How to make a mind map
What is your main reason for making a mind map (or concept map)? Whatever that reason is, it will usually affect how you start.
There are perhaps nine broad reasons, listed alphabetically below. You can click a link to go straight to the one that describes what you want to do now if you’re looking for help on making a map for a specific activity.
“Thinking” could have been included in the above list, but that spans all the headings and is just too fuzzy. There will often be other overlaps over time, as a map turns out to be useful for other purposes. But you’ll be able to pick the main category that applies at the starting point.
A theme that recurs in this article, and others that it links to, is that the thinking that goes on as we make the mind map will change our understanding of the main topic. And as we look for more information, this will certainly change the structure of the map and perhaps the style. So be prepared to stay flexible. Mind mappers are good at that!
- 1 Map style
- 2 The hardest part?
- 3 How to make a map when you are analyzing a topic
- 4 How to make a map to crack open your creativity
- 5 How to make a map as you are discussing a topic
- 6 How to make a map when learning something new
- 7 How to make a map to organize information
- 8 How to make a map when planning
- 9 How to make a map to support a presentation
- 10 How to make a map while note taking
- 11 How to make a map to increase or consolidate understanding
WikIT deals primarily with Buzan mind maps, common mind maps and concept maps, though some other information map types are touched on. Most of this article deals with making common mind maps – a “mind map” as the term is commonly used in the business world – in the different circumstances listed in the introduction. There is an article about Concept maps or mind maps? the choice and another about the choice between common mind maps and Buzan mind maps.
The hardest part?
A mind map starts with a central topic – what the map is going to be about – as a keyword, image or phrase. That’s easy. It’s what comes next, the first layer of topics or keywords, that most often seems to be a barrier to those beginning mind maps, because a piece of paper or computer screen that is almost empty can sometimes give us a state of mind to match.
In answer to the question “Where do I start?” or “How do I decide what topics to put in the first layer of nodes?” here are some tips:
- Think about how the central topic may be subdivided – these sub-categories will usually be second-level topics, though perhaps not when mind mapping for creative solutions.
- Don’t worry about having to change this first layer later. The process of mind mapping will often change your thinking about a topic, and require changes in the map.
- Use a parking list for topics that seem related, but don’t have a clear place in the hierarchy yet. As they map develops you will generally see where to place them, and if you don’t, it points to the need for more research, discussion, or just setting the remaining parked topics aside, for later review.
- Try the six traditional question-stubs, What? Where? When? Why? Who? and How? when applied to the central topic. Does that provide useful suggestions for the first layer.
- Check through the visual thinking guides to see which of these might help kick off your thinking.
- It’s topics that help you that matter. So if you are finding useful topics related to the central topic, you are on the right track.
What the nodes of a mind map represent may vary greatly depending on may be topics that are subdivisions of the central topic that your are analyzing, actions that need to be carried out for a project that you are planning, ideas generated in a creative session, topics to be covered in a presentation, and so on.
How to make a map when you are analyzing a topic
This particular example assumes that you will be working on a subject that you know well. (Analyzing a subject that you are learning is a different case, see below.) Starting with a central topic, a mind map of that topic is made by considering its main components, and placing them in the map as its first level analysis.
For example, if we had decided to write a blog article about the concept of “information”, we might think about “sources”, “credibility”, “availability”, “storage”, “timeliness”, “accessibility”, “completeness”, “sensitivity”, “value” … but a list like this is stultifying, let’s go to a map:
As you start a map like that, you cannot help thinking of other categories that should come into the picture, like “consistency” and where information comes from – after all, it is not just data, it’s at least data on which some work has been done. So we can add “comes from” and “data plus work”. This triggers a thought about where it’s going and we think that information can lead to knowledge, but that too needs more. Let’s add “experience”, “remembering” and “thought” as twigs on the knowledge branch.
