason to its order, a mind dump lets you group related ideas as you go, without hindering the brainstorm process. As you think of more ideas, just keep going, adding lines and nodes. Eventually you’ll reach the point of exhaustion and you’ll know you’re done.

At this point, I’ll review the diagram I produced and use it to create an outline and finally begin my writing project. This method really helps me feel on top of my project, doesn’t produce a jumbled mess that must be sorted into an outline, and results in a better final product every time.

As I said, there are many pieces of software available to help you create a mind map. I’ll introduce you to four: one for the Mac, one for Windows, and two for the iPad.

Mind Node (Mac, free lite version or $9.99 for Mind Node Pro)

My favorite mind mapping software for the Mac is Mind Node. It’s no-frills interface lets you focus on your project instead of getting stuck fiddling with colors and other little tweaks. Branches are color-coded (you can adjust with the colors if you like) and there are plenty of keyboard shortcuts if that’s your thing. Also, built-in Dropbox synchronization keeps your mind maps available across Macs or even with Mind Node Touch for iPad. Nearly every writing project I complete, from a book to a blog post, begins life as a mind map in Mind Node.

As for what’s different between the lite and pro versions, you’ll find features like image nodes, Wi-Fi sync between desktop and touch version, improved hyperlinks and improved printing options in the pro version.

Mindjet MindManager (Windows and Android; $399 for Windows version)

MindManager isn’t inexpensive but it’s extremely powerful. It will look familiar to anyone who has used Microsoft Office, as it uses a similar ribbon toolbar, which reduces the learning curve typical of new software, as does the built-in tutorial. Speaking of Office, there’s extensive support for Microsoft’s suite of apps built right in, and a number of export options, like PDF and Flash animations, making sharing easy, no matter what kind of computer your collaborators use.

MindNode Touch (iPad, $9.99)
IThoughtsHD (iPad, $9.99)

There are two great options for the iPad. The first is MindNote Touch, the sibling to the desktop app. It works in much the same way, but “touching” your ideas — to use a market-friendly phrase — adds some fun. Thanks to Dropbox, you can sync mind maps you make on your iPad with your Mac and vice-versa, which is very convenient.

IThoughtsHD is another mind mapping app for the iPhone and iPad. There are a few features that set it apart but my favorite is the ease with which you can create nodes, child notes and sibling nodes. While MindNode requires you to move from the keyboard to the mind map itself to create and label nodes, iThoughtsHD lets you keep your hands on the keyboard at all times. For example, hitting the space bar three times in a row creates a new child mode. No need to move your hands up to the map. Likewise, hitting the Return key three times creates a sibling node. It’s very fast.

I use mind mapping for writing projects, but that’s hardly its only use. I’ve also created map to organize a vacation, chart a video project, plan for a wedding and more. Give it a try the next time you’ve got a project on your plate that’s large or small, business or personal. You still have that powerful brainstorming session, but will avoid sifting through the resulting mess before getting on with the rest of the work.

16 Comments for “Build a better brainstorm with mind mapping”

  1. posted by Kevin Behringer on


    Just wanted to give you a head’s up. The Windows version of Mind Manager is $399. That $79 is just for Software Assurrance (upgrades, support, etc.)

  2. posted by Deb Lee on

    I used mind maps when I was a teacher and needed to create lesson plans. Funny how I forgot that until I read your post. Back then, I used paper and pencil (actually, paper and Sharpie). I think I might give one of the iPad apps a go.

  3. posted by David Caolo on

    Kevin, you’re right. Oops! That’s quite a difference! Fixed. Thanks.

  4. posted by David Caolo on

    That Windows option is much more expensive than I originally thought! So here’s an alternative. is a free, web-based mind mapping application that doesn’t care what kind of computer you have. It even features advanced collaboration tools if you’re part of a team. Check it out if you’re not ready to spend that much money.

  5. posted by Julia on

    Thank you for the article. I usually use this application:
    It is free as well and I believe you don’t have to spend so much money when you have some free web applications as well. And if you like it you always can support the creator of the web app, am I right? 🙂

  6. posted by Candid on

    I just looked for Windows based software for mind mapping. I found the best source for referrals came off of David Allen’s forum.

    Here are two good threads with lots of suggestions:

  7. posted by anon on

    I took an outline/brainstorm for a project I’m currently working on and started inputting the information into one of the programs above, just to see if I would like it.

    I love it! Thank-you for sharing this!

  8. posted by Chris Butterworth on

    I wish I had known about mind mapping when I was in school. (but that was awhile ago.) I’ve been using this process for about 5 years, and now have a hard time taking “regular” notes.

    One of the greatest features is that, when you start a brainstorming process, you don’t know where it’s going to go! The free-flowing lack of structure allows your notes to keep up with your thoughts.

    Also, Although I’m about 99% paperless, I still do my mind-maps with paper & pen, then I scan/photo them into Evernote..

  9. posted by Toni on

    FreeMind and XMind are also free. Here’s a list of the other free programs: http://www.informationtamers.c.....)_software (look under mind maps).

    Also, here’s a mind map of most popular mind mapping programs: Hope these help.

  10. posted by Linda Varone on

    I am confused here. I discovered mind mapping several years ago and love that it allows the free-flow of ideas without analyzing them. My sense is that using a computer form of mind mapping gets in the way of that free flow. Your ever-critical left brain gets in the way as you are using the tool. I can understand using a computer program/app if you want to make a formal presentation of your mind map, but does it really help the creative process?
    I would love to hear people’s comments on this.

  11. posted by Anna on

    Thank you so much for this article! I’m gonna use this technique in so many things!

  12. posted by ninakk on

    Linda, if it is a good program you can add colours, change fonts and what not. Problem with writing by hand is that the map can’t change course at all, you can’t shuffle things around. I have used FreeMind but wan’t too crazy about the output options back in the day?

    Mindmapping is excellent for note taking during self-studies and lectures. Just add information when you learn more. Should be taught in schools as it is so much faster and to the point.

  13. posted by ninakk on

    Sorry for the typos above.
    Forgot to add this list, which is comprehensive:

    And this:

    Not all software are shareware, but free.

  14. posted by Gary Allman on

    I was surprised not to see a specific mention of the java-based and therefore cross platform, opensource mind mapping tool – Freemind –

    Well worth checking out.

  15. posted by Katherine on

    For simple mind maps, I like

    It’s free.

  16. posted by Leanne Nelson on

    Great outline, David. I’ve been using mind mapping exclusively for my study this year and it’s been very successful. My tool of choice, after trialling lots of different ones, is iMindMap from Tony Buzan’s company. I’m not hugely impressed with the continuous sales pitches, but I really like the software.

    @Linda, for my study notes I find using a computerised mind mapping tool is very useful for keeping things organised or when I want to go back and find certain things. I agree that for getting the creative juices flowing, there’s something about pen to paper that really gets things firing. For my assignments I’ll sometimes start with hand drawn mind maps and then transfer them to the computer.

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