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Mind maps guide

A quick and easy guide to brainstorming with mind maps

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Whether you’re brainstorming ideas, taking notes, or studying for an exam, mind maps are a powerful tool for understanding and recall. Not only are they easy to make, they’re actually faster to create than traditional notes—and more useful.

Anyone can learn to use mind maps; that’s why they’re such a popular learning tool! With a few quick tips from us, you’ll be on your way to mastering mind mapping.

This guide is perfect for:

  • anyone interested in brainstorming new ideas or learning more effectively,
  • writers, students, strategists, or anyone who needs a way to work through complex concepts with overlapping parts, and
  • people wanting to brush up on the fundamentals of mind mapping.

What is a mind map?

A mind map is a cluster of related ideas connected to a central concept. Each layer of ideas branches out from the next. The farther from the middle you go, the more specific the ideas get. The closer to the center, the more general the ideas are.

Mind maps are the perfect tool for brainstorming or note-taking. Starting with an initial topic at the center of your map, you use lines to branch out into related ideas, and then branch out again to develop those ideas even further. The process of creating a mind map helps our brains connect ideas, understand concepts from a high-level perspective, and form new ideas based on these insights.

Mind maps are often a faster and easier way to represent an idea than writing them out completely. Because they add a visual element to ideation, they’ve also been shown to increase retention when studying for tests and promote innovation when conceptualizing new ideas. Some people call mind maps by different names, such as idea maps, spray diagrams, or radial trees.

History of mind maps

Mind maps, though not referred to as such, have a long history dating as far back as third century Greece and Rome from the philosopher Porphyry of Tyre, who is credited with mapping Aristotle’s famous Categories. His mind map was known as “the Porphyrian tree.”

The philosophical origins of mind maps continued in the 13th century with philosopher Ramon Llull, who created an illustrated version of the Porphyrian tree. In fact, many famous thinkers throughout history have used their own takes on mind maps to create free-form notes that branch off one another and often include drawings.

Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Thomas Edison, and Mark Twain have all been known to create mind-map-esque notes, but it was British author and TV personality Tony Buzan who popularized the term “mind map” in the 1970s.

Buzan did more than coin the term; he taught how to create and use mind maps in his BBC TV series, Use Your Head, and in his books, such as Modern Mind Mapping for Smarter Thinking. He claims his mind map approach to learning was inspired by Alfred Korzybski’s general semantics and popularized by science fiction writers such as Robert A. Heinlein and A.E. van Vogt. Buzan believes people often absorb information in a non-linear fashion, and mind maps are the perfect tool for capturing that process.

Mind map uses

Because mind maps are highly versatile and easy to produce, they can be used for a variety of functions, including:

  • Brainstorming: Mind maps change and adapt with your ideas. They can help you make connections you wouldn’t otherwise.
  • Note-taking: Quickly capture and organize concepts from lectures, presentations, or meetings.
  • Studying: If your notes didn’t start as a mind map, you can still create one to use for studying to increase your retention and understand the material.
  • Decision making: Think through complex ideas to arrive at the best decision possible.
  • Presenting: Mind maps are much easier for audiences to understand quickly than reading full sentences. And they can easily be placed into presentations.
  • Goal setting: Whether you’re thinking about your personal or professional aspirations, mind maps can help you discover the right path.
  • Writing: Whether you’re writing a blog post, book, set of instructions, or something else, you can use a mind map to organize your thoughts, formulate a plot, or develop character backstories and motivations.
  • Planning: Plan and organize an event, strategy, project, or meeting.
  • Diagramming tool: Mind maps can help you flesh out the goals you want to set for creating more complicated diagrams such as wireframes, network diagrams, or flowcharts.

Research supporting mind maps

Mind maps aren’t just great in theory; they’ve been shown time and time again to improve both the understanding and idea retention.

A 2002 study by Farrand, Hussain, and Hennessy showed that the use of mind maps improved memory recall in medical students compared to students’ preferred methods of note-taking. In fact, the mind map group scored 10% higher than the control group in a recall test.

Another study in 2002 by Goodnough and Woods focused on sixth-grade science students. Not only did students report enjoying mind maps, they considered them fun, interesting, motivating, and easy to understand. And 80% of the students thought mind mapping helped them understand concepts and ideas in science.

And in 2006, a study by A.V. D’Antoni and G.P. Zipp involving physical therapy students showed increased learning with mind maps.

It should be no surprise that mind maps improve retention; the combination of words and pictures has been shown to be six times more effective for remembering information than words alone. And with the addition of colors and pictures, you can improve retention even more.

Mind map examples

Here are a few examples of mind maps you can make in Cacoo:

Example #1

Example #2

Example #3

How to make a mindmap

All you need to get started with a mind map is a central idea. From there, connected concepts, thoughts, and questions can freely radiate out.

When you’re ready to give it a try, log in to your Cacoo account and open up the Editor. If you don’t have an account, you can sign up for a free trial here.

