Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Thursday, October 31, 2002

Mind mapping and visual concepts diagramming

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Untangling information with visual maps
How to organise ideas in associative and creative ways

Are you one of those people surrounded by artful mosaics of sticky notes and index cards on the wall of their office? Having to wade through masses of notes? Trying to make sense of a complex briefing meeting?

Well, you might find mind maps inspiring and useful. In my work, I'm usually confronted with the need to organise and structure information (by definition, this is what an information architect does for a living...).

But before getting to the moment when the contents of a site can be effectively structured, I have to go through and analyse background documents, meeting minutes, and also the inarticulate requests of clients.

That's where I've found that maps are an effective way to not only organise information according to a set of defined criteria, but also a useful tool for stimulating creative thinking and discovering unexpected relationships.

Let me give you an example from a project I am currently involved in. After being in a couple of briefing meetings, where I had been given literally tons of data, facts, stories, complaints, the only clear task for me was to find and define the real problems the client was facing. To make sense of the wealth of the information I had been given, I had two choices: writing a typical meeting report or planning a meaningful briefing document.

The meeting report and its sequential structure (who said what before I said something else) was of no use in helping me understand what the client was asking. What I needed was to be able to group the discussed topics by meaningful themes so that I could start "mapping the problem domain". Going for something visual was the only way I could get an overview of the masses of data I had received and find the starting point for the project.

In creating this overview, I had to steer away from any degree of premature analysis, though. The focus of the project being on problem definition, I couldn't afford taking for granted apparent relationships among the data (e.g. cause-effect, problem-solution, etc.). I forced myself not to establish logical or hierarchical relationships other than purely associative ones.

Finally, my secret wish was that I could discover unexpected relationships that would shed the light on quite an intricate web of issues. The ideal map should help the creative juices flow unrestrained.

So I tried different approaches with different results and benefits.

*Manual Paper-based Idea Mapping*

First, I started with the good old sticky notes on the wall of my living room. This remains the best way to make an inventory of concepts, facts, ideas. Because you can easily move notes around, this method provides the best starting point for exploring possible associations.

This approach is basically card sorting, a popular technique in information design, information architecture and usability testing, that helps you observe how users group items, so that you can develop architectures where users are most likely to find items. However, I couldn't bring the client home to show him my work. Hence I needed to create a shareable document.

Then, I checked some mapping software tools that I had been researching some time ago.

*Personal Brain*

Then I started playing with PersonalBrain

PersonalBrain allows you to create "brains", groups of thoughts (where you can enter notes, attach documents, links to Web sites, etc) that you can relate to each other according to parent-child-jump relationships. Your brain with its related thoughts is displayed as a nice and spacey floating network that is fun to look at. Also, you can move any thought to the centre of your brain and see what is related to it and how.

What I like is that you're free from establishing rigid relationships among thoughts, but you still think in a hierarchical way. However, understanding why a number of thoughts are displayed with a certain density or layout (close or far from each other, in the left or right area of the screen) is not easy: this seems to be a software-driven thing.
This makes it difficult to discover new relationships and connections.

Though not rigorously so, brains are very close to concept maps.

*Concept Mapping*

Concept mapping is a different approach to solving these issues and it involves starting from a core idea or word or concept from which related concepts branch out usually in a hierarchical way.

Concept maps look like networks of boxes or circles connected by lines. Each line stands for a relationship for which you can specify the type.

Concept maps are tools for organizing and representing knowledge. Concepts are represented in a hierarchical fashion with the most inclusive, most general concepts at the top of the map and the more specific, less general concepts arranged hierarchically below. You can read more about concept mapping at cncptmap.html

A tool for drawing concept maps is CMap, a freeware program developed by the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition at the University of West Florida that you can download from cmapChoice.mgi

On the IHMC site you can also find concept map samples at:
( index.html)

Though extremely flexible, even the concept maps were far too formal for my discovery needs.

