Sometimes you need to see your thoughts laid out before you
so you can come up with the perfect solution. Often, this just means a scrap of
paper and a pen. But if you prefer a more organized tool to help sort out your
inner chaos, a mind-mapping application may help. These apps allow you to map
out your thoughts in a visual manner, so you can get a grasp on the possible
routes to a resolution.

I’ve used mind-mapping tools for various tasks — from figuring
out the plot of a book to planning a speech to working with video. The tools
are incredibly helpful for helping you get your thoughts together.

But which tools are the most useful? I found five free apps
that will help you organize your thoughts in a cohesive manner.

Note: This article is also available as a photo gallery.

1: Coggle

Coggle
is a web-based mind-mapping app with a straightforward interface. Once you sign
in with your Google account, you can add unlimited items (images, check boxes,
links, and more), format text, and drag and drop items to build your map. Coggle
automatically assigns colors to each new branch (you can change them with a
simple color wheel) and lets you edit text and move items around in a freeform
manner. Once you’ve finished your Coggle map, you can download it as an image
file (PNG only) or a PDF. If you want to add items such as links and lists or
apply special formatting, you’ll need to know a bit about Markdown. Check this page
for more information on how to use it.

 

 

2: The Brain

The Brain
is a Java-based mind-mapping tool for Windows, Linux, and Mac. There are two
versions: Free and Pro. You get a free, 30-day trial of the Pro version with a
single download. After the 30 days, you can add thoughts and notes, but you
won’t be able to add attachments (such as documents), see additional views,
search with web pages, or use auto-folder visualization and templates, among
other things. Here is the feature set matrix.

 

 

There is a much steeper learning
curve for this particular take on mind mapping because The Brain is quite
powerful. In fact, it might well be the most powerful mind-mapping tool you’ll
ever use. Its one downfall is that because it is written in Java, it’s a bit
slower than other tools of this nature.

3: FreeMind

FreeMind is another
cross-platform mind-mapping tool that runs on Windows, Linux, and Mac. Released
under the GNU General Public License, FreeMind is one of the best open source
mind-mapping tools available. It’s flexible, consistent across platforms,
allows for complex diagrams (with nearly unlimited branches), and lets you add
links, graphics, icons, and encrypted nodes. Creating a mind map is far simpler
in FreeMind than in most other tools. That ease of use (and a somewhat
old-fashioned interface) does not in any way mean that FreeMind is lacking in
features. It’s just as feature-rich as any tool in its category. After you
complete a map, you can export it as HTML/XHTML, PDF, OpenDocument, SVG, or
PNG.

 

 

4: SimpleMind Free

SimpleMind Free is an
Android and IOS mind-mapping tool that offers an easy-to-use interface with
drag, arrange, and edit topic ability on the Mind Map page. You can add multiple
mind maps and as many items as needed. SimpleMind Free doesn’t let you add hyperlinks
or links to files, and there are other limitations as well. But it does let you
undo/redo, reconnect topics using drag and drop, cut/copy/paste, and apply
visual styles. It also offers unlimited page size for maps. The full version runs $4.99
USD, but if you’re looking for basic mind mapping, the free version will do
just fine.

 

 

5: Labyrinth

Labyrinth is a Linux-only
mind-mapping tool written in Gtk and Cairo. It offers a bare-bones interface that
allows you to create mind maps quickly, with zero learning curve. Labyrinth is
the tool you need when you don’t want bells and whistles getting in the way of
creating simple, quick mind maps. A mind map can be as large as you need it and
you can navigate around it using the edge arrows of the Labyrinth window. Again,
don’t expect to be inserting hyperlinks or linking to other maps or files. This
tool is as minimal as you can get and still get your work done. One bonus
feature is the ability to add freehand drawings to your mind map — assuming you
can draw (unlike myself).

 

 

Creative solutions

No matter what your mind-mapping needs happen to be, plenty of apps
are available to help you generate great ideas and organize your thoughts. Whether
you need to answer questions, diagram plans, or visualize a development
project, one of these tools will help satisfy your mind’s need to make sense of
the possibilities.

Other apps?

Have you had good luck using a particular mind-mapping tool?
Does the process work for you or would you rather take a different approach
altogether? Share your thoughts with fellow TechRepublic members.