Mind Mapping Software for Visual Organization




Introduction: Mind Mapping Software for Visual Organization

About: Marine Biologist. Bryozoan-lover. Photomicrographer. Mocha latte addict. Artsy-craftsy and overall dorkus. I love to think of ways I could make something that I can't afford. Also, cats!

Is your brain a jumbled mess? Do you have a million and one things on your to-do list or ideas you want to put in some sort of order? I know I’m not the only one, right?

Or is your brain a well-oiled, organized, thinking machine? If so, please let me know your secret.

Either way, mind-mapping is an extremely useful management tool whether you’re making a simple daily to-do list or attempting to organize your entire life’s worth of accomplishments and dreams.It's also the best thing ever for designing a website or following a set process.

Mind Maps have some guidelines that they generally follow. Wikipedia lists them as (emphasis mine):

  1. Start in the center with an image of the topic, using at least 3 colors.
  2. Use images, symbols, codes, and dimensions throughout your mind map.
  3. Select key words and print using upper or lower case letters.
  4. Each word/image is best alone and sitting on its own line.
  5. The lines should be connected, starting from the central image. The lines become thinner as they radiate out from the center.
  6. Make the lines the same length as the word/image they support.
  7. Use multiple colors throughout the mind map, for visual stimulation and also for encoding or grouping.
  8. Develop your own personal style of mind mapping.
  9. Use emphasis and show associations in your mind map.
  10. Keep the mind map clear by using radial hierarchy or outlines to embrace your branches.

The applications for mind maps truly are endless and with digital software you can have one for any aspect of your life.

This guide will take you through the creation and formatting of a mind map using an example.

I’ll try to blow your mind by mind-mapping the creation of this mind mapping Instructable!

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Step 1: Software

There are many options for mind-mapping software, which are reviewed/listed here and here.

The 2 I have experience with are both open-source.

XMind – Desktop software available for Windows, Mac, and Linux. Paid Pro version available. Many themes and styles, very customizable, and has a modern look.

FreeMind – Desktop software available for Windows, Mac, and Linux. More basic with a Windows 95 feel to it, but very easy to use.

I’ll be using XMind on Windows 8.1 so the following steps may be different for Mac or Linux.

Step 2: Mind Mapping Basics

If you have ever drawn a flow chart, mind mapping is pretty much like that only digital. The point is to create an organized map of ideas, topics, processes, project goals, etc. It’s really a pretty version of a MS Word outline. The mind map is a series of topics (XMind) or nodes (FreeMind) represented by floating bubbles or other shapes connected by lines showing relationships between nodes.

I’ll be using the term NODE because I think it describes the bubbles better.

Think of it this way. When you create an Instructable, there are organized steps that you will take during the process.

  1. You think of an idea (level 1 node)
  2. You write down steps that you need to take to create the Instructable (each step represented by level 2 nodes)
  3. You describe what needs to happen in each step (level 3 nodes)
  4. And so on…

Step 3: Create a Basic Mind Map

Download and install your mind mapping software of choice.

Remember, I’ll be using XMind.

New Map

When you start XMind, you can choose one of many templates that are good for different types of things. You can also choose a theme for it. Don’t worry, you can change the template later if you want.

I’ve created mine using the Blank template. Choosing anything other than the blank template will start you off with content already there which you can change.

Creating Nodes

Node 1 or Central Node

The first node will be the biggest and all other nodes will branch from it in a way that you choose. I’ve chosen the name “Mind Mapping Instructable”.


Sub-nodes can be created with the parent node selected by using the INS or Tab keys or by going to the Insert menu. When a sub-node is selected, sibling nodes can be created using the Enter key.

All you have to do to re-name any node is select it and start typing.

Deleting Nodes

Need to delete a node? Select it and then use the DELETE key.

That's really all there is to it for a simple mind map. In the next steps I'll go a little further.

Step 4: Map Structure

I’m not really a fan of my map’s structure. Here are some ways you can make your map look nicer.

Base Structure

Map structure can be changed to best represent what's going on within. In order to change the base structure, click and drag to select the entire map. On the right hand side of the window there is a Properties tab on the bottom. The first option will be for Structure.

Right now my map is using the Logic Chart (Right) structure, but I think it's too cluttered and hard to read so I'm going to play around with the different types. There are quite a few to choose from.

