Mind mapping is a more visual way of taking notes or exploring ideas than writing conventional lists. More visual than a list, a mind map allows a free flow of ideas to radiate out of a central key word or phrase.

The ideas behind mind mapping stretch back over many thousand of years and use words, patterns, pictures and colour.

Used in decision-making, problem solving, ideas generation, brain-storming, note-taking and presentations, it allows an easy association of ideas and cross referencing, and it is much simpler to add in additional information. These maps can be more compact that conventional notes and lists, as they can be restricted to one side of a sheet of paper.

Easy to construct

  1. Take a blank sheet of paper (there are also commercial software packages available).

  2. Lay the sheet of paper down in landscape fashion (wider than it is high), as this is the way we write and draw (across first, rather than up and down).

  3. Take a pen.

  4. In the centre of the page write the topic to be explored and draw a circle round it.

  5. As ideas come (sub-divisions), draw a (major) line out from the circle with a word or two of explanation.

  6. Then further ideas will occur from the sub-divisions (these are sub-headings) and lines are drawn from the first major line (branch lines).

  7. As you “dig down” into the subject, further ideas will spin off from the sub-headings (these are lesser headings) and small details/ideas can be captured (track lines).

  8. Think railways. There are the major national routes (major lines); then there are regional routes (branch lines) and minor routes (track lines).

  9. Use as many sub-headings and lesser headings as necessary.

This can be useful as a personal tool, or used in a group situation. Practise on a personal level until you are happy with its intricacies.

Developing the mind maps

Mind maps can be very personal things to develop using simple words, phrases, pictures and colours.

  • A single word, or short phrase, which has meaning to you is all that is necessary, to give an explanation of what each line represents. There is no need for long rambling explanations. Indeed, such ramblings will reduce the effectiveness of mind maps.

  • Write neatly or print; these single words will probably need to be read and understood sometime in the future.

  • Pictures can often be more graphic than words. Symbols, stick drawings, sketches, something that means something to you graphically (eg a stick figure may mean a family, a smiley face a baby).

  • Use colour. Highlighter pens, coloured pencils … colour can be used to link ideas, or group ideas together.

  • Draw cross links where information in one part of the mind map is relevant or related (connects) to another.


When using this technique in a brain-storming session put down any ideas, however silly they may seem. Going back to what appears to have been a silly idea, you may find it will link up with other ideas (silly or otherwise) and make more sense. Also, what may appear to be a silly idea can later prove worthwhile or generate other ideas.


Mind mapping is also a useful tool when taking notes, as it is often the case that something said later in a discussion or presentation will link back to an earlier thought. It is so much easier to draw a swift tracker line, than try to flip back through a notebook looking for the relevant reference (with the result that you will miss the next few minutes of the presentation).

Summarising and consolidating information

Mind maps are useful to summarise information. This could be from your original (mind mapping) notes, or taking notes when reading through a report, book or other written source. It is also a useful way of remembering things while watching a video or TV programme.

It is often necessary to bring together information from a variety of sources. Using the mind mapping technique allows information to be consolidated in one place and linked together.

Communicating complex ideas

It can often be difficult to describe in words, or by using lists, something that has a complex structure. Using a, well-presented, tidy, mind map will allow the audience to see what the elements are, how they are linked together and why. It makes the presentation and subsequent explanation so much easier to understand.

Solving complex problems

Mind mapping may make it easier to look at a complex problem, by highlighting relationships and interactions between different elements.

Using mind mapping

For those people who are “visual” and like to see things laid out before them in diagram form and who find colour differentiation makes understanding easier, this technique is to be recommended. It is also very useful, as mentioned above, to convey complex information.

It can take a little time and some practice to become proficient in the technique — to develop your own style, and a style that can be “read” at a later date.

To get a better idea of the concept, have a look at some examples.

Why does it work?

Lists are very linear. Mind mapping, with its flow of ideas, enables thoughts to go off at a tangent and allows skipping between ideas. It resembles how the brain actually operates. The brain is analytical and artistic, as is mind mapping. Let the ideas flow onto the paper as they come from your brain. It nurtures the creative mind. All is enhanced by colour.

From Reif Larson, The Selected Works of T S Spivet: “A map does not just chart, it unlocks and formulates meaning; it forms bridges between here and there, between disparate ideas that we did not know were previously connected.”

Mind mapping is not the answer to everything — some people will still prefer lists!

Last reviewed 27 May 2015