In the late 1700’s Pierre Charles L’Enfant—a french architect who came to the U.S. to help America fight in the Revolutionary War—began designing the district of Washington D.C. He envisioned an egalitarian plan that mirrored America’s democratic ideals. For instance, he placed Congress’s Capitol building at the center of the city instead of the President’s White House. When you visit D.C., you’ll notice it is sectioned into four quadrants radiating outward from the Capitol building, each beginning at First St. L’Enfant’s vision of a city expanding from its center is a similar concept to mind maps.
As described in Mindmeister’s course Mind Mapping 101, “A mind map is a type of visual diagram that consists of a centralized subject and related topics or ideas branching off from it in all directions. From each topic, subtopics can again branch off, resulting in a radial structure.” Mind maps are just one of several Ideation methods in design thinking but arguably the most popular beyond the field.
British psychologist Tony Buzan—known for his work in information retention and speed reading— trademarked the phrase “mind mapping,” but the concept itself goes back centuries. According to Buzan’s book, The Ultimate Book of Mind Maps, some of history’s most intellectual thinkers like Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, and Sir Winston Churchill used mind mapping techniques to convey their own ideas.
How to Mind Map
There are several different variations on the concept of mind mapping, but the overall process and structure are the same.
- Write and/or illustrate a single word or idea on a blank sheet of paper.
- From there, “branch-out” key ideas, qualities and/or themes related to your main concept. Use imagery and color. Stick to words or brief phrases.
- Add a tertiary layer that “branches” out from your previous layer, with ideas associated with that branch.
- Take a step back and enjoy the big picture. Make visual connections between similar ideas across branches.
Why Mind Map?
There are several reasons why mind maps are so widely used by designers and non-designers alike. Here are a few.
They are incredibly simple to create
Although several programs are dedicated to mind map-making, you don’t need to use any of them to get started. At minimum, all you need is a pen, paper, and a subject to explore. If you have other artistic tools like colored pencils or prefer to use creative digital programs, you can use those too.
They are powerfully versatile
From personal development to learning to problem-solving, mind mapping can be used for any topic. Need to plan a presentation? Mindmap it. Want to explore possible paths for your future? Mindmap it. Need to capture lecture notes in a memorable format? That can mind mapped too!
They engage both sides of our brain
Mind maps activate your brain’s right side by creating imagery, using color, and generating ideas. Mind maps activate the left side of your brain through the use of language, vocabulary and logistically connecting concepts.
By combining both sides of our brain, mind maps expand our thinking on a single subject and improve your brain’s overall performance. As Michael Michalko describes in his book Cracking Creativity, ” a mind map is ‘the whole-brain alternative to linear thinking. [It] reaches out in all directions and catches thoughts from any angle.”
They help us form new connections in our mind
Known as synergy, our brains naturally like to make connections. Mind mapping allows you to unload any thoughts you have on a single topic and find associations between existing and new ideas across categories.
They improve memory and retention
The brain has a knack for retaining visual information at higher rates than non-visual information. The visual aspects of a mind map make storing and retrieving the data more effective than words alone.
In a study W. Martin Davies conducted on mind mapping, he declared that “diagrams are more easily stored in memory than other kinds of representational formats…Maps allow the separate encoding of information in memory in visual and well as propositional (written) form.”
In addition to the points above, mind maps are also fun and will spark creativity! You don’t have to be a great illustrator to mind map because it’s not about how beautiful your images are, but rather the act of visualizing information. As you can see from some of the examples here, it’s not about being perfect. It’s about combing visuals and words together, and dumping your thoughts on paper. The bi-product of that activity is a cool-looking visual with information that becomes more memorable in your mind. One quick search on Google or Pinterest shows just how diverse and visually beautiful a mind map can be.
Like anything else, it may take some practice before you get comfortable with the actof mind mapping. Since I tend to communicate in words more than visuals, mind mapping was not easy at first, but has since fueled my interest in using this method more! If you would like a copy of my mind map on design thinking ideation methods, please download below. And, if you want to explore the wild world of mind mapping further there are plenty of resources out there. I’ve listed a few that have helped me in the resources section below.
References & Resources
A Brief History of Pierre L’Enfant and Washington, D.C. by Smithsonian Magazine
An entire website dedicated to mind map inspiration by Mind Map Inspiration
7 Research-Backed Benefits of Mind Mapping by Mindmeister
Mind Mapping 101 course by Mindmeister