Pro tip: Create mind maps with MindMeister

Andy Wolbers explains how you can show connections between concepts with MindMeister on the web, Android, or iOS.


Documents and presentations are linear. A document begins and ends, as does a set of slides. Like a good story, an effective document (or presentation) provides a compelling beginning, middle, and end. And who doesn't like a good story?

Mind maps are spatial, not linear. Where a Google Map shows relationships between places, a mind map displays connections between concepts. Often, a mind map is a visual version of a list or an outline. The main "nodes" on the map identify ideas. Related notes -- or details -- connect to the main node by a line.

Group and connect ideas

A mind map works well to capture, group, connect, and share ideas. Each node on a mind map represents a distinct idea. For example, Al Gore included a mind map to illustrate each of the six major themes in his book, The Future. (Random House provides all the mind maps from the book to view or download.) The mind maps offer a visual summary of the concepts covered in the text.

You can create a mind map with just about any writing tool and surface. Brainstorming new product ideas? Grab a dry erase marker and write on the whiteboard. Creating a presentation? Jot down ideas with a pen on a piece of paper.

I prefer to use a digital mind mapping tool: MindMeister. Generate a torrent of ideas and enter each idea as a new MindMeister item. Then, move related ideas into a group -- or sub-group -- or sub-group of a sub-group (Figure A). You can move entire sub-groups of ideas around with a simple click, drag, and drop. With MindMeister, grouping, re-grouping, and moving items takes little effort. The same tasks on a dry erase board require a lot of erasing and rewriting.

Figure A

Figure A

Create MindMeister mind maps in your browser or with Android or iOS apps.

Collaborate and share mind maps

MindMeister works much like Google Docs and Slides. Like Google Docs, MindMeister works equally well in a browser and on Android and iOS devices. (It works offline on those devices, too, with changes syncing after re-connection.)

Of course, MindMeister enables collaboration and sharing, just like Google Docs: you invite individuals to view and/or edit a mind map, or publish it for the world to see. As with Google Docs, you may also export your file: all versions export to rtf, pdf, and png formats (Figure B); premium versions export to other mind mapping formats, as well as Microsoft Word (docx) and PowerPoint (pptx).

Figure B

Figure B
Export maps to different file formats.

Fill each node with information

You can customize both the content and appearance of each MindMeister node: add a note, link, icon, file attachment, or image -- or all of the above (Figure C). You can also tweak the text size, color, or box shape of a node. You may even assign a node as a task to a colleague, with a due date and email reminders.

Figure C

Figure C
Pack each node with a note(s), link, image, or attachment.

Present in sequence

MindMeister is also a presentation tool. Presentation mode displays nodes in sequence, "zooming in" to show a node -- or group of nodes -- with each slide (Figure D).

The slide sequence may be automatically or manually created. An auto-created sequence starts with the central node on your mind map, then it displays one sub-node per slide, in clockwise order. Or, you can create a slide manually by holding the [Ctrl] key, then selecting a node -- or set of nodes. In either case, you may drag-and-drop any slide in the sequence. (For an example, see a presentation I created a couple years ago. Click "Start Slideshow" once it's opened to view the auto-created presentation.)

Figure D

Figure D
Presentation mode displays content node-by-node.

For teams

Teams should create a mind map when working to create something new. A mind map offers a way for teams to share ideas "at-a-glance" -- in a way that a Google Doc or presentation doesn't. The end result, hopefully, is a mind map that shows a central concept along with key sub-points, all on a single page. Viewers can then delve into details where desired.

MindMeister is also enterprise friendly for organizations using Google Apps. An administrator can add MindMeister from the Google Apps Marketplace to make the tool available to Google Apps users from the "App Launcher" menu. (MindMeister has a free version that offers each user three maps, while Personal versions start at $5.99 per user, per month. Other versions offer more customization, export, and administrative controls for an additional cost. Discounted pricing is available for educators, schools, and nonprofit organizations.)

Spatial and linear

Most people know how to create a document or basic presentation. Fewer people know how to create a mind map. We may know how to order ideas in time, but not necessarily how to order ideas in space.

MindMeister maps are both spatial and linear; you view a map at-a-glance or, in presentation mode, node-by-node. MindMeister maps help people explore ideas -- and relationships between ideas -- with nothing more than a browser (or an app). Mind mapping is technique worth learning, and MindMeister is an application worth using.

For a look at other mind mapping tools, see "Five free tools to help brainstorm solutions and spark innovation" by Jack Wallen and "The top five mind mapping apps for the Android tablet" by Andy Makar.

How do you use mind maps for your work? Share your experience in the discussion thread below.