Make a Mind Map

People have been using visual methods of representing, organizing and understanding information since ancient times. In the 1970s, researcher and educator Tony Buzan formally developed the mind map. Its colorful, spider- or tree-like shape branches out to show relationships, solve problems creatively, and help you remember what you’ve learned. This article will walk you through planning a mind map, constructing it by hand, and looking at the pros and cons of many mind-mapping software programs now on the market.


Planning Your Mind Map

  1. Imagine an airplane flying in the sky. When you visualize or see an airplane in the sky, the airplane is your central focus at that moment. But your brain isn’t done there. It also immediately begins to make references, or associations, to the airplane. These might include the color of the sky, different types of planes, how they fly, pilots, passengers, airports and so forth.[1] Because we think in images, not words, these associations often appear in a visual form in our minds.
    • Your mind instantly starts making a map, creating links between these associations, or concepts – a mental website of sorts.[2]
  2. Visualize a spider or a tree full of branches now. With a mind map, you take the concept of the airplane and write AIRPLANES in the center (the spider’s body or the trunk of the tree) of a horizontally oriented, blank piece of paper. Then, radiating out from the airplane, are different colored lines (tree limbs or spider legs). On these you write the associations you had to airplanes, such as PILOTS and AIRPORTS. From each of these are more associations, which you note on individual lines.
    • In association with pilots you might think of their pay or training. And so the map grows.[1]
    • A mind map mirrors how our brains actually process and recall information – dynamically and visually, not in a purely linear fashion as it was once thought.
    • For instance, mind mapping has proven very effective for note taking. Instead of writing down each word the teacher says as it’s said (linear thinking), you write the name of the lecture topic in the center of your paper. As subtopics, examples, dates and other information are discussed, you draw and label corresponding branches.
    • It’s also used instead of standard outlines in academia to prepare essays, to write research papers, to study for exams, etc.
  3. Use your brain the way it thinks. Buzan called this radiant thinking. When our brains lock onto something – an idea, sound, image, emotion, etc. – that “something” stands at the center of our thinking. Radiating out from it are countless other things, ideas, other images, emotions, etc. that our brains associate with it.[1]
    • A mind map helps you make connections between and among these different pieces of information and concepts. And, the more connections or associations our brains make to a thing, the more likely we are to remember it.
  4. Create, capture, consume and communicate information. Making these connections allows you to do each of these quickly and effectively. Making them also happens organically as you draw the map. The use of words, images, lines, color, symbols, numbers and so forth identify and link concepts. Research shows that writing and imagery both improve memory, creativity and cognitive processing. Color is a also a potent memory enhancer.[3][4] Together they create a mind map that's fed by several of our senses.
    • Mind maps are a tool to create things and to devise approaches for handling issues. Doing this requires brainstorming. So, for instance, you could create mind maps for things like your wedding, new recipes, an advertising campaign, proposing a raise to your boss and so forth. It also involves solving problems, such as better managing your money, a health diagnosis, interpersonal conflict, etc. – all of which can be mind mapped.
    • They are also tools to capture information that’s directly relevant to a topic so you can compress large amounts of information. For example, they help you figure out what you really need to be taking notes on, recording for a meeting’s minutes, writing in your autobiography, using in your resume, etc.
    • Mind maps help you easily consume information and then use it. So, they can help you better remember things, such as the content of a book, discussions with others, your schedule and so forth. You can also use them to analyze complex subjects like trading stocks, computer networking, engine mechanics, etc. Finally, they’re useful in planning and executing things like a vacation, your time, a sensitive work project, etc.
    • They are also powerful tools for communication.[5] You can create a mind map for presentations, group projects, heart-to-heart conversations, written materials, etc.
  5. Make them by hand or with a computer program. People have been drawing mind maps for decades. With the advent of mind-mapping software, many people are creating them on their computers. The business world in particular is increasingly using software for everything from recording meeting minutes to complete project management. The choice is personal and dependent on the environment.
    • Nonetheless, advocates highly encourage you to find your own style and let it be free flowing.
    • Don’t be too rigid when constructing a mind map. In doing so, you don’t use both your right and left brain hemispheres as actively.
    • A mind map relies upon the person using both hemispheres to create a network of associations – the right hemisphere for images, color, dimension, imagination, and “big picture” thinking and the left for words, logic, analysis, numbers, and sequential thinking.[2][5][2]

Creating a Mind Map by Hand

  1. Show the shape of the subject. A mind map should ultimately show the shape or architecture of the subject. It does this by visually demonstrating the relative importance of various concepts to one another and how they relate to one another. You should be able to glance at it later and remember the information. First, however, you must allow it to grow as ideas come to you, and as you see more connections.
    • The adage, “A picture speaks a thousand words,” is a good way of understanding what your mind map should look like. It shows both the big picture and the details.
  2. Brainstorm your topic. You can brainstorm the topic before beginning to draw, particularly if you're not recording information – such as notes from a lecture or meeting. This can be done individually or in group settings. It involves simply writing down everything you can think of related to the topic. Use keywords or phrases as opposed to sentences or paragraphs.
    • Don’t organize information at this point. Just get it out.[1]
    • When you're brainstorming, ask yourself how the topic relates to what you already know and what’s different about it.
  3. Go straight to mapping first instead. Many people prefer going straight to the drawing. Either way, first write your topic in the center of the page. Make sure you have your paper in a landscape orientation, and in the middle write the name of the topic in 1-2 words. Draw a circle around it.[6] Some recommend only using lowercase or uppercase printed words to reduce clutter and to make it read quickly. Play with adding color to the word and circle.
    • Strive for a minimum of three colors in each map. They help separate ideas and aid in memory.
    • And don't use lined paper. It can lead you into thinking in a linear fashion.
  4. Draw and label the first branches. Simply draw a line for each major sub-category of the topic that extends from the circled topic and label it with a word, very short phrase or image. Don’t use abbreviations. So AIRPORTS and PILOTS. All lines or branches should connect in a mind map, and the first branches should be the thickest.
    • Each word or image used in a mind map must be on its own line.
    • Use images, photos and drawings wherever possible.
    • For instance, you could draw a stop sign next to a branch with a negative sub-category (airports, generally) or a bright yellow plus sign by something positive (pilots, generally).
    • Use arrows, other symbols, spacing and so forth to connect images and produce an “image-rich network,” which Buzan says is the essence of a mind map.[2]
  5. Move to the next branches. These should be thinner than the first. Think about the things that relate to your first subcategories. What are the important issues or facts related to them? In our example, what do you associate with airports? Delays? Security? Expensive food?
    • You would then draw a line for each of these that branches off from the line for AIRPORTS. You’d give it a name, such as SECURITY.
    • Again, use color and images.[2]
  6. Continue branching out. You continue in this fashion as long as needed to complete your mind map. The lines will continue to become thinner as sub-categories become increasingly comprised of supporting details like facts or dates. You will also add branches to those you’ve already created. You might even add another first branch after discovering something you didn’t know.
    • Some also suggest making subcategories hierarchical.
    • Therefore, if “delays,” “security” and “expensive food" were all subcategories, you’d draw three lines or branches – one for each. Then you’d put what you consider to be the most important sub-category on the top or uppermost line.
  7. Add more or revise as a final. You can keep adding to it, modifying it and discovering new links. Or you can create a polished version. The latter allows you to check for consistency and errors in your logic. It also results in a neat mind map; you don’t want to clutter your mind maps. Too much clutter inhibits your ability to see both the big picture and the details.
    • Either way, ask yourself what you’re learning or have learned. What larger patterns did you discover?

Using Mind-Mapping Software and Apps

  1. Look at the pros. Mind-mapping software and apps are rapidly expanding in their features. There are even some that are free with high capabilities. They allow for real-time virtual collaboration, brainstorming and discussion; map revision by other users; whiteboard, free-form drawing during meetings or presentations; personal use on your cellphone; management of complex projects from the ground up, scheduling, etc.[7][1][8][9]
    • They range from simple-to-use to probably requires training to realize the program’s potential.
    • A couple of the top-rated programs are free. Others range from $4.99/month on up depending upon the features.
    • They’re easy to modify, update and are orderly in appearance. You can often upload your own images.
    • Generally, you can download them as a PDF, if not in a number of other formats.
  2. Evaluate the cons. Their features vary, which can limit the free-flowing nature of mind mapping.[1] So, for example, one program might allow you to insert an arrow from one sub-category to another while another doesn’t offer this option. The ability to make those types of visual links is quite important in mind mapping.
    • Most don’t allow you to draw with anything other than your mouse.
    • They can also take time to learn and be expensive. and hand writing enhances cognition and memory.
  3. Try out free software and read user reviews. Test the waters by creating mind maps in free software programs. This will give you a baseline idea of their capabilities. It will also help you determine if you think they’re useful enough to upgrade to those that aren’t free but offer more functions. Also read reviews online to see which programs people like for what types of issues. One program or app might be great for collaborating with co-workers but not very useful for keeping track of a project’s progress.


  • Don't get stuck in one area. Keep your ideas flowing. If a branch doesn’t work out, just start at the central idea and work your way out again.
  • Don't be afraid to bring out your inner artist. If the topic is music, make each branch a musical instrument.
  • Record what you are thinking by speaking out loud.
  • Keep one branch of thought one color and another branch a different color.
  • Ask a negative question in your mind, such as “Why can’t I make sense of this?” when you’re feeling stuck. Your brain will go and seek the answer. The same applies for asking questions that you expect to get an answer to, such as “What happens now?”[5]
  • And sometimes you just need to step back and reflect, then come back to it later!
  • Make a draft and just put all your ideas on that draft then you can decide what you need to put on your real paper.
  • You can keep it really simple: forget colors, forget pictures. Just write a word and draw a circle around it, send branches out and add other items as they come to your mind. Spending too much time on drawing pictures, colors, thick and thin lines, bright or dark can take away from the spontaneous nature of the mind map.

Sources and Citations