July 21, 2008

Simple Mindmaps How-To

Mindmapping is a very powerful technique which you can use when trying to tackle complex problem areas, such as new ideas, studying of new subjects, analysis of problems, organizing, writing, decision-making, etc.


You need:

  • a big piece of paper
  • a pen

Don’t bother with a pencil and an eraser - if you make an error, just smudge it over and rewrite. Also, don’t try to make your mindmap a masterpiece of art!

The Process

As an example, suppose you are tasked with creating a new toy for puppies. You’ve never had a dog, don’t know what makes them tick, and generally don’t know where to aim, so you want to analyze things first. You’ll try to figure out what a “puppy” is through mindmapping.

Start by making a bubble with the word “puppy” in it. This is the thing you should focus on when building the map.

Next, you add new information by creating new branches which emanate from the main bubble. The branches collect related information and can contain new branches.

Tip: keeping the nodes and associations concise will help with readability.

Let’s take an example.

The start point

Next, you add some more information by thinking about things you associate with a puppy. Try to really probe the issue. For example, you can ask yourself:

  • What defines a puppy?
  • What feelings does a puppy awake?
  • How does a puppy behave?
  • How does a puppy look like?
  • What do I associate with a puppy?
  • etc.

…and you’ll get:

First branches added

For each node, keep on probing your associations and asking questions to proceed even further. For example:

  • What defines a puppy? -It’s a baby dog
  • What feelings does a puppy awake in me? -Cute, lovable
  • How does a puppy behave? -Barks, sleeps
  • How does a puppy look like? -Four legs, tail and a tiny doggie face
  • What do I associate with a puppy? -Newspaper, wonder why…
  • etc.

…and you’ll get:

Expanding the branches

Note, you can group your ideas, concepts, associations etc. into new groups and associations and overall change the mindmap as you see fit, whenever you want. It’s also good to note when one can generalize certain associations - this helps to raise the abstraction level a bit higher and when doing so, one often finds new associations.

Map expanded even more

…and so on, and so on. You can add colors and other decorations as you see fit:

Colors added

And eventually you’ll have a mindmap of a puppy. Through this process you will have a better understanding of what a puppy is, what it does and what makes it tick, how it behaves, and so on, so that your toy design is successful.

For example, while building the map using your literary sources you noticed that puppies use their mouths a lot and they have to be taken out for a walk often, so perhaps you could combine walking, fetching and chewing by making an outdoor toy which combines these activities and can be attached to the leash.

This was just a simple and somewhat contrived artificial example. If you try out mindmapping on a target of your choice, you will see how efficient the technique actually is in practise. It will be useful to use some subject closer to your interests, rather than picking a general example.

If you’ve never done mindmaps, do a couple of training maps to get the idea. Pick some subject in Wikipedia and map it. Once you’ve done a few mindmaps the process will click into place and can use it more efficiently.

Notes on Making Mindmaps

Making a mindmap is very personal. There is no right or wrong way to do it.

Your mindmap might not end up looking like my mindmap at all, and this is perfectly OK! Your mind is different than mine - you look at things from your perspective based on your experiences, ideals, values, and so on, and I do the same for mine. What I come up with in my mindmap, you might not come up with in your mindmap, and vice versa. There is no one correct mindmap, as it is always a function of whoever creates it.

Important thing to remember is that the mindmap is just a tool and not the goal. Don’t spend too much time making it look fancy, unless it helps your mapping process somehow, or you want it to look impressive.


You can make mindmaps with any media you can draw to. Instead of using a pen and paper, whiteboard or similar, you might prefer software. Software has the benefits that the mindmaps are easily archiveable and searchable, plus you can usually add internet links directly.

There is an abundance of commercial and open-source software for mindmapping. One very good mindmapping program, which is free (as in beer and speech) is Freeplane.

Note, that basically any diagramming software can be used for mindmaps, but it might be work work than a specialized software.

Memorizing a Mindmap

If you made the mindmap to take notes (of a lecture, for example), you might want to somehow memorize it, or parts of it. Although just going through the map and its various branches many times may often be enough for you to associate one piece of information with another, thus aiding memory recall, it might be more efficient to use some memory technique.

Although the the Loci system is more suitable for hierarchical information (like lists) instead of network-structured information (like mindmaps), it is possible to use it.

This is how it would work: start at some node which seems to be naturally “first”, and associate this with the first location of your Loci system. Then check which connections go out of this node, and associate these into the locations which are accessible from your first location. Repeat until done.

If you think you’ll run out of rooms/locations, you can try to memorize only the main structure of your mindmap, i.e. the biggest nodes. This way you’ll already have the other part of the association built, so the smaller nodes will be easier to remember even if you didn’t use the Loci system for all of them.

Personal Notes

I’ve used mindmaps professionally for well over 10 years and privately a longer time. Mostly I use them to collect and analyze big amounts of information; for example, when studying something new to understand how things connect together, or when trying to understand a problem from many different angles.

Though some people like Tony Buzan, the popularizer of mindmaps, argue that mindmaps are an effective communication tool, I don’t quite agree with him. I find mindmaps to be an inherently personal “snapshot” of one’s memory: other people’s mindmaps do not immediately make sense to me. I need to spend a lot of time studying the mindmap to establish context. The situation seems to be similar to others receiving my mindmaps.

In my experience, as a communication tool a mindmap doesn’t compete e.g. with a well-written list of bullet points, UNLESS the recipient has the same context as you. That is, you have worked with the recipients as a group and focusing on the subject of the mind map. For example, the recipients have been in the same meeting as you, or you’ve read a book in a study group. If the context is shared then a mindmap can be a good tool to keep everyone on the same page.

In my experience, mindmaps are most excellent in helping you distill information and letting you create associations easily. These are very useful properties, especially when trying to understand something that is complex, big and detailed.

Also, mindmaps are permanent and this is helpful with context switches. You can easily take a brain dump of whatever is on your mind and then later get back to the issue. Since you made the mindmap it will be easy to re-absorb it, and the associations help memory recall. This is useful when you have to temporarily pause working on something big: for example, when you have to change to another task, switch between projects or start a vacation.

That said, I don’t follow Tony Buzan’s mindmap instructions slavishly. For example, according to the instructions, one should write just one word in an association, I often don’t. One should make the first associations emanating from the center node thicker, I never do. One should use a lot of colour, I seldom do. And so on. In short, my mindmaps are a horrible unorthodox mess, but they do work for me.

I believe the principle of mindmapping is a great tool and one should be flexible in molding the tool to suit ones purposes and one should not be rigid in some kind of dogma of what an association should look like or what the map should look like. The maps are consumed by people, and not machines. In my opinion, trying to stay Buzan-pure with ones mindmaps is rather pointless. However, if you wish to do things differently, just pick up one of Mr. Buzan’s books and follow his example.


The title picture is by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash.