Mapping Your Mind

When we reflect on our educational experiences, we find that the educational system tries to make us think in a straight line. For example, most writing classes start by teaching the outline. If we apply metacognition, or thinking about our thinking, we quickly discover that this arrangement of ideas in logical order proves rather artificial. One thought leads to another, but they aren't necessarily in the right order. We free-associate even when we are supposed to be disciplined. Outlining forces people to disrupt the creative process by figuring out where to place new thoughts within a linear flow. Mind mapping creates a more open canvas where the free flow of ideas can be captured in an organic way.

Tony Buzan, who popularized mind mapping, explored several applications of the technique from personal brainstorming to group problem solving in his 1993's The Mind Map Book. The well-illustrated book also reinforces the "rightness" of mind mapping through analogies in nature. Some examples include the forms of networked connections such as spider webs and the spine patterns of cacti. Buzan suggests that mind mapping is a more natural way to express ideas.

The term mind mapping often extends to include any visual notations using lines, nodes, and relationships; but the original term is very specific to Buzan's approach, which concentrates on capturing ideas in one-word increments. None of these tools enforce the single word constraint, and when used to capture more extensive thoughts, mind maps no longer adhere to Buzan's rules. Most of these tools use the organic form and the openness of the process to capture ideas in a way that best suits their creator. Another very structured technique that can be documented in these tools is called concept mapping. Concept map connections include relationship values, such as "is a kind of" or "begins with." For example, "a dog IS A KIND OF mammal." Concept maps have broad application, but they should be very familiar to developers who have used the Unified Modeling Language, or UML.

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Although mind mapping may seem somewhat esoteric, it can be very practical. Consider project management, where you can organize a project by a time series of tasks, but the tasks arrive via free association. You think of one task and that leads to the thought of another task—and so on. Some of those may be big tasks at the same level, and others will be sub-tasks or detailed minor tasks. No project plan comes out as a perfect list the first time. Mind mapping is a great technique for pre-planning. Once you send it to a project management tool, rearrangement is not so easy. So, before your enter information into a project management program, use mind mapping to capture the tasks and subtasks of the project. This has become such a popular application of mind mapping software that several of the PC-based tools now include project management views. This helps you transfer ideas into project management tools without reentering the information. A few of the iOS apps can manage the project metadata to ensure that project reporting remains timely, but none of them has yet ventured into full project management.

Other good uses for mind maps include:

  • Event planning

  • Creating study guides

  • Brainstorming

  • Managing tasks lists

  • Taking meeting notes

And if you are a fan of David Allen's Getting Things Done methodology (GTD), mind maps are a great way to organize your life and live by them. lists nearly 300 products for mind mapping across Windows, OS X, Linux, iOS, and other platforms. I am going to touch on a few of the popular downloads available for iOS.

iThoughts HD

$7.99, iPhone:; $9.99, iPad:

iThoughts HDAlthough iThoughts doesn't have the most fluid form of data entry, relying on double-taps or an "add node button," the final results are visually pleasing. iThoughts lets you import and export other popular mind mapping formats. It is also the most business-friendly, with very strong task management features such as item start and due dates, completion percentages, and notes with URLs. Topics can include multiple icons to aid with visual recognition, and different shapes and colors to differentiate parts of the map. The idea of a cloud, or boundary as it is called in iThoughts, creates visually distinct groups of ideas.

iThoughts creates visually pleasing mind maps. This illustration shows Dan's methodology from his latest book, Management by Design.

I would love to see this app become a universal app, as I'm not fond of the cheesy teaser in each release that suggests iPad users buy the iPhone version. Make one version, charge $9.99, reduce the need to maintain two code bases, and provide even more value to customers. I would also like to see printing support, and since the product includes strong date features, a way to use those to display date nodes in sequence.

If you want a good, full-featured mind mapping app that will meet your business and creative needs, this is the one.


