There are a lot of excellent options for mind mapping software to help you capture and organize your ideas, but we think that MindNode is the best option because of its beautiful design, ease of use, solid iCloud sync support, and just enough import and export options to be a really useful tool in almost any workflow.
What is a Mind Map, anyway?
A mind map is a diagram that connects information around a central topic or subject. The basic idea is that you start with a central idea and build branches (or “nodes”) around it.
Think of it as the right-brained version of a standard outline which is perfect for “radiant thinking,” an idea popularized by Tony Buzan.
“[A mind map is] visually looking at ideas and their connections and relationships with each other.” – David Sparks
The advantage of mind mapping is that it allows you to make connections you might not normally see in a traditional outline by allowing you to see the big picture. Brett Terpstra encapsulates this perfectly:
With a mind map, scattered thoughts begin to solidify before my eyes.”
To create a mind map, you typically start with a central concept or subject in the middle of a blank page. For example, for this article the main topic was “Our Favorite Mind Mapping App.” From there, each category, subtopic, or chapter would get its own “node” branching off from the main topic (i.e. What is a Mind Map, Evaluation Criteria, etc.). Each of these would be fleshed out with their own set of subtopics, or child nodes (the node that contains the child nodes is called the “parent node”). Nodes like this that are on the same hierarchical level (share the same parent node) are called “sibling nodes.” Here’s an example of what a mind map looks like:
What’s great about mind maps is that they are very flexible and can be used in a variety of ways. Here are just a couple of practical uses for mind maps:
- Note Taking: Mind maps offer a non-traditional and non-linear way to take notes in meetings or lectures, allowing you to make connections between separate thoughts and concepts more easily.
- Brainstorming: One of the most popular applications of mind mapping is for brainstorming because it allows you to see the big picture. By escaping the traditional outline format, you’ll often find yourself “connecting the dots” in new and exciting ways.
- Writing: Mind maps are great for content creation. I created a mind map before writing this article. I put down all the topics and points of interest into a mind map and fleshed out all the details, which made the process of writing the article much easier. In fact, by the time I sat down with a blank page, I knew pretty much exactly what I was going to write.
- Problem Solving: Mind maps can be a great way to solve problems because they allow you to analyze different parts of a complex problem to highlight a new and creative solution. As you write down different aspects of the problem and expand details where necessary, the answer often becomes clear.
- Book Summaries: One of the best ways to retain what you learn when reading a book is to write down the basic book structure in the form of a mind map. This also provides an easy way for you to review the information at a later date. For example, you might not want to re-read the entire Getting Things Done book every year, but it can be helpful to at least review the core concepts to make sure there aren’t any glaring holes in your system.
- Project/Task Management: If you just can’t seem to make a task management system work for you, try using a mind map instead. Being able to visually see how your tasks are related might help you see your to-do list in a new light and help you actually get more done.
- Goal Setting: Setting goals is very powerful as it creates a plan and a vision for your week, month, year, etc. There are many books that talk about the importance of setting goals and making sure that you look at them regularly, but why not put those in a mind map that allows you to see how everything works together?
Keep in mind that this is not a comprehensive list. There are many more use cases for mind maps, but hopefully you can see by now how useful they can be. One of the many beauties of a mind map is their flexibility in application.
Over the past several years the applications available for creating mind maps have evolved dramatically to the point where we’re pretty spoiled with both the quality and quantity of the options available. Here’s a list of the apps that we considered:
These apps were chosen and evaluated because we feel they best met our selection criteria. Speaking of which…
In order to pick our favorite mind mapping app, the following criteria was used:
- Design: While appearance isn’t everything, it is important. Since mind-mapping is a visual activity, the app has to look nice. If the app is designed well and the UI is nice, then the app will be a joy to use and you’ll find yourself mind-mapping more often (which is a good thing).
