A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a mind map may be worth many more. That’s because a mind map combines both the power of a picture with the suggestion of words.
You may have seen mind maps, but you may not have known the name for them. Sometimes they look like clusters of bubbles; other times, like elaborate tree structures.
Because mind mapping has been connected with business brainstorming, much of the early software for creating the diagrams carried a relatively heavy price tag. However, with the arrival of Web-based applications and open source software, it’s now easy to take the practice for a spin without dispersing a cent.
A recent free entry into this realm is FreeMind. It’s an intuitive application that allows you to build mind maps with a minimum of fuss.
When you start a new map, an ellipse appears in the middle of your screen for your root idea. Clicking inside the ellipse opens an editing field for typing text.
You can quickly add ideas to the map by right-clicking a node. When you do that, a pop-up menu appears. With it, you can edit a node, add children to it or its parent, or move it up or down in your map.
From the menu, you can also spruce up you maps by adding icons to your ideas, formatting your nodes, inserting links and drawing “clouds” around related clusters of ideas.
If you’re a true keyboard jock, just about anything you can do with the software’s menus and toolbars can be accomplished with combinations of keystrokes.
FreeMind is a great way to create maps on your computer, but if want to brainstorm with others, you might want to use some of the free Web-based mappers like Mindomo and Bubbl.us.
Online programs have two advantages over their desk-bound peers: They can be accessed from any device with an Internet connection and because of that, it’s easier to collaborate on projects with them.
Both Mindomo and Bubbl.us have more graphic flair than FreeMind. The Web-based programs make good use of fonts and 3-D rendering of objects.
Mindomo Over Matter
For users of Microsoft Office 2007, the Mindomo interface should look familiar. It uses the tab and “ribbon” technique deployed in that program suite.
Under each tab, there’s a ribbon which contains palettes with clusters of tools. For example, under the Home tab, there’s a Map palette that contains tools for creating a new map, opening an old one, saving an existing one or printing it.
To add ideas to a central topic, you click on the topic and hit Enter. You can add nodes to any idea on the map by pressing your tab or insert keys.
Many functions that can be performed from the ribbon bar can be executed with keyboard commands. If you select some text, for instance, you can bold it by clicking a ribbon tool or by pressing Ctrl-Alt-B.
A Bubbl.us Bath
I found Bubbl.us easier to use than Mindomo, which is still in beta.
Bubble.us gives you more mouse options at every node. When you hover over the root bubble of a map, for example, several tools appear within it — tools for moving the bubble, changing its color, adding children and siblings to it, connecting it to other bubbles and deleting it.
With Mindomo, I found myself constantly wearing out a path from map to ribbon bar with my cursor. That wasn’t the case with Bubbl.us, where most of what I needed was under my cursor at all times.
Mind mapping can be a great way to generate ideas, manage tasks or bring right-brain thinking to your left-brain projects. What’s more, with excellent free programs like FreeMind, Mindomo and Bubbl.us, money need not be a barrier to discovering what mind mapping can do for you.
There are other web-based mindmapping services:
http://www.kayuda.com (describe themselves as mindmapping but closer to concept mapping) and http://www.mindmeister.com which just came out of Beta.
They’re all useful, just so long as you don’t use them for confidential product or business planning!