Five free tools to help brainstorm solutions and spark innovation

Visualize project requirements, sketch out a new org structure, identify workflow bottlenecks, or discover creative solutions to stubborn problems -- all with the help of these free mind-mapping tools.


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.


The Brain

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.