Jotting a simple list is a great way to brainstorm, but when you want to visualise, organise, and untangle a deep set of ideas, you want a mind map. Web-based mind mapping tool MindMeister offers a simple interface to create mind maps collaboratively or on the go. We've mentioned a few mind mapping apps in the past, and showed you how to mind map meetings as an alternative to linear note-taking. But if you haven't tried mind mapping yet, MindMeister is a great place to start. Let's dive into MindMeister to give mind mapping a go without downloading a thing.
What's a Mind Map?
In short, a mind map is a diagram of related information around a central idea. Wikipedia says a mind map is:
An image-centered diagram that represents semantic or other connections between portions of information. By presenting these connections in a radial, non-linear graphical manner, it encourages a brainstorming approach to any given organisational task, eliminating the hurdle of initially establishing an intrinsically appropriate or relevant conceptual framework to work within.
You start with a central node on your diagram, which represents the main topic. Then, from that node, you create sub nodes, which can have sub nodes, and so on. A mind map is a visual outline that encourages free-form thinking and instant capture. Here's a simple mind map I put together in MindMeister while I was brainstorming the Better Lifehacker Firefox extension.
Here you can see that the topic is the Firefox extension, so that's the central node. From there, the main sections of the extension branch out—in this case, posts, and comments. Then each of those has lists associated with it.
This structure works for any topic or idea you want to riff on and jump back and forth amongst sub nodes and add lists and sub-lists too. When you're working in a group on a big idea with lots of facets to it, a mind map can get large and deep. However, because it's so easy to zoom in on a node, the visual structure helps you focus on small bits while still showing you relationships between items.
Benefits of a Web-based Mind Mapper
While loyal mind mappers will recommend desktop apps like Freemind to manage and edit your maps, MindMeister offers features only a web-based tool can.
Create and add to maps via email. MindMeister gives you two secret email addresses—one to create new maps, and one to add to an existing map. Send an indented list of items to that address via email, and MindMeister will add the node to your default map or create a new map, depending on what address you used. Here's what the email for the Better Lifehacker map looked like.
Using this feature on your desktop (as pictured) is a lot less useful than the most obvious advantage—sending that email from your cell phone on the go.
See other user's public maps. If you're a work style voyeur like we are, you'll love browsing through other MindMeister users' public maps. For example, here's a good public Getting Things Done mind map, one on the topic of what makes its author happy, and another on what is Web 2.0.
Share, publish, and collaborate. Likewise, you can make your own maps public, or grant other users read-only or edit rights to the map. Your MindMeister dashboard shows you what maps you've shared, published, or kept private.
Annotate, format, and augment your map. MindMeister lets you annotate, format, and add deep information to nodes in several ways. Insert links, file attachments, icons, due dates, priorities, and notes (pictured right) to any node. Customise each node's font size, colour, and style to format your map to your heart's content. You can even look up related information on Wikipedia, del.icio.us or Google on each node. (Just select it, and expand the "Information" section on the sidebar, and click on an icon to search on one of the services.)
We've only scratched the surface of what MindMeister can do right inside your browser. While it's fun to see what you can do with tools like this, it's all about what you do do with it. Are you new to mind maps? Veterans, what's your favourite mind mapping tool? What types of brainstorming or information organizing do you use mind maps for? Do share, in the comments.
Gina Trapani, the editor of Lifehacker, may be late to the mind mapping party, but is still having a great time. Her feature Geek to Live appears every week on Lifehacker.