$32.99, iPad:; $7.99; iPhone:


iMindMap is the official Tony Buzan mind mapping tool, and true to Buzan's aesthetic bent, it creates the most beautiful maps through the most fluid user interface. Rather than tapping an "add" icon to create a new node, iMindMap is more akin to finger painting: the user taps the tip of an existing node (the red dot) and drags out a new organic thread onto the map. Tapping the node and moving the blue circle at its tip permits rearrangements that feel more like a game than work. Type a word and repeat. These mind maps are thick and gooey and inviting to play with. Unique to iMindMap is a video walk-through mode that turns a mind map into an impromptu presentation on a VGA display.

Working with iMindMap feels like finger-painting. This image shows notes from Dan's recent Future of Education talks.

iMindMap is missing several features common to mind mapping tools, such as clouds and the ability to track dates and completion. These are both available in its desktop version, which makes this rather expensive app of less value than the price suggests. And as of this writing, iMindMap does not use web-based storage for the exchange of maps, so it is useful for creation, but not for synchronization. Sending an iMindMap file to the iPad results in the option of opening the map in iThoughts HD, not iMindMap. The company is beta testing a new version of their PC/Mac software. Hopefully, better integration is in store for iOS.

I recommend it for mind mapping purists and those who already own iMindMap on the PC or Mac. However, considering the price, you can find better value in lower-priced apps with even more full-featured mind mapping capabilities, better task management, and good web-based storage features—though the finger painting experience may be worth the extra price by itself.


$7.99, iPad:; Free, iPhone:

MindMeisterUnlike other products that started out as PC or Mac-based products, MindMeister began life as a Web-based service. In addition to their iOS app, they also offer an "offline" mode deployed with HTML 5.

The interface is clear and simple, with good support for tasks, layout, color, and themes. Synchronization with the MindMeister service is also a strong, cross-platform feature. For those who just want to brainstorm, MindMeister offers an app called Geistesblitz (free,, which turns a flurry of ideas into a mind map on their web service without worrying about drawing or formatting. You just have to concentrate on being brilliant and insightful. Once there, you can use MindMeister to edit and organize the ideas.

MindMeister offers a complementary web service and is a good value for basic mind mapping.

For the price, there is little downside to MindMeister. It is not quite as sophisticated as iThoughts (no clouds or callouts for instance), but for basic mind mapping it is a good value, especially when you take into account the added web service.


$7.99, iPhone/iPod touch:

MindJetMindjet's Mind Manager is one of the most popular mind mapping tools on the PC and Mac, but its iOS version is the most disappointing. The desktop version offers sophisticated layout and formatting controls and very tight integration with project management and productivity software like Microsoft Office. Unfortunately, their mobile version seems to have been a lower priority, despite the tough competition on iOS. First, Mindjet is optimized for the iPhone, although it works on the iPad in 2x mode. It also presents a less inviting user interface than other apps, making it best for traveling with maps created on a PC or Mac rather than creating them from scratch. Mindjet has also failed to keep up with iOS cloud-based storage options; it uses a browser and email to upload and download maps in non-native file formats. When compared to other products with better interfaces and more interchange options, Mindjet is overpriced. (NOTE: A major upgrade expected by the time you read this.)

Mindjet's app doesn't live up to its PC and Mac counterpart.


$48.99, iPad:

DropMindI didn't get to spend as much time with DropMind as I did with the other products, as it was released the day I completed work on this article. That said, it is attractive, simple, easy to master… and way overpriced. At $48.99, DropMind doesn't bring anything significant to the iOS platform to justify the price. The price tag may make sense for users of their Windows, Ubuntu, or Mac versions, but it seems out of line for the app. I would suggest a lower price for a client and an upcharge for web usage. MindMeister offers more features and a free (albeit limited) web experience for just $7.99.

DropMind is attractive, simple, easy to master, but overpriced.


$6.99,; Free version, with in-app purchase of features,

SimpleMindSimpleMind is a great title for a tidy little mind mapper. It has some basic styles and a clean interface, along with access to configurable web, using their server. It's not as complex to learn, but it is missing some essential organizational features like notes, relationships, and clouds. If you use SimpleMind on the Mac or PC, the app is a good complement, but at $6.99 it is overpriced when compared to other products with many more features. This app is probably best for people with the SimpleMind desktop version on the Mac or PC.