Then, follow along with these steps:

  1. Select a template or blank canvas. The template library will pop up automatically when you open the Cacoo Editor. You can either select a relevant mind map template to get you started or create your work from scratch with a blank canvas.
  2. Add your central idea. Everything you create in your mind map will somehow connect back to your central idea, so plop down a shape with a word or phrase that represents that idea right in the middle of your canvas, or use the shape already available in the mind map template you selected in step 1.
  3. Add your first layer of subtopics. The subtopics radiating directly from your central idea will probably be broad. Maybe you want to set up a simple series of questions like “who, what, where, when, why”—you can choose whichever terms you think best suit the goal of your mind mapping session. Continue to branch off those subtopics, getting more specific as you get further from your central idea. Each new layer of branching should dig deeper into that specific area of your central idea.
  4. Keep adding new connections. Use lines between shapes to show how they are connected. Some ideas may have only one connector leading to it or coming out it. Other shapes may have multiple in either direction. You can move the existing lines if you initially chose a template or select the “New line” icon in your top menu to create and style your lines. Adjust line styles with the inspector tool. Tip: Use Alt+Drag to clone and move a shape or line. That way, they don’t have to bother with formatting the lines/shapes every time!
  5. Move your shapes around. As new ideas spring up, you may decide to move things around to pair closely-related ideas closer together or just make room for a more robust branch of your mind map. You can also move shapes around to inspire new ways of thinking about your central idea. Sometimes, just seeing two ideas together that you normally wouldn’t associate can create inspiration.
  6. Add pictures or illustrations, if you’d like You can paste an image from the clipboard with standard shortcut keys (Windows – [Ctrl]+[V] / Mac – [command]+[V]). You can also insert a screenshot, or use one of our integrations with several file storage apps like Box, Dropbox, and Adobe Creative Cloud to insert your own images.
  7. Clean up your formatting. If you’re going to come back to your mind map again and again to study it or potentially show it to other people, it’s a good idea to make sure you’re using uniform shape sizes, texts, colors, etc. across your map. Try using a different color for each idea level to create a visual hierarchy. You can do the same with font sizes and line thickness. Play around until you like how it looks!
  8. Save your diagram & share it! Select the “Save Diagram” button at the top of the Editor to name and save your diagram. The “Export” and “Property” buttons will provide you with various options for sharing your diagram, including exporting as a PDF or SVG, sharing on social media (Twitter, Google+, Facebook), or sharing with a link. You can also embed your diagram on a website.

By the end, you’ll have a great mind map you can use to study or present to a team member, boss, or client.

Mind map templates

While creating mind maps from scratch is easy with Cacoo, using templates can greatly speed up your diagramming process.

There are many different types of mind map templates to choose from in Cacoo. Simply open the Editor, choose a template to get you started, and begin customizing it to your liking.

If you create a diagram you think you’ll want to replicate, save it as a new template. With custom templates and stencils, you can recreate your best work again and again.

Best practices for drawing mind maps

One of the great things about mind maps is you don’t need a knowledge of intricate formatting rules to create them. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few best-practices you can incorporate to make your diagrams more readable.

  • Use hierarchies. You can incorporate hierarchies in many ways, from font size to line thickness to color. The very center of your mind map should be large with bold lines radiating from it. With each new branch, reduce the font size and the thickness of your next branch lines. This will make it easy to distinguish each layer of your diagram quickly.
  • Use images. Our brains are better at remembering visual content. Adding images to your mind map, especially when the goal is memorization, will greatly help with recall later on.
  • Use shapes. When you’re not using images, different shapes are a great way to add visual elements to your mind maps.
  • Use colors. Colors can be used to group topics or layers. You can also vary your saturation, starting at full-saturation and decreasing as you branch further and further from the central idea.

Approaching your mind map

You can go about creating your mind map in a couple of ways:

  • Branch by branch. Focus on one branch at a time, adding all of the relevant sub-branches one by one until you reach the end. Then, move on to your next branch.
  • Level by level. Start by adding every branch you want to explore, then move onto each branch’s next sub-branch. Some branches may end before others do; continue on until you reach the last sub-branch of your final branch.
  • Free-flow. There’s no rule that says you have to develop your branch in a certain pattern. If you prefer to write down your ideas as they come to you, try doing a free-flow. Just remember to step back every now and then to reexamine your mind map as a whole.

Mind map benefits

Mind maps are rapidly catching on both in schools and in the professional sphere when it comes to modern note-taking.

Unlike when you mindlessly copy down notes in a linear fashion top to bottom, right to left on your legal pad, mind mapping allows you to visually create a “bigger picture.” Not only this, but it also allows you to personalize your note-taking in an order that makes the most sense to you (not all minds work and organize alike). You can easily create relationships and hierarchies that will help you quickly find the information again when you look at your notes and will even help you to more easily retain the information for instant recall.

Cacoo for mind maps

Cacoo is simple to use, easy to learn, and built with collaboration in mind.

Using our cloud-based editor, your team can collaborate on diagrams in real-time. With in-app comments right on diagrams and our presentation mode, you can get easy feedback to refine your work. Shared folders give your team gets access to all the diagrams they need. And sharing diagrams with important stakeholders takes seconds (no downloading or account creation required on their part).

You can create all kinds of professional diagrams; not just mind maps, but flowcharts, sitemaps, network diagrams, wireframes, and more.

Sign up to start using:

  • Advanced exporting options (PNG, PDF, PPT, PostScript, or SVG)
  • Revision history (see what changes were made and when)
  • Full access to integrations (including Google Drive, Dropbox, Adobe Creative Cloud, and more)
  • Team management (invite people to your Organization, create groups, and assign roles)
  • Advanced security (manage access to diagrams, so you know exactly who’s seeing them)

Try it out for yourself with our 14-day free trial. No credit card required.


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