Creating a Web of Ideas: An Intro to Mind Maps

Every now and then I get an itch to redesign my personal website domain. Usually this gets spurred when I see some new eye catching web design and I go, "Oooh, shiny." and then wish I could apply more modern designs and graphics to my own home online. I end up breaking out graph paper and project cards and start listing new site structures and what things need to go into my site. Of course, every time I do this, I don't get any further than that. However, a few weeks ago, I saw yet another spiffy design, and out came the hipster. This time, instead of grabbing more than one card, I pulled a single card out and gave it a title. Then, I wrote down SOM (the nickname for my domain) and circled it. From there, I listed sections, tools, colors and anything else I wanted to put into my web space. I successfully created a mind map; the first one I've done since high school.

For the next three weeks, I'm going to discuss mind mapping and how you can apply it to almost every aspect of your life. This article briefly introduces the mind mapping concept, how to make one, and when to use them to get the most bang for your buck. Since I enjoy practical learning experiences, next week we'll go into the details of how you can use and create mind maps throughout an entire project from inception to publication. In the last installment I'll get into online and offline tools and some good book resources to help you jump-start mapping your life.

What is Mind mapping?
Mind mapping is a brainstorming technique that puts your thoughts onto paper in a highly unique and visual manner. It's fun, fast and can generate tons of ideas and connections in very little time. You start with a central word, or picture and branch out, letting your mind free-associate whatever images or other words that appear into your brain as you think about your topic. From there, other pictures or words get spawned, until you have a very cellular, web-like image. In as little as a 15 minutes you can generate up to 50 associations based off one image or word.

Visual mapping, in this way helps you to create more meaning out of the topic you're dealing with and expand your mind's ability to retain more information faster. Mind mapping been around for a very long time, some trace it back to Leonardo daVinci, but it wasn't until the late 1970's when Tony Buzan, "discovered and labeled the technique" and gave the structure for which a mind map can be created. He claims that mind mapping is more organic and natural and a "vastly superior method for taking notes." I know Doug sings of the praises of mapping, as this is one of his favorite brainstorming techniques. Honestly, while I love the idea of mind mapping, it's never really stuck for me. I remember in high school, in my creative writing class, being forced to make a mind map. It was hard. And tedious and I didn't really see the value. For me, creating a mind map only showed that I couldn't draw well and it seemed to slow me down in getting my thoughts out. These days, I'm finding that I want to make more and more of them and have been amazed at the growing amount of results they produce as well as their values. But enough dissertation, let's get into the meat of making one.

How to make a mind map?
First, you'll need a large piece of paper. Yes, I've managed to do small scale mapping with just a single index card but every book I've read recommends starting out with a large sheet of paper. You'll want to give yourself lots of space to explore your drawing style; in addition to making as many connections to your topic as you can. Some go as far to say you need a 11 x 17 piece of paper. That's a bit big for me and I know I can't easily fit it into my sling back bags. Therefore, choose the size that is best for you. You'll also want to have some colored pens or pencils (or crayons) nearby for when you're inspired to splash color on your map.

Before you even start writing or drawing on the paper, take a few minutes to think about what the map will be about. Do you want to create a map showing you how much you know about the US Government system, or what solutions to a problem you're facing at work could be? Thinking about what you want to do first helps lessen the intimidation factor of facing the blank page.

Once you've got your map's idea, grab a pen and push the paper into a landscape (horizontal) form and follow these steps:

  1. Write down the topic (limiting the words down as much as you can) in the middle of the paper. Scribble a picture of what it looks like if you want. Make it big so it stands out!
  2. Draw a branch coming from this word/image and extending into the whiteness of the page. This is a branch and it signifies a deep, personal connection to the topic.
  3. At the empty end of the line, add the word or thought that spurred the branch.
  4. Let your mind create a new association to this word. Follow the branch further out from the center until you cannot come up with anything else. Go back to the center and start branching out new words and thinking.
  5. Watch how your map morphs and progresses with each new thought or image or association. Smile and be amazed, you created that.