- Ease of Use: Nothing disrupts the flow of creative juices quicker than having to consult a technical manual. The best mind mapping app is one that allows you to focus on the exercise of creating your mind map as the application fades into the background. It should be simple, intuitive, and user-friendly.
- Syncing: Mind mapping is one of those activities you can do anytime, anywhere unless the file you were working with doesn’t sync across platforms or devices. A good mind mapping app should allow you to start building your mind map on your Mac and pick up on your iOS device (or vice versa).
- Data Portability: Mind mapping is usually where ideas start, but seldom where they end. It’s important that a mind mapping app have support for import/export options so you can easily translate your ideas to another tool in your workflow.
- Price: This isn’t weighted too heavily, but because the options that are available range from free to almost $500, it does have to be taken into consideration when you’re considering the value of the application you’re spending your hard-earned money on.
Our favorite mind mapping app is MindNode
MindNode has the perfect balance between beautiful design, ease of use, standard features like iCloud syncing between your Mac and iOS devices, and import/export features to make it a functional part of any workflow.
The best thing about MindNode is that it is incredibly easy to use. The UI is simple and intuitive, even if you’re not an experienced mind mapper. In fact, you could probably start using MindNode without even fully understanding the concept of mind mapping because the user interface will actually teach you how to do it. Here’s what it looks like when you first open the app:
The text is even selected in the central topic node for you, so all you have to do to start making a mind map in MindNode is start typing. Once you get your central topic down, just click the “plus” button (or hit the Tab key) and a new child node is created.
When you add child nodes, the application uses a smart layout feature to automatically rearrange your nodes so that they’re spaced appropriately and you can still read everything.
(If you prefer to have complete manual control of the layout of your mind map, you can also turn this feature off via the View menu.)
As you build your mind map, you’re not just limited to text. You can also attach images and hyperlinks to your mind map. To attach an image, just select a node and click the Media button in the toolbar. A photo picker will pop up, allowing you to select any photo from your Photos (or iPhoto) library. Just double-click the image you want to use, and it’s automatically attached to the node in your mind map:
Attaching a hyperlink is just as easy: simply select the node and click the Inspector icon in the toolbar. The Inspector window will pop up, and all you have to do is check the Enable as hyperlink box under Weblink.
If you’ve copied a web URL (i.e. the webpage you want to link to from your browser), it will even paste the URL automatically.
You can even attach files to nodes in MindNode by simply dragging them over the node. This can be really useful when you want to refer to files on your Mac from your mind map without having to search or navigate through the Finder to locate the file.
Once you’ve been working on your mind map for awhile and you have a lot of information down, your layout might be looking a little crazy.
MindNode lets you clean things up with the ability the “fold” nodes. You can do this by right-clicking on the node and selecting fold, selecting Fold Nodes from the Node menu, or by holding the option key and clicking the “plus” button (it will change to a couple of parallel lines).
When you fold a node, all of its child nodes become hidden; when you unfold it, they all return to their original location. This allows you to get a high level overview without getting into the minute details of your mind map.
This is a great feature and one of the key benefits of using a mind mapping app instead of mind mapping on paper. A digital mind map is much more flexible and gives you many more options in terms of layout. For example, in MindNode Pro you can even detach nodes or files if you’re not exactly sure where they belong, then just drag onto the parent node as things start to come together and those connections will be made automatically for you. You can even make additional external connections between nodes with different parents if you really want to tie things together.
And if you just love outlining for some reason, there’s even an “outline” mode in MindNode. It’s read-only, but it allows you to see your mind map in a traditional outline format if that’s your thing.
And if you’re more comfortable working on a keyboard, MindNode supports a ton of keyboard shortcuts on both Mac and iOS.
Syncing & Sharing
MindNode Pro is the OS X version of MindNode, and offers rock solid (in our testing) iCloud sync with the iOS version. iCloud has gotten some bad press regarding sync issues, but we encountered no problems in our tests with MindNode.
