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This article is from May 2, 2008, and is no longer current.

Thinking Outside the List

I’ve had a long-standing love affair with dry-erase boards. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t pull out markers to scribble a note or a diagram. (My affection for whiteboards goes so far I even gave one of them a nickname: “old yeller,” after some cheap yellow ink wouldn’t erase completely.) Although I may be an extreme case, I’m not alone in this passion. Jotting down on-the-fly diagrams, whether on a whiteboard or a sheet of paper, can help us think and communicate more clearly in a wide range of situations.
This observation is the fundamental insight behind “mind mapping,” a technique popularized by psychologist Tony Buzan. Buzan argued that traditional approaches to note taking, like bullet-point outlines, are geared exclusively towards the linear-thinking left hemisphere of the brain. As a result, these kinds of notes often fail to capture the less clearly structured, more creative ideas that come from the non-linear parts of our minds.
Mind maps can solve this problem. By using elements like color, shape, and spatial relationships in addition to text, mind maps can harness the inspiration of our right-brain selves as well as the rational left-brain list-maker in each of us. They’re powerful tools in your creative arsenal.
Mind Maps 101
The basic technique of mind mapping is simple: Take a sheet of paper and write a core idea at the center of the page. Write related ideas around the central concept, using different colors or shapes to link items that seem connected. Free associate without being judgmental, and see what emerges. Feel free to add small drawings or additional text if they help express an idea more clearly. Voila: you’ve just created your first mind map.
Figure 1. Artist John Clapp created this mind map. Click on the image to see a larger version. To see more mind maps that are nearly works of art, go to “Vision + Art: The Biology of Seeing” and Moonfruit.com.

It’s the simplicity of this technique that makes it so powerful, since it allows your creativity to flow naturally and can be applied to virtually any subject or problem. However, if you prefer more detailed instructions, look at Map Your Mind.
Designing for an Interactive World
Mind maps can enhance the creative process for virtually any project. Whether you’re working on a Web site, an article, or a branding package, one of the first steps is laying out related concepts and sources of inspiration. Mind maps concisely capture these ideas, and are particularly useful for designing complex projects that include many different, related pieces, like a software application or Web site made up of multiple pages, elements, or components that need to work together as a visual language.
To design a complex, multi-faceted system, you need to understand the relationship between its different concepts, pieces of information, and functions. For example, does it make more sense for a Web site to use tabs or a left-hand menu for navigation? What options should be available on each screen of a software application? Which pieces of information should always be visible to users? Which pages should be linked together? Although traditional static mockups can help establish a sensibility and direction for complex designs, they don’t provide clear answers for these kinds of questions. By comparison, mind maps can be a powerful tool of communicating the relationship between the parts of a complex system, and visually describing how different components will relate to each other.
The mind map can also act as a living schematic that evolves with your design. An initial version for a project might be a simple text-only document, mapping out the different parts of the system and showing their relationships to each other (which can double as a handy list of project deliverables). Once all the stakeholders in the project have agreed on this outline, you can update the map with sample assets, screenshots, and detailed mockups, providing an at-a-glance overview of how the final system will work. Using mind maps to facilitate communication and provide a common point of reference can help avoid costly misunderstandings and make sure that even the most complex system is designed as an elegant, intuitive whole.
A Digital Compass for the Wired Mind
Although you don’t need any special equipment to start experimenting with mind maps, there is software that can streamline the mapping process and help you create visually appealing presentations from your maps.
Windows-only Microsoft Visio is intended to be a general-purpose diagramming package, but includes a number of features that make it well suited to mind mapping. While Visio describes some of its features as being for topic-specific diagrams, such as building floor plans, you can easily use them for mind mapping.
Figure 2. Microsoft Visio supports a wide range of diagram styles.

The Mac-only OmniGraffle is a general-purpose diagramming application for creating flow charts, org charts, illustrations, and diagrams from simple to complex. There are stencils (sets of templates and elements) for everything from electrical wiring diagrams to brainstorming mind maps. You can also create custom stencils.
Figure 3. Creating a process diagram using OmniGraffle.

Unlike Visio and OmniGraffle, ConceptDraw MindMap is specifically for mind mapping. It has a full suite of drawing tools for creating mind map diagrams, and a “brainstorming mode” you can configure with a countdown timer and interactive prompts to simplify entering new ideas. It runs on both Windows and the Mac.
Figure 4. A simple mind map built using ConceptDraw MindMap. Click on the image to see a larger version.

There are several other applications you can use for mind mapping. To help you select the one that’s right for your workflow, see the next section.
Which App Is Best for You?
First consider the types of projects you’ll use it for, and the intended purpose of the diagram. Some useful questions to keep in mind include:

  • Do you plan to create general-purpose mind-maps, or use mind-mapping as a way of creating mockups of specific interfaces or processes?
  • Do you plan to use mind mapping as a tool for project management?
  • Are you more interested in creating polished and artistic diagrams, or quickly capturing ideas and relationships?

The comparison table below may help you choose the tool that’s right for you.

Product Platform Areas of Focus Price* Free Trial Version? URL
ConceptDraw MindMap

Mac OS X,


Mind mapping, brainstorming, project planning $199.00 30-day trial https://www.conceptdraw.

Mac OS X,

Windows. Limux

Mind mapping, project planning Free Unlimited https://freemind.
Microsoft Visio Windows General diagrams, application mockups, process diagrams, blueprints $259.95 60-day trial https://office.microsoft.
MindJet Mind Manager

Mac OS X,


Mind mapping, brainstorming, project planning $129.00 21-day trial https://www.mindjet.
Omni Group OmniGraffle

Mac OS X

General diagrams, application mockups, process diagrams, simple layouts $99.95 30-day trial https://www.omnigroup

Free trial versions of all these packages are available for download to help you make a more informed decision.

  • Ron C. de Weijze says:

    I have been jotting down notes even before I was a student, 25 years ago. So now I have hundreds of pages scribbled full of things I felt I needed to know and to keep for later use. Fourteen years ago, I started developing an application that had to deal with these notes in a better way, preferably to use them on whiteboards, as sticky notes, relate them, use the relations to navigate the growing network, reuse the notes and the relations on other boards, from another perspective on another day, every day. Now I have 8000 notes I constantly use. They play roles in all kinds of perspectives and receive one new aspect from that perspective. The more perspectives, the more aspects, the more likely the notes become ’round characters’. It is meant for students and teachers, or anybody interested in lifelong learning.

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