Mind Mapping

Ideally, every client you work for would provide you with a detailed creative brief that has all the info you need to complete the project. Sadly, this is not always the case.

If you work in a deadline-driven environment, such as a news organization, that produces a lot of content on a regular basis, you may just have a simple concept or a few sentences worth of a description to get you started.

How do you come up with ideas for visuals when all you have to work with is an idea or short description?

Using Mind Maps to Generate Visual Ideas

A Mind Map is a tool for parsing out various concepts within a given topic. It forces you to think through the subject matter you are designing for and pick out various images, themes, textures, visual styles, and ideas that will form the basis for your design. They aren’t used exclusively in the design industry. You can make a mind map for anything.

There are A LOT of free and paid apps and websites used for mind-mapping. Just find one that is simple and works well for you.Some apps allow you to import images into your mind maps, which can be helpful. A couple of good ones are:

Let’s look at an example from a non-design perspective. The image below shows a mind map about what a person could potentially eat for breakfast.

Click to enlarge


Notice how you start with a larger, overall concept (things to eat for breakfast) and begin to narrow down the ideas at subsequently smaller levels. The five green “nodes” in this mind map show the general categories of breakfast food (Fruit, Meat, Dairy, etc.), while the filled-in yellow nodes go deeper into each of those categories. The gold nodes show an even more granular level of detail in someone’s potential options for what they could eat for breakfast. So if one wanted to put together a list of your ideal breakfast, all you would have to do is pick from the choices that are a few levels into the mind map. You don’t have to worry about deviating too much from your idea, because you can trace your design choices all the way back to the original concept.

Let’s look at a design-based example. Let’s say you are hired by a client to design an illustrated promotional poster for a local women’s roller derby competition. The mind map below shows how you could potentially pull various visual ideas and concepts out by just thinking about all of the things associated with roller derby and roller skating—they don’t necessarily have to be “visual.” The key is to just think of all the associations you can make with the subject matter, try and categorize them into groups, and add them to the mind map. It’s a structured brainstorm.


Once you’ve thought of all the associations and keywords about the topic, it should look something like the above image. By looking at the mind map above (and this one is still pretty simple) we can pick out a few things to help us start developing a visual concept. Maybe we would try something like this:

  • the dominant image of the poster is an illustration of a bruised-up roller derby player in the middle of a match.
  • the color scheme could be bright and saturated like the colored lights of a rollerskating rink
  • the scrapes, bruises, stitches, and bandages could be neon-colored
  • in the background could be arcade games and a disco ball
  • there is a screaming crowd in the background.

This is just one option you could explore and develop. By exploring a subject from every possible angle and going into detail with your mind map, you will be able to develop several options that feel completely appropriate and relatable to the original concept. That is why it is crucial to brainstorm as much as possible when creating your mind maps. Really just dump the contents of your brain into it. The more options you have to pick from, the better your ideas will be.

Informed-But-Unbiased Idea Creation

One of the main benefits of using a mind map is that it forces you to slow down the design process. Why would we want to do that? It allows us to set aside our personal biases and experiences (as much as we possibly can do so), in order to fully explore the subject matter at hand and produce truly original work.

For example, if your client says they want you to design a poster for a music festival, you will immediately start envisioning what you know to be a poster for a music festival in your head. Your brain will subconsciously start thinking back to every music festival poster you have ever seen to remind you of what they look like. Maybe there are one or two in your memory that you really liked, those will stick out. If you just begin designing with that mindset, your personal biases experiences will interfere with the design process. You’ll just end up with something that may seem original at first glance, but is in fact the result of a lack of proper idea exploration. It really came from your memory. It may be “new,” but it isn’t necessarily original.

If you were to instead begin your design exploration by creating a mind map, you are more likely to come up with original ideas and form concepts organically because you will be able to pick ideas and themes that closely match the parameters of the creative brief. You should do research if you don’t know anything about the subject you are designing to. It is always better to know more than you need to about your subject.


Finding Inspiration