Using Graphical Techniques for Creativity

Mind Map Index for Article

One of the great distinctions of life today as opposed to just a few decades ago is the amount of information that a person is expected to see, filter, process and create. Although information technology has been around for a while, the massive increase of information created by social media, books, research, blogs, the web, curation sites, and even TV, resembles a nova explosion more than simple steady growth.

Younger readers may find it odd or quaint that many of the people in the workforce today still remember attending school in the pre-PC days: using 3×5 notecards for research, static outlines on paper, libraries’ card catalog files, and printed encyclopedias, dictionaries and phone books. An advantage of the “old ways” was that you had more time to research, reflect, organize and create (usually writing by hand or using a typewriter). Of course, the disadvantages were that it took more time to do research, take notes, store the info on cards, reflect, organize and create, while writing by hand or learning how to white-out errors on typing paper.

Most bloggers today would not likely be able to function researching in libraries (instead of online), filing note cards, banging on typewriters and editing stories by hand.

Most computer (or netbook, notebook, tablet, phone, or web) software that we use today is still created simply to find and organize our information. These include contact managers, calendars, search tools, browsers, spreadsheets, databases, digital notebooks, outliners, and much more. Even huge services like YouTube are largely data collection and distribution networks rather than creativity tools. Social media has only increased the amount of information we process and distribute.

Without getting too metaphysical about it, one of the real revolutions in our time has been the development of graphical techniques to represent information and to stimulate creativity. Mind mapping is one technique for dealing with information graphically, but hardly the only one.

Even people who have never heard of mind mapping have used a variety of graphical information techniques, even the older, er, fogies.

Those of us of a certain age remember sitting in English class diagramming sentences. Diagramming was a technique of analyzing sentence structure that was often as confusing as it was useful. We also sat in the same class writing outlines in order to organize our written papers (actually printed on paper in those olden days). Honestly, outlines were probably as often created after the paper was written than before.

In retrospect, it’s amazing that those teachers and students never took diagrams and outlines to the next level as a creative and organizing medium, instead of letting those techniques atrophy after high school (or college). Sentence diagramming is rarely taught today, although I rather enjoyed trying it again, later.

Other kinds of diagram creation were taught as niche techniques, such as flow charts (if you were in a computer programming class), organizational charts (in business), Gantt charts (project management), pie charts (accounting), and so forth. But diagramming as a creative way to organize personal info was mainly ignored.

As a result, the first introduction many people had to visual creative techniques was the concept of clustering, espoused by Gabriele Lusser Rico in the book, Writing the Natural Way in 1983.  As a writing technique, clustering used only words and their free-form associations. Today clustering is still a useful technique and a great introduction to other creative maps.

Simple Example of Clustering

Simple example of clustering


At roughly the same time as Gabriele Lusser Rico was creating clusters, a British student by the name of Tony Buzan combined several ideas on concept or word mapping, added the use of visual drawings, and organized it in a circular system to create mind mapping. In his book, appropriately called The Mind Map Book, he describes how he first used the technique for note-taking and studying, but soon went beyond that to creating maps as a creative technique. What took much longer was to popularize this concept not just for students but also for business and government workers as well as artists and other creative people..

Sample of a Buzan Style Mind Map

A mind map illustrating the available tools for making mind maps.

Sample of a Buzan-style mind map from

Buzan’s original concept was strictly a hand-drawn map. It was many years before programmers began creating the first software-based mind maps. One of the earlier successful mind map creating software programs was FreeMind, which is still free and available on most platforms (Mac, PC, and Linux, but not on iPads or Android).

The original mind map software programs were mainly text-based and, even today, most mind mapping software is a bit graphically challenged. You can use a small installed catalog of images or import them, but to my knowledge, no mapping software includes a graphic creation interface that works as easily as drawing on paper. (“Easy” is relative. I’m a terrible sketcher, myself.)

Today, new mind mapping software programs, new features, and new platforms (including phones and tablets) are announced weekly, if not daily. You can now choose from a variety of free, purchased, or subscription-based software programs that may be installed on your computing platform or available online through your web browser.

Since the original concept of mind mapping is pretty much the same with all these programs, they often differentiate their products by combining mind maps with outlines, Gantt charts, other project management tools, writing tools, to do checklists, charting, flow charts, argument mapping, presentation software, community sharing, brainstorming, multi-user interfaces, other map types, education/classroom features, and integration with Microsoft Office products. (Yet, still, there would seem to be an available niche for better graphic creation tools with mind mapping software. Hint. Hint.)

In the next several How to Mind Map posts, we’ll explore how to create a mind map, different styles of maps, other kinds of visual maps, some of the free and paid tools available, and sources of more information.

Nest post: Why Mind Mapping is For You!

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