Node Level Structure

Structure of your map can also be changed at the Node level. Select a node and play around with which one looks best to you. I ended up with a mixture of Balanced Map (Up to Down) at Node 1, Tree Chart (Right) for all Node 2, and kept with Logic Chart (Right) for all sub-nodes.

Looks MUCH better now and is WAY easier to read. Could be better though...

Click on a node, hold down ALT (or Command on Mac) and drag to better customize where each node is placed.

Step 5: Formatting Your Map

Surprise, surprise! This basic map is pretty boring and still doesn't look exactly how I want it. A less picky person would leave it at this and be done with it, but I've got some time on my hands, so why not?

Formatting is also done in the Properties window (where you changed your map's structure).

Nothing Selected (Overall Formatting)

When nothing is selected, the Properties window gives you the ability to change the background color, select a wallpaper, show a legend (if you are using Markers), or advanced stuff that you can play around with.

Node Selected

Besides giving you the option to change the structure, Properties that can be changed include the Text (size, font, color, etc.), shape of the node, node border, the shape and thickness of the relationship line (to the sub-nodes), and numbering of the sub-nodes.

Changing properties of the parent nodes will, by default, change the sub-nodes to the same format.

I skipped one property, which is Saved Styles. XMind has default Saved Styles that you can choose from. You can also edit your nodes and then edit the default styles or save your own!

Saving Templates

If you have created the perfect mind map and might need to make more that are similar, go to File -> Save Template As...

Step 6: Marking Nodes

Node Markers

Marking your nodes can be extremely useful for making certain ones stand out or for tracking progress in the instance that a node is something that is being actively worked on. The Markers tab should be right next to the Properties tab (and if it's not, simply go to the View menu and select it from the dropdown box).

You can add markers to indicate priority, people, or when something should get done. You can use flag or star markers to indicate importance. There are many other types you can also choose from to suit your needs.

Markers can be added to the map either by selecting nodes and clicking a marker, or by dragging and dropping the marker you want on to the correct node.

Markers will appear to the left of the node text.


Labels are like sub-titles for the selected node. Select a node and click F3 to type up a label.

It will show up below the node in a yellow box.


Insert notes by selecting a node and pressing F4 or going the Modify menu. A box will pop up and you can enter text and images and format the text. It will let you know that you can open the Notes window by pressing F4 again and this brings up a window that spans the bottom of the screen.

Nodes with notes will have a little paper icon on the right.

Step 7: Adding Extras

You might want to remind yourself of important links or of an image you want to keep or use some time.

Similar to the addition of notes or markers, you can also add images, hyperlinks, and even attach files into your mind map. Especially useful if you're like me and often save images in one giant folder...


Hyperlinks aren't just for inserting links to websites. You can also link to files on your computer. Awesome!

Just click the appropriate node and either press CTRL + H or go to Modify -> Hyperlink.

Nodes with links to:

  • a web URL will have a world icon on the right
  • a file or folder on the computer will have an icon for the type of file or a folder icon on the right
  • a topic (node) that you want to refer to will have a little "M" icon on the right

Open the hyperlink by clicking on the icon to the right.


Insert an image by pressing CTRL + I or going to the Insert -> Image. It will let you choose and image from your computer and will show a thumbnail, which you can resize.

Attach Files

Attaching a file works a bit differently than other things I've shown you. When you add an attachment by selecting a node and going to the Insert menu and choosing attachment, it doesn't add anything next to your node's text. Instead, it adds a sub-node with the attachment's name, file extension, and icon for the program it opens in.

In order to open the attachment, just go to Modify -> Open Hyperlink or click on the program icon.


Once done with a specific node and its sub-nodes, you can add a summary. Click on a node that needs a summary and click CTRL + ] or go to Insert -> Summary. It will put in a curly bracket that extends the entire node and sub-nodes and the text will be red. You can format it to be different of course, and you should because the default text is Comic Sans MS.

Add Boundaries

Boundaries are useful for showing that nodes are related, but not in such a way that requires the relationship branch lines. Click and drag whatever you want to have boundary lines and use CTRL + B or Insert -> Boundary.

Add Relationships

Another way to show relationships between any 2 nodes is by adding relationship branches. Select one node, use CTRL + L or the Insert -> Relationship, then click on the node you want the relationship branch to attach to. You can edit the name of the relationship branch and the curve of the branch as well as the normal properties. By default it is a dotted red line.

Step 8: Tips and Tricks

I'll just give some very basic tips and tricks in no particular order.

