Thinking Through Chaos with Mind Mapping

Photo by Jeswin Thomas at

Ideation: coming up with ideas for how to solve a problem. It seems like that’s all anyone can talk about right now. As I write this, we are living through one of the biggest global problems in modern history—the COVID-19 pandemic. To say there is a lot of ideation going on right now would be an understatement.

As I’ve written about in a previous post, ideation needs to always start with a problem statement, an actionable way of stating the definition of your problem. If there was an overarching problem statement about the current situation it would be something like this:

People around the world NEED a way to live their lives at a distance from one another for an extended period of time BECAUSE coronavirus spreads rapidly through human contact and, if allowed to continue unabated, is predicted to overwhelm healthcare systems.

There are, of course, plenty of subproblems to this statement that we are all dealing with, whether it be how to continue educating students, keep businesses running, or psychologically deal with life in isolation.

Scrolling through my social media feeds it feels like everyone is trying to offer ideas of how to solve these problems. Offices are throwing virtual happy hours on Zoom, zoos are offering Facebook live daily workshops to teach and entertain kids at home, and neighbors are offering to pick up groceries for senior citizens and other individuals most susceptible to this virus. It’s like one massive ideation session out there.

Ideation When Your Head is Spinning

Photo by Wendy Wei at

Ideation is the third step in the user-centered design thinking process and the most important tenet is producing as many ideas as possible because this increases your odds of finding a solution that will actually help your users. This is essentially what we are doing right now as the masses, throwing as many ideas out there into the ether in hopes of helping ourselves or others cope with problems none of us have experience with.

It’s inspiring and hopeful to see such collaboration, but if you’re someone like me who lives with anxiety, seeing the rate of everything changing and the number of problems we’re faced with may leave your mind spinning in panic. More than once this week my brain has felt like it was glued to the spinner in a never-ending game of Twister. How can I possibly solve a problem right now?! I can barely think straight enough to brush my teeth. But then I remembered ideation techniques.

Ideation techniques help to add structure and guidance to your attempts to come up with solutions to a problem. You can’t depend on just sitting by yourself in a corner and thinking really hard to come up with creative and innovative ideas. Rarely, if ever, does this approach work and it is certain to fail if your mind is racing and your head is spinning in a moment of crisis where the pressure to develop a solution is high.

There are an endless number of ideation techniques that you can try, such as the old reliable brainstorming. You should pick one, though, that works best for the kind of ideas you need and the experience and abilities of those who will be participating in your ideation session. My current abilities, being the frazzled mess that they are, called for a technique that could help me get my perspective and spinning thoughts in order: mind mapping.

What is Mind Mapping?

Mind maps are a visual ideation technique in which you attempt to show the relationships and connections between elements of a specific subject or problem. The term ‘mind mapping’ was popularized by author Tony Buzan in the 1970s. This technique has many other uses, such as note-taking (as in the video above), research organization, project and goal planning, or studying.

The main idea behind mind mapping is that it more accurately reflects the organic associations and thought organization of our brains compared to the linear thinking process of lists and other exclusively written forms of ideation. The visual representation of mind maps helps us to better understand complex information. As the video above explains there are 3 essential elements to a mind map:

  1. One subject placed in the middle of the map, in an ideation mind map that would be your problem statement
  2. Ideas and things placed around the subject that you think are related to it
  3. Lines drawn between these previously mentioned elements to represent connections and relationships between things

Mind maps can be drawn by hand on paper or you can use a number of programs for designing mind maps, such as MindMup. Just remember that mind maps are an opportunity to be visually creative with your thoughts so, don’t think exclusively in words, add color and images or drawings to your map. Choose a design method for a mind map that offers you flexibility in how you express your thoughts and understanding of your subject.

Mind maps help increase creativity because we are visual creatures. Images in relation to words on a mind map engage our brains more than just words on a page and, as a result, inspire more innovative ideas.

Mind Mapping Ideation

I created the above mind map as a way to organize my understanding of the subject of ideation. I’ve personally tried mind mapping a couple of times before and it didn’t really feel very helpful. I was impatient with the need to supplement my wordy thoughts with drawings and the process felt like an unnecessary waste of time. This time, however, it turned out to be exactly what I needed at this moment in my life.

As I sat down to draw this map, I had just finished my first day—in what will probably be many days—of mandated work from home, and words and incoherent thoughts were flying around my head like in a pinball machine. Suddenly the sharpie in my hand became an anchor in the storm. Focusing on drawing a lightbulb or block letters was a surprising comfort.

I’ve posted previously about ideation so, I knew I was familiar with the topic enough to fill a mind map, but until I started concentrating on visuals for my map, I felt wholly incapable of doing so. My mind was a constant swirl of disjointed information.

But drawing the lightbulb and letters in the middle of my map slowed my mind enough that I hooked on to my knowledge of brainstorming, which I then remembered was related to brainwalking, brainwriting, and braindumping. Trying to think of how to visually represent each of these ideas became an enjoyable distraction from everything that had been happening in the world recently and helped my thoughts slow even more.

By the time I finished my map I was surprised just how relaxed I was and just how much information had freely flowed out of my mind which, just 2 hours previous, had seemed determined to be shut down in chaos.

My map ended up a little wordier than I think is optimal. I’m a very wordy thinker, to the point that my mind often stores information as images of written words on a page so, sometimes I have difficulty parsing my knowledge down to just keywords.

I’m pleased, though, with how visually engaging and bright it is and how it makes me happy to just look at it. I looked at using a mind mapping program at first, but so many of the program examples seemed visually generic and cold, not what I felt like my mind wanted to express at this moment.

Overall, I’m glad I decided to take on the challenge of drawing a mind map by hand. I’m not the best visual artist—I think I’m a somewhat moderate doodler at best—but the simplicity and recognizability of the drawings I included I add to my map’s accessibility I believe.

Before my mapping exercise, I had no idea that my mind actually thought of ideation in terms of a few subject areas: why its important, how you do it, and the way you approach doing it; what to do if you are stuck; verbal options for ideation techniques; visual options for ideation techniques; and gamified options for ideation techniques. Once I stood back and recognized these areas after drawing my map it seemed important to color code the different subject pathways to make them easy to distinguish.

Mind Mapping Reflections

Photo by The Digital Artist at

Mind mapping did something for me in the middle of a crisis that nothing else could do – it helped me think clearly. Everything you see on my map was in my head, but it was locked away. I’d been spending days reading, talking, and thinking exclusively in words related to how the world was changing around me hour by hour. Engaging in the visual exercise of mind mapping disrupted that pattern. It helped me access calm, focused thoughts again.

There’s a saying you’ve probably heard of: the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. If you’ve talked or thought or written yourself into a mental block like I did then mind mapping could be your saving grace as well. If not, then just remember that when it comes to ideation there are countless options to choose from.

So, if your current approach isn’t working, try a wholly different one, like I did, to help switch up your mind’s focus and get you back on the road to finding a solution, or improving your mental health during a pandemic.


4 Benefits of Mind Mapping. (2016, May 27). Giva. Retrieved from

Dam, R. F. & Teo, Y. S. (2019, July). Introduction to the essential ideation techniques which are the heart of design thinking. Interaction Design Foundation. Retrieved from

Gibbons, S. (2019, July 14). Cognitive maps, mind maps, and concept maps: definitions. Nielsen Norman Group. Retrieved from:

Greene, J. 7 research-backed benefits of mind mapping. Focus. Retrieved from

What is mind mapping? (and how to get started immediately). Litemind. Retrieved from

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