Monday, March 2, 2009

Mindmaps, and Bubble Diagrams, and Spidergrams, Oh My!!

I've had lots of queries about Mindmaps and about why I wasn't including other software packages, including Concept Mapping packages. In light of this response, I have decided to discuss Mindmaps and Concept Maps a bit before we really sink our teeth into the reviews. Please keep in mind that this is a very brief introduction to Mindmaps and Concept Maps, and it just barely scratches the surface of these topics. If there is interest, I could go into them in more detail in a future post, but now we'll stick to the essentials. If I had used a Mindmap from the start, I would have done this introduction before presenting the tools...

Since these reviews are about Mindmaps, I'll start with them. Although diagrams have been used as an aid to decision-making for millennia, modern Mindmapping was invented by Tony Buzan, in the 1960s. According to Buzan (my apologies to Tony Buzan if I do not represent his thoughts precisely during this explanation), the human brain works by using "Radiant Thinking," starting to address a problem by thinking about the main problem, then branching out from there to investigate related topics and associations during the thought process.

The big idea behind mindmapping is that a Mindmap is an external representation of the contents of the mindmapper's brain. Once the contents of the mindmapper's brain are represented on the Mindmap, then there is time to reflect, add branches to the map, and add associations to the map. The map may be rearranged as it becomes clearer how the concepts should be categorized, sub-categorized, and re-categorized. While looking at the map and reworking it, the solution to a problem, or the proper organization of a project or book can gel in your mind. An informal statement of the guidelines for creating a "Pure Mind Map" as defined by Buzan, is as follows:

  • In the center of a clean sheet of paper, draw a picture of your central idea,
  • Use colors for all parts of your map, because it stimulates certain areas of your brain necessary for the "whole-brain thinking" this technique is known for,
  • Connect main branches to the central picture and second-level branches to the first level, continuing in this manner until your thoughts on the subject are fully represented,
  • Make certain that your map is organic-looking, with curved branches, more central branches thicker than less-central ones, and the overall feeling that the map impresses upon you is that of flowing,
  • Use only one keyword per line/branch in order to provide more flexibility throughout,
  • Use images everywhere in the map, again to stimulate visual centers of your brain,
  • Make sure to use emphasis in appropriate places and represent associations

However, to the best of my knowledge, there is only one software package that sticks to these guidelines (except the one about a clean piece of paper), Tony Buzan's own iMindmap. I will review it along with the others, even though it takes a somewhat different approach.

The Mindmaps that most of us are used to seeing are "Common Mind Maps," Bubble Diagrams, or Spidergrams. Common Mindmaps still start out with a central idea, or topic, but it doesn't necessarily have to be a picture. The Mindmap is still made up of branches, but the branches do not necessarily have any sort of "organic" feel to them. Some of the branches are thin, straight or curved, lines. Others are lines ending in shapes, generally ovals, rectangles, or rectangles with rounded corners. In the cases where there are shapes, the information for the branch resides inside of the shape, and the line is simply a connector from the next lower level. Another of Buzan's guidelines that falls by the wayside in Common Mindmaps is the rule about having a single word per branch. Most Common Mindmaps have phrases or multi-word concepts on nearly every branch. Common Mindmaps can have many of the visual elements of Pure Mind Maps, but they are not required to. According the the original theory set down by Buzan, all of the visual elements are required in order to stimulate all of the necessary centers of the brain for whole-brain thinking. Your mileage may vary, but the approach is an interesting one that has had remarkable results for many people over the past four decades.

Whether you are using Pure Mind Maps or Common Mindmaps, the purpose is to stimulate the flow of your thoughts, allow associations to reveal themselves and to allow you to organize your thoughts. Once you follow this process, you should be able to solve your problem, pull a variety of ideas from a brainstorming session, or plan out anything from a conference, to a marketing project, to a book.

My thanks go out to WikIT, which is a great resource, for the Mindmap images.

My next post will be about Concept Maps, followed by a post about when it is best to use a Mindmap, and when it is best to use a Concept Map. After I finish with all the background information, I'll get back on track with the comparisons.

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