Then we start to think about availability and accessibility. Are they too similar? The real analysis is beginning. They are very closely related but a few moments reflection shows that it’s worth keeping them both there. Information can be available but at a price, for example, and unless we have the budget, it’s not accessible. Or it may be in a file on our desktop computer that we forgot to copy to our laptop or phone. Available somewhere out there, but not accessible.
We can add that to the map as a comment and a connecting relationship.
Sensitivity of information is easy to break down. Information may be sensitive because it is personal, or includes commercial secrets, or may affect a criminal case – we can add twigs to “sensitivity” to capture these thoughts.
Compared to a text-based outline, the map format enables quick movement from one section to another, casting the eye across several areas at once, or focusing in one one area for detailed analysis. Many of its users therefore find it to be flexible and idea-provoking. Thought sparks thought, and soon the analysis is proceding briskly:
This will take you much further than this brief illustration if you need a deep analysis. It is a way of structuring your knowledge quickly, thinking things through and organizing the result clearly.
The map as a note center
Tip: As you map, you will think of matters to research, you may find web sites that you want to go back to and ideas will surely coming to mind. If you are using software to mind map, add notes or link attachments to the topics on the map so that these questions, references and thoughts are consolidated in this one document. This capability is a very valuable feature of many mind mapping software packages.
How to make a map to crack open your creativity
It is not always acceptable to spend time with color, images and expanding from single keywords, though – for example, during the early stages of introducing mind mapping to a business. If you find yourself in a business meeting where you’re driving a brainstorming session this may not fit the ethos. Then even a common mind map is likely to helpful because the process of mind mapping encourages associating related ideas, visual thinking and flexibility, even without color and images.
How to make a map as you are discussing a topic
A meeting convened to solve a problem, or agree and map out a course of action can use a mind map as a focus. This refers not so much to creativity-seeking meetings where new routes are to be charted, but to workaday, thrash-out-an-issue meetings (though creativity is always useful!)
If you’re using software, you’ll want to set up a computer projector for all to see the map as it is built up. Tip: Make a habit of saving the map frequently as you go. Invite meeting members to call out, or better appoint someone as the ‘save guardian’.
Some audiences will be more comfortable with a large flip chart or a series of charts than with a computer map, particularly if everyone wants to get up and join in the mapping actively.
Tip: Have a “Parking” list on a flipchart or whiteboard away from the main map. If an issue seems to be holding up the meeting, but is not one that is essential to solve immediately, add it to the Parking list. By the way, don’t let this morph into a “Parking map”: If you do, discussions about how to categorize or place the issues may cause just the type of delay that the Parking list was intended to avoid.
In this context, a common mind map is often useful.
How to make a map when learning something new
If you are studying a new topic, your understanding of the topic will naturally change as you learn. If you are working on paper, you should be prepared to redraw the map several times as your knowledge extends. This may be a good argument for making you mind map with computer software instead if you have that option, because no redrawing will be needed. If that’s not possible for you, don’t worry – redrawing is rarely a waste of time in these circumstances and often results in a mind map improved not just in layout and tidyness but in content as well.
Tip: And while you are learning, it is not always obvious where something fits. Then, a ‘parking’ list is useful, or make floating topics connected to nothing, and wait for later enlightenment.
If you are trying to ensure that you understand a new subject thoroughly, check out how to make a map to increase or consolidate understanding to see if a concept map might be a better approach than a mind map.
How to make a map to organize information
Organizing information in mind maps is really helpful. When you are collecting information for a small project and you want to do this in a mind map, there are many software packages that can help. But for large bodies of reference information, there are very few that work well.
One good option for small projects is to use software like FreeMind (free) or MindManager. The rigid tree structure can be a problem though: Any item can only be a child of only one node, so if you like to place a topic note in several places because it relates to several other topics, well you can’t.
You can have curly, and maybe dotted lines that break the hierarchy, but that doesn’t let you link a node to two parents. Multiple parents are a hierarchy and are often needed in managing information, just as people used to make photocopies of typed documents, one for the client file perhaps, one for the project manager and one for Accounts.