*Mind Mapping*

So, as a third road on my quest for the holy grail of idea-mapping, I experimented with mind maps.

Mind maps are a simplified version of concept maps developed (and copyrighted) by Toni Buzan ( as a graphical tool to unlock the potential of the brain. A nice FAQ about mind maps explaining their key features and history is available at: Creative/ Mindmap/mindmapfaq.html

A mind map is made of a central idea or concept and five to ten related concepts. You can define the type of relationships among the centre and the branches, however you're not forced into any special one but the one you choose. This makes mind maps very good to start thinking in purely associative ways.
However, depending on what you're using it for, you can visualise any kind of complex knowledge. You can draw relationships among the branches and describe their type with a textual note.

*Mind Manager *

To make mind maps, I experimented with Mind Manager

With Mind Manager, you can create mind maps for several applications and uses:
organising, planning, studying, note-taking, outlining, brainstorming, decision-making, presentations, speech supports, summaries, lists. For each of these applications, there are guidelines to make mind maps do their job for you.
To find out more have a look at: HowTo.html



For whatever you want to use mind maps, the good things are that you do not need to think in a linear way (there are remarkable similarities between mind maps and hypertext, aka the Web) and you are able to maintain an overview of the concepts you're working with.

However deep in the details of a concept you find yourself, you'll always be able to see what it's related to. There is a special advantage in an overview: it can spur more associations, helps memory, makes it easier to remark inconsistencies.

I've been using Mind Manager so far (you can download a 21-day trial version at: index_download_user.shtml) and found it quite complete.

Another strong point of Mind Manager is that you can export your map and notes in text outline format and as a Web site where you can navigate the map and its contents.

To group and organise the briefing data for my new project, I've eventually adopted a mind map that I named Discovery. I then made another one to illustrate the methodology that I intended to adopt for the problem analysis and definition.

Even this article was written by utilizing a mind map:
( mm22_visualmap.htm).

Being able to keep an eye on the context and the details at the same time can be extremely stimulating. I changed the focus of this article three times until I found the right approach to the subject, thanks to this continuous refining of the relationships among the topics I wanted to cover.

You can do something similar with MS Word, though. If you apply heading styles consistently throughout your document, you can open the "Document Map" (from the View menu, select Document map) and keep an eye also on its outline. But again, you're already working in a linear fashion and are not solicited to spot new and unexpected relationships.

The very fact that I can write and edit a document as a mind map reveals one of the weak points of mind maps: you can easily tweak them to become a linear structure. Also, their graphical form, a neuron-like shape, does not basically change if you make mind maps for different purposes: a meeting plan doesn't look different from a step-by-step tutorial for a software program. This reduces very much their potential for memory support.

Eventually, they're not effective in representing knowledge where the relationships among elements are very specific and should result in a web-like network rather than a star-shaped structure.


*Other Resources*

There are other mind mapping tools you might want to try:

1) VisualMind

2) Inspiration:

3) ConceptDraw MindMap CDMindMap/

More about the theory behind concept mapping at:


*Author's note*

Perhaps the next frontier of mind mapping is a three-dimensional immersive environment where you can move around holograms of ideas and change your point of view to discover new and fascinating perspectives.

While wishfully anticipating the thrill of wearing gloves and eagerly touching curvaceous crystal surfaces, mind maps and sticky notes will still do a wonderful job in getting ideas organised and triggering the spare spark of genius that Mother Nature has gracefully awarded upon Her children.

Antonella Pastore
Information Architect

Readers' Comments    
2006-10-12 12:44:44


yeah...we have 3d mind mapping now...check it out at

2006-09-26 04:07:48


A tool for 3D mind mapping: 3D Topicscape

2004-05-15 03:46:37


Thanks Antonella.

I appreciate you putting together your thoughts and comparision of each type of mappings.


2004-04-18 03:48:44

Michael Julien

Are we any closer now (i.e. since 2002 to a 3D Mind Mapping Package?

posted by Robin Good on Thursday, October 31 2002, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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