Five Analog Brainstorming Tools

Following on from Messy Designs and prompted by the Design Games Podcast (around 19 min in this episode) I would like to talk about five brainstorming tools I like for creating things.

However the aim is not to talk about how to brainstorm (because the reader knows this) or how to use each tool (because there are plenty of online articles for that), but to talk about how each tool affects the process

Assumption 1: Brainstorming is a process of

  1. Meditating on a concept or heading
  2. Writing isolated nodes of information representing single ideas
  3. Connecting these nodes together
  4. Reorganising these for an holistic view of your overall concept
  5. Repeat

The above process is true for all five techniques below; they are different ways of doing exactly the same thing, namely mapping out the ways that single ideas branch out into smaller headings.

Assumption 2: How Each Technique Could Influence Thinking

First, working with each method has two modes:

  1. Authoring of new ideas
  2. Reading and revising

Second, when writing new ideas, the nodes are not created in isolation but are influenced by the visibility & spatial representation of neighbour nodes.

And third, when you’re looking at the whole thing, your ability to get value from the design comes from

  • context around each node, i.e. what is the thought process connecting one node to the next (is it implied, or explicit?), and
  • ability to reorder into a coherent view.

The Techniques

Considering 5 techniques:

  • Index Cards
  • Mind Mapping
  • Concept Mapping
  • Mandala Charts
  • Outlining

Note: I really prefer a physical piece of paper to interact with (“analog note taking”) but I’ve mentioned software options as well. I like the physical thing because

  1. less temptation to delete
  2. less distraction by screen elements
  3. more fresh air and natural light

Index Cards

Get a stack of index cards and write thoughts on them, then reorder, sort into piles, etc. Cheap, very portable, very tactile.

  • Writing: cards created in isolation, no visual influence from other nodes. No shape, no implied hierarchy.
  • Reviewing: sort and stack. May be harder to get an holistic view of the project, simply due to the size of each card. You can get an holistic view of the stacks as headings though.
  • Chaos: very messy

Software options: Scrivener (cross platform), SuperNoteCard (cross platform), IndexCard (iOS)

Mind Maps

Tony Buzan’s technique has the user start with a central topic and branch out in all directions, creating a hierarchy of nodes.

  • Writing: nodes created as subordinates and peers of other