The problem is not hierarchy, it is the strict tree-hierarchy of mind maps where each node can have one node and one node only.
Software designed to help mind mappers use their preferred way of laying out information visually when organizing large volumes of information does exist.
How to make a map when planning
When you are planning some activity, you can treat it as a project whether it’s a personal plan or something for business: a wedding, some software development, a seminar or a study plan. So that’s how it is referred to below.
A planning mind map will often change to a map with another use, as the plan progresses:
- a progress-tracking mind map
- an organizer for information for the project
- a presentation tool for the project team
- an outline of a project report
Often, you will want to preserve intermediate stages as the usage changes. For those reasons, uless it’s a very early and embryonic map, it is a good idea to work with computer software for planning maps.
Be prepared to change style as the project progresses.
Start as usual with an identification of the project as the central node of the map.
Add second-level nodes for all the major areas of the project that you’re aware of at the time.
Some useful ones to consider for inclusion would be Terms of Reference, Scope, Project Sponsors, Resources, Reference. Include a Resources node to cover budget, people, equipment, software and anything else that will have to be assigned, acquired, begged for or borrowed.
Add a Reference node and break this down to areas of information that you know you will have to seek out or assign someone to research. Here’s a generic map to give ideas for the structure. It is based on the needs for a small to medium-sized business project, so you would be able to trim some of the branches if planning a personal project.
Here is a Flash version of the project planning mind map, which supports resizing and folding nodes. (It was made in FreeMind using the export to Flash capability.)
The single-word guideline?
When planning business projects, it will often be much more convenient and practical to use phrases. You may even want to make lengthy notes as they occur to you, and these can be appended to map nodes. There are many circumstances when the single keyword guideline is useful, but those who make business project planning maps often set it aside.
But using single words, or very short phrases, for at least the first level of topics around the central identifying node makes the grasping the structure of the planning mind map much easier.
Use images and icons if the software you use has them, to help you see quickly the part of the map that you want to find at that moment. When chosing images, though, consider who you will be sharing the map with. Low-quality, over-used clip art images will impress no one.
How to make a map to support a presentation
How to make a map while note taking
Note taking is presented by many advocates of mind mapping as a primary reason for making maps. That may be a narrow view, but anyone who tracks comments on the Web will know that students, business people, academics and hobbyists do find them very useful for drafting on paper or on a computer their understanding of a subject  as they listen to a talk, a podcast or a lecture, watch a presentation, TV program or YouTube video, or read a book, magazine or web page.
A well-organized speaker will start by telling you what the talk will cover, and may put up an introductory summary slide. This will usually provide a skeleton of the subject from which you can plan the first layer (or more) of the mind map. As you listen, you will then be able to make notes, draw quick sketches and extend the hierarchy as you reflect on paper the mental picture that the speaker gives of his subject.
Something you won’t often see mentioned, though, is that with stimulating speakers, ideas can come thick and fast. Then, the focus on finding where to put notes on the mind map may break your concentration on the speaker’s flow. You’ll likely miss points made. Be ready for this and as soon as you notice it happening, ask yourself whether you need to jump to linear notes for now, and organize them into the mind map later. Even when you make this decision, there will be times when you know immediately where a note goes on the mind map.
This is not going to be necessary if you can press a ‘pause’ button, or interrupt the speaker, but for live talks with a large audience, stay flexible, and switch between notes and the mind map as time and the flow of understanding allows.
- … and they will also know that some people do not like having to do them, particularly in school – mind maps do not suit everyone.
How to make a map to increase or consolidate understanding
Sometimes you may need to find out how much you know about something, or prove to someone else that you understand the principles of a subject. Sometimes you will want to ensure that you understand a new topic while reading about it or going through notes made, for example, during a talk.
Then, a concept map will serve you well, because it shows not just how topic can be broken down into sub-topics, but also states clearly how topics are related in a way that can be checked and verified. The article How to make a concept map will help here.