The iOS version of MindNode is also clean, beautiful, and easy to use. It doesn’t have all the features of the Mac app (like attaching files, for example) but it’s very easy to start a MindMap on your Mac in MindNode Pro and pick it up on your iOS device (or vice versa). In fact, mind-mapping on an iPad is sometimes even easier than on the Mac because you can just drag nodes around with your finger on the screen.
David Sparks & Katie Floyd talked about mind mapping in Episode 82 of Mac Power Users, and David talked for quite awhile about how mind mapping on an iPad just “feels right.” In my experience, I have to agree with him.
MindNode also has some cool sharing features, including sharing to “MyMindNode,” the company’s web service, right from the iOS version. When you share via MyMindNode, the app uploads your mind map to the MyMindNode service and creates a unique URL that allows you to open the mind map in a browser. You can even embed the URL right on your website.
You can also share mind maps from MindNode via email or Dropbox, or send them directly to your printer or camera roll.
Importing & Exporting
If you want to either import data into MindNode to get a head start or export into another program or app, there are a variety of importing and exporting options in MindNode:
- OPML: This is probably the most important one, as it allows you to take an outline from a standard outlining application (like OmniOutliner) and import it as a mind map. OPML is a fairly standard format, so support for this file type is essential.
- FreeMind: FreeMind is a free mind mapping application built on the Java framework for both Mac and Windows that has been around for awhile, and MindNode can both import and export FreeMind files if you need to work with someone else who uses this format.
- Text Outline (export only): If you like the concept of mind mapping but work with outliners, MindNode allows you to export your mind map in a format that they’ll easily understand.
- PNG (export only): MindNode also allows you to export your entire mind map as a PNG image file.
- PDF (export only): PDFs are a standard file format that is great for archival, and MindNode allows you to export as PDF as well.
Best for Power Users: iThoughts
If you find yourself needing a bit more from your mind mapping application, iThoughtsX could for you. It’s not as easy to use as MindNode and the interface doesn’t look quite as nice, but it has some really powerful additional features that can take your mind mapping game to the next level. A lot of really productive people (like Gabe Weatherhead and David Sparks) use iThoughts in their mind mapping arsenal.
One example of these additional features is that you can actually edit your mind maps in iThoughts via Markdown through integration with Marked 2. We’re big fans of Markdown here at The Sweet Setup, and we think the ability to edit mind maps in Markdown is pretty cool. By opening the same mind map file in both iThoughts and Marked 2, you can edit your mind map in real-time using Markdown in Marked 2 and see your changes displayed in real-time in iThoughts.
You can also create mind maps using your voice with Siri dictation with the iOS version of iThoughts. To distinguish between different nodes, just say “comma” after each node. David Sparks wrote about this awhile back and his post includes a video by the developer showing this feature in action.
iThoughts also has a lot more importing and exporting options available. It supports just about every file format for mind mapping available, including:
- Microsoft Word (export only)
- Microsoft Powerpoint (export only)
- MindNode (import only)
- MyThoughts (import only)
- Mindmapper (import only)
If flexibility with different files types is important to you, than iThoughts is a great option.
The developer has done a great job of adapting the iOS version to take advantage of the touch interface making it easy to use, but that doesn’t mean the application is simplified or stripped of any of its power. For example, there’s an integrated browser you can use for in-app research so you don’t have to switch back and forth from iThoughts to Safari. This is really handy as it keeps all your links right inside the app and adds them to your mind map automatically.
In fact, all you have to do is select a node and press Research in the contextual menu and the in-app browser will open and do an internet search for the term from the node. Like MindNode, iThoughts also supports a ton of keyboard shortcuts. There’s also an iOS presentation mode for presenting from your mind maps via an external display (either VGA or AirPlay).