Helpful Tips
One Word. Attempt to use only one word at a time and keep them to key words, like tagging. These words, will be the ones you identify as meaningful and you won't forget them as easily as you would others.
Use colors. Our world isn't limited to black and white, so break out the colors. Draw color and let it help expand the meaning of your map.
Room to Wander. Allow your mind to wander. Don't worry if it comes up with weird or new thoughts that you'd never have considered an association before. Write it down! You are not going to be graded on this and no one has to see it. Sometimes, the best ideas come from the most oddball of ideas. Don't do your mind dis-service by locking it into "normal" constraints.

When to use it?
I think what first turned me off on mind mapping way back when, was that I couldn't visualize how to apply this technique. We were told to do it, and I did... but there was never any discussion on what it could do, or where to use it. Therefore, I want to share with you a quick list of ways that you can use mapping in your every day life.

  • Map your yearly goals. Everyone has resolutions at the beginning of the year. Why not make a mind map of yours. You can visually display it at home to remind yourself of the things you want to achieve.
  • Map out your day. Instead of writing down a long list of to-dos, map out your day according to errands, meetings, activities, dining, etc.
  • Project Planning. We'll get into this more next week but you can use a mind map (or several) to map out the success of your next project at work.
  • Map out your feelings. You can make a map of how you feel and why. This could help you examine why you're depressed on certain days and what you can do to help yourself feel better.
  • Map a Book. Make book reports fun! Show, instead of tell, what you really got out of a book.
  • Resume creation. Use a mind map to creatively generate new ideas for your resume, or allow the mind map format become the design to a resume. I'm actually thinking about trying this one out and seeing what professionals think of this format.

And the list can go on and on. But I think this gives you enough ideas to generate more ways to creatively apply mind maps to your own life. Next week, we'll continue to explore the uses of mind mapping by putting it to the test. We'll start a project and apply mind mapping to as much of a project process as we can do. Until then, get your planners ready to explore the mind mapping techniques as we apply them to a real life project. Got a good tip or two, or want to share your personal experiences with mind mapping? Feel free to share it in the comments below.

[Additional Mind Mapping Articles in this series:]
Mind Mapping a Project from Start to Finish
Mind Mapping Resources and Wrap-up

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Mindmaps - the ultimate mind-sweep

No tips, apart from use it as much as you can. Used together with GTD, mind-mapping is a wonderful tool for the mind-sweep as you set up the process. Whenever I start a project I get out the felts, large piece of blank paper and map away. Look forward to the rest of the series.

digital maps?

Anyone care to weigh in on digital mind-mapping?

Every once in a while I take a look at NovaMind or FreeMind, but the effort seems a little much when compared to grabbing a pen and pad and just getting down to it. Of course, my typing speed is atrocious, so that may be a factor.

But they do look pretty.

I tend to start any and all projects with a mind-map. Recently someone glanced over my shoulder and said "Ooooh! A Venn diagram!" My response was the witty "Uh... yeah. I guess." I think my grade three teacher first introduced me to mind mapping, and I don't even think about it when I use them. Any initially unstructured thought just drops onto the paper that way.

I haven't thought much about using them to convey information to other people, but now you've got me pondering with that resume idea...

Thanks for the article!

Ryan (denizen of the lurkosphere)

Ryan, I'll be going over


I'll be going over some of the digital mindmapping applications in part 3 of this series. I wanted to give people the basics and give them a project to apply the knowledge to fist before giving them a whole list of links to chase.

There's a lot of shiny. But imho, shiny can be overwhelming and sometimes clunky... as we'll see in that part's run down of resources.

And let me know if you do the resume idea. I'm almost considering talking to recruiters and other people who hire to see what they think of the idea of a visual resume.

Thanks for posting!

jumping the gun

Sorry 'bout that! Looking forward to the rest of the series.

I don't need to do a resume right now, but the concept of mindmapping for others is starting to percolate through some other project ideas...