  • Nodes with sub-nodes can be minimized or maximized using the small icon below with the + or - sign inside.
  • Clicking on a node marker (on the left of the text) will open up a menu to change it to another marker in the same group (e.g.,Task Progress markers can be changed to the next level of "done-ness").
  • Change node text easily using the Outline window at the top right
  • Export your mind map to Evernote if you use it by going to File -> Save to Evernote...
  • Track revisions to the map by opening the Editing History tab in the View menu. A new revision will be added when the map is saved. Another option is to open the Black Box, which tracks all your XMind files and their revisions
  • Nodes can be sorted based on time or priority when marked as such by going to Modify -> Sort...
  • Export your map as a document, image, or other mind map file type by going to File -> Export...
  • Similarly, import another mind map file type into XMind by going to File -> Import...

With that I believe I have covered what most users will want out of a mind map. Use them for anything and everything! I have found these visual organization tools much more helpful than a simple text outline and I hope that you find them useful too.

As you can tell, they are perfect for anything requiring a complex process. I have used them for building websites to show relationships between pages and databases, but I would love to see how you have used them!

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    11 Discussions


    4 years ago

    This can really makes it possible to store much more information in a software-produced visual map, without overwhelming.

    Phil B
    Phil B

    5 years ago

    I used mind mapping when stuck with preparing a sermon during my time as an active pastor. The small bit of information I could find at the time suggested using paper and just getting thoughts onto paper quickly as a way of organizing muddled thoughts. From my experience, I would think a computer program would slow the process and make it less useful.


    Reply 5 years ago on Introduction

    Phil, the short answer here is this. Like any new software, there is time needed to learn how best to use it. As you've no doubt experienced over the years with new tools, the basics of how to use them are there, but when the need to fine tune them arises, it's back to the manual we head to find out just where the preset depth gauge is zeroed, and then we set the steps where we want them. Mind mapping software is much the same. With all the options in formatting, and connections and what-not, the principle of getting the thoughts there in front of ourselves is where it starts.

    Many of the programs mentioned here after the main topic is typed adding "children" is just a matter of either the enter, tab, or insert key. One way to visualize these in relation to spoken content is to get the talking points on the map, all of them that come to mind, as if it were a brainstorming session. Once these talk points are there, than, the task of editing that first draft may begin.

    The main monkey business here is to do what works for you. Personally, my right hand was removed 14 years ago. While I can write, it in some cases just isn't legitable enough to fuel the train of thought. Typing on the other hand, all them fiddle bits are covered. When these larger projects are being worked on I go to either Mind Maps or Outline software such as Tree Pad. It still boils down to using what is best for ourselves.

    By the by, the link to the Tree Pad lite version be


    Reply 5 years ago on Introduction

    I agree that it would be much faster to hand draw mind maps for quick organization of thoughts. However, for many applications, a program may seem at first like it is slowing you down, but in my experience, the process ends up faster in the long run.

    Applications for use that benefit the most from mind mapping software are ones that are also digital and require a variety of files, folders, links, etc. These days there are also many people working on digital projects together - and while each person may have a different job (or area they focus on the mind map), they're going to need to know their part relates to everyone else's part.

    Take websites. Designers and programmers will be doing two completely different things, yet the designer will need to know how his/her icon/image will be interacting with other icons/images through the use of programming because that might affect the design.

    With some mind map software, you can save to a network, so the website's program manager would be able to track progress of each task through use of the node markers and see files that each person uploads as they're working.

    That's probably much more than you expected, but I hope that it explains better what this 'ible is covering!


    5 years ago on Introduction

    Great read. Just a couple of thoughts here. Firstly FreeMind has grown up. The new version is known as FreePlane and may be found here http://sourceforge.net/projects/freeplane/

    There is also another windows based free mapper out "there" known as Blumind, and found here

    Anyone of the mentioned mappers make life much easier via the time they save


    Reply 5 years ago on Introduction

    Thanks for the links! I'll check them out.


    5 years ago on Introduction

    Very cool! Great write-up for a pretty tricky subject, too.

    My mind is a well-oiled, organized, thinking machine. My secret is . . .

    . . . ah crap, I forgot it! ;)


    Reply 5 years ago on Introduction

    Thank you!

    If you remember it, let me know :)

    When someone tells me a project is "a well-oiled machine" but isn't really going that smoothly, I like to respond by saying "Well, there's oil in there somewhere..."