SimpleMind is best for users already with SimpleMind on their Mac or PC.



MindNodeIf you want the basics, MindNode is your tool. MindNode is the only universal app in the bunch and the only one that lets you print. It also includes Dropbox integration and VGA out. Unfortunately, as a mind mapping tool, it is also the least feature-rich. MindNode looks a bit more like an experiment in tapping into iOS features than a concentrated effort to create a mind mapping tool. It is apparently the work of a single programmer, so this isn't surprising. The programmer, Marcus Mueller, has mastered the hard integration work that more mature tools haven't gotten around to yet. Perhaps now he can concentrate on competitive mind mapping features. At $5.99, it is a little steep in price but may be worth it if you want a complete, standalone experience with a web-based service for backup.

MindNode is the only app on this list with printing capabilities.


$49.99, iPad:

OmniGraffleDespite the look of OmniGraffle, it is not, in the strict sense, a mind mapping tool. It's here for a very specific reason. Because mind mapping tools are governed by internal layout rules and the logic of the concept, they sometimes make it hard to communicate details to people who aren't, so to speak, inside your head. OmniGraffle can easily help you redraw segments of your maps and add annotations and other visual and text elements. OmniGraffle may not help you generate ideas quickly, but it may prove indispensible in helping you communicate and sell them.

OmniGraffle helps you communicate your mind maps with clarity.


$6.99, iPhone:; $8.99, iPad:

MyMindMyMind for the iPhone, and its larger sibling, myMind Grande for the iPad, offer a minimalized UR and a set of features that are limited to the basic generation of ideas. Both apps use a tap-and-flick method for generating nodes in a very spartan UI. It does include the ability to use pictures (from Camera or Camera Roll) to illustrate nodes, a basic set of flags and notes, but it lacks more sophisticated elements like relationships and task management. The context menu supports deleting, cutting, and creating a new map from an existing node. Although myMind claims import and export capabilities, in my experience it was both awkward and flawed. The app has no import function, but it does include DropBox integration, which requires some non-intuitive menu choices to turn on (myMind also supports e-mail and IP-based web browser exporting for backup). To test the import feature, I copied a MindManger file to the myMind Dropbox folder, which then ended up with a file available in myMind on the iPhone/iPad. When I opened that file, I encountered a problem: only a couple of nodes were visible (of dozens). It also seems to turn the original file into a FreeMind file on the PC, which reflected the same import failures. This is a serious bug. It did, however, import native FreeMind files reliably. MyMind offers some interesting UI innovations (and some frustrating ones), but it only provides enough mind mapping capabilities for the most basic of applications.

A killer app for the iPad

MapMindChart1An iPhone may be enough for simple mind mapping, but its small screen is very confining. Mind mapping on the iPad may well be the killer app for aficionados and others who discover the usefulness of the discipline when thinking and planning in a chaotic world. Unlike painting, which is best accomplished with a pressure-sensitive surface, the iPad touch interface is ideal for creating mind maps. IMindMap's fluid and organic approach is very innovative and could teach the interface designers of other iOS apps a thing or two about elegance. iThoughts HD offers the most business-like approach in the category. The others offer a variety of benefits and tradeoffs, most of which focus on the value of an iOS version of a PC, Mac, Linux or web-service based product.

To select the best iOS product for your needs, consider four things: 

  • If you already own a desktop product (or use a web service), you want the product most compatible with that product or service.
  • If iOS is your only platform for mind mapping, then you want to make sure the product integrates well with your work style. This means the interface needs to work with you, rather than against you.
  • You also have to consider a backup other than your PC with iTunes because some iPhone/iPad users don't connect very often. Something that connects to Dropbox or another web storage service should be included in your evaluation.
  • Finally, even if iOS is your only platform, you need to share your thoughts with others, which means exporting images or PDFs via iOS and iTunes (for instance, as part of the Photo Roll). It is better to share via e-mail or through a web-based storage service.
A Guide to Mind Mapping software for the iPhone and the iPad

July-August 2011
At Work
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