Not an expert, but I suspect the mind-mapped resume might only fly in a narrow spectrum of contexts, e.g. design or maybe advertising positions. I once knew someone who was hired by a design firm using a resume with a funky graphic of herself bursting through a barcode at the top of the page, with info artfully arranged in clusters around the falling bars, but I know she was advised to submit a conventional resume when applying for a junior management position.


it shows desire

oh please... I'm glad you're jumping the gun a bit. I was worried at first that this topic wasn't going to be well received here. It's a lot more fun and quick to do and I have been uncovering lots of gems online to show and share with you all.

*nods* That's what I was thinking... regarding the resumes. Good thing I'm in the creative industry. :) And that resume... sounds really neat.

Thanks for showing interest and I hope to deliver more goodies for you next week!


If you're interested in

If you're interested in learning about mind mapping software, a well-regarded resource site is my Mind Mapping Software Blog ( FYI!

Pens and paper is much

Pens and paper is much easier, and quicker, and being true to Mr Buzan's thesis, the best way to do it with regard to visual stimulus, many of the electronic versions are glorified spider diagram makers... however, I have a long list of electronic versions, both online and offline that I often fire up and tinker with - depends what you find easiest I suppose.

We all wait for the rest of the series.

Inspiration is my friend

Wonderful article...many thanks for this series! I would not be getting through grad school without my mind-mapping software called Inspiration. They are found at: (free trial site) When I am researching to write a paper, I take notes directly into the outline view and then write from that outline. I just used it to map out in the graphic view all the projects that were in my head. It is freeing to see it all organized and prettily printed out. It represents a plan! I also wrote some of the educators' training materials for the PDA version for the Palm. Nice company to work for.

"To fly, we must have resistance."

Pocket Map

I recently purchased a Pocket Moleskine Cahier three-pack with blank pages. One of which I have designated as my "mind map" book. I carry it inside my Daytimer credit card wallet that also houses two other cahiers ("daily record" and "reference"), and my pocket calendar. I carry a quad point pen which makes adding splashes of color much easier. Being a list writer by nature, I then transfer ideas on to a 3 x 5 "project" notecard that gets plugged into my project list.

I like to escape the office for "think time", and my pocket mind map booklet comes in handy while sipping a cup of java.


getting organised

I was struggling with a project on Friday to get into the organising phase. Lots of Purpose, Visualisation, and Brainstorming, but no Organise! So I went back to the book and it said, put your nose to the grindstone and sort it by Components, and/or Sequences and/or Priorites. But I still couldn't do the sorting. All the ideas from my brainstorm were on bullet points in groups, but I could decide where to go. It was all buzzing around in my mind. So I went back to the book. Lacking Clarity? Go up a stage. But that's Brainstorming I thought, that my problem. Ah but wait, maybe a mindmap would help me sort out the priorities. So I tried one, my first ever. It worked. I found a few new points I hadn't thought off, some unclosed loops (no feedback to confirm actions were done), and I saw I had gone down some routes as far as I needed, and I saw where my next priority really lay. So I had my components sorted, and yes, that got me to my Next Actions again and I was off!

So, in short, it works.

Did one today...

Thanks for the article. I have MindManager installed on my PC, but stopped using it after I did a few Mindmaps. Just thought it was too rigid.

Today I did a fullblown one with pen and paper re. a project planning issue. Pen and paper felt liberating... After that I entered the whole thing into MindManager so as to show with other implicated people. This may be the way to go. At least your article got me going again.

Really looking forward to your following articles.

Rgds, Bas

Just thought I'd chime in.

Just thought I'd chime in. I use freemind on my laptop for taking notes for all of my classes and I really like it, it seems much more of "active" style of note taking and I feel it helps me remember more.

I myself love Idea mapping

I myself love Idea mapping instead of Mind mapping... the difference is that most of the rules are out the window and it is closer to how my mind works.
I really like Jamie Nast's book called Idea Mapping, you can see more at her site including a lot of maps...

This is a great post (and

This is a great post (and series), thanks. I'm recommending it to some of my students, and I'll be blogging about it soon, I'm sure.

I've been a fan of mind mapping for some time, and you've done a bang-up job of pulling together some great resources, and explained it really well.

Thanks again.

We have to use our visual

We have to use our visual memory .. it's easier that way to remember things.. at least for me :D
Nice plan anyway!