Another power user feature is x-callback URL support. This allows it to integrate with powerful iOS automation apps like Launch Center Pro, Drafts, Workflow, and Editorial. The developer has a page that explains how to use it with iThoughts, but if you don’t know what that is then you definitely don’t need it.
iThoughts also has a bunch of other awesome features like versioning support, so if you make edits and realize that you made a mistake, you can go back and restore to a previous version. It’s also extremely customizable, letting you tweak just about everything in the application like colors, fonts, text size, etc. (iThoughts calls these “styles”). Once you get everything just the way you like it, you can even share your custom styles via email with colleagues or friends.
iThoughts is a bit more expensive than MindNode as well, but if these features sound useful to you, then it’s definitely worth it. It’s available on the Mac (iThoughtsX) for $47.99 and a universal iOS app (iThoughts) for $9.99.
MindManager has been around for a long time, and has long been considered the go-to power user app. It’s supported a lot of standard features longer than most of the other apps on the list have been around, but it’s also VERY expensive and frankly the extra cost isn’t justified in our opinion (the standard version is $349, and the plus version is $448 – even an upgrade is over $179). The Mac version also lags in development, often being several versions behind the Windows version (as of this writing, Mac is at version 10 while Windows is at version 15).
To be fair, MindManager has a lot of exclusive features — we just don’t think they’re useful enough to justify such a steep price, especially when considering our evaluation criteria and the quality of the other apps that are available. If you really want to make your mind maps do some crazy stuff (like have multiple links in a topic, link in a database, etc.) then check out their datasheet to see what’s possible in MindManager.
MindMeister is a web-based mind mapping app that aims to alleviate the difficulty of collaborative mind mapping. It has a really cool Opinions feature that allows collaborators to vote “yay” or “nay” to individual nodes in your shared mind map. It also has some cool integrations, like a Google Docs add-on and even an integration to turn your mind maps into agile projects if that’s your thing.
MindMeister offers several different plans, including a free basic plan with support for up to 3 mind maps at no cost. You can upgrade to a Personal plan ($36 for 6 months), which lifts the 3 mind map limit and also gives you the ability to upload files and images, or a Pro plan ($60 for 6 months), which gives you Word and Powerpoint export, multiple users in a team, and custom themes and branding. All of the premium plans come with a 30-day trial so you can try it out first and see if it’s for you.
This is another web-based mind mapping tool, but unlike MindMeister, Coggle does not have native app support and is completely free. It’s kind of like MindMeister Lite. Coggle doesn’t have a ton of features or export options, but it is free and does have ability to collaborate with others by using your Google Apps login.
It also has the ability to embed mind maps, so if you are looking for a free tool specifically to make mind maps for archival or documentation purposes, Coggle is a good option.
Scapple is interesting because it has a little bit of a different take on mind mapping. Instead of starting in the middle with a central topic, Scapple allows you to put nodes anywhere on the page without making connections so you can just get everything on the page and then figure out how it all ties together later. In Scapple, you double-click to add a free-standing node and then have to drag it onto another node to make a connection. This approach is more flexible and lends itself better to creating “concept maps,” which are basically mind maps with more than one central topic. So if you’re into free-style mind mapping, Scapple may be for you.
Scapple is available for both Mac and Windows and is $14.99. It’s developed by Literature and Latte (the makers of Scrivener), so it integrates very nicely with Scrivener for large writing projects as well. In fact, all you have to do is drag your Scapple file into Scrivener and it will organize everything for you.
In short, MindNode is going to be perfect for just about everyone. It’s got a gorgeous UI, is extremely easy to use, syncs well between Mac and iOS, and has enough import/export options to be really useful. The price point is also very fair.
For power users who really like to make their software dance, iThoughtsX is the logical step up. It offers some really cool features like editing in Markdown and x-callback URL support, but if you don’t understand what those are then you definitely don’t need them.
There’s also a couple decent web options, but they’re limited when compared to either MindNode or iThoughts. There’s also a couple other software options which fit specific use cases, but as a general rule we wouldn’t recommend these.