A Better Mind-Mapping App

Mind-mapping, originally understood, is a right-brained way to explore a topic by making a diagram of bubbles and lines and drawings and colors and little pictures on a piece of paper. There are a few applications, notably Buzan’s original iMindMap, that aim to give the same experience on a computer; and there are many more “mind map” applications that are essentially outlining tools that display the outline as a graphical map rather than as a list of indented topics.

I’ve been using the latter kind of tool for many years. It’s a great way to organize your thoughts, to keep notes, to plan documents, and like that, and the 2D graphical layout means that you can get much more content onto a single screen than you can with a traditional outliner.

I first used FreeMind, which is a great little tool with a somewhat peculiar user interface that takes some getting used to. It’s free, available on all platforms, and doesn’t seem entirely at home on any of them; and it’s clear from both the app and the website that visual design isn’t the FreeMind team’s strong point.

Some years ago the FreePlane project split off from FreeMind, with the explicit intent of improving the user experience while keeping the same capabilities. I switched to FreePlane and used it for quite awhile, but eventually got discontented. As I recall the team kept changing things in ways I didn’t like, but the main thing was one particular setting I hated.

One of the things you can do in most mind mapping tools is control the appearance of the arcs between your topic bubbles: curved vs. straight, wide vs. narrow, and color. The idea is that you assign meanings to different colors and appearances, and use them to make your mind map communicate better.

FreePlane decided to add a mode where the app assigns different colors to the arcs all on its own, apparently just to make the mind map more colorful. They made the mode the default for all new mind maps. They didn’t add it to the normal preferences, so that every time I created a mind map I had to turn the damn thing off. Trivial, I know, but I got tired of it, and went looking for a replacement.

I went back to FreeMind for a short while, and ended up using XMind, an app about which I am deeply conflicted. It’s the most advanced mind mapping tool I’ve used, and has all kinds of fancy capabilities—most of which I don’t care about, and will never use. There’s a lot about it I dislike.

  • It supports a wide variety of layouts for mind maps, all of which you can apply on the fly. I basically like only one of them.
  • It allows you to attach icons to your topics, and has a nice set of them; but it draws them smaller than the other tools I’ve used, and the icons themselves aren’t designed to be easily distinguishable at small sizes—at least, not to my eyes. And some icons I’m used to using in other tools are simply missing.
  • The GUI layout in XMind 7 is highly configurable; there are a number of panes, and you can arrange them pretty much as you like. I’d found a configuration that worked really well for me. The new XMind 8 isn’t nearly as configurable, and I can no longer set things up the way I like.

Compare the image at the top of this post, which is of a FreeMind window. It clearly indicates that I find iMindMap to be too expensive, that Worksheets are an important thing, that I’ve chosen to use XMind, and that I’m not entirely happy about it. The topics are all more or less the same size: there’s no wasted space. Now, contrast that with the following image:

Note that the central topic is the biggest thing; it’s also the least interesting, and takes up far too much space. Note that there’s no big red X on iMindMap; there’s no good replacement for that in XMind’s icon set. Similarly, there’s no exclamation point icon on “Worksheets”. The checkmark on XMind is much harder to distinguish than that in the FreeMind shot, and the crying emoji is really no replacement for the sad face in the.

Worksheets are the one feature that give XMind an edge over other tools. If you’ve used Excel, you’ll know what I mean: a single Excel document can contain multiple spreadsheets, accessible by a row of tabs along the bottom margin. XMind is the same: I can create an XMind document for a project, and that document can contain multiple mind maps. I can have a mind map for the project schedule, and another as a to do list, and another for brainstorming problems, and others for particular issues. These days I’m often working multiple projects simultaneously, and it’s a real help to be able to open one document and have everything at my fingertips.

FreeMind? FreePlane? Can you get with the program and give me worksheets? I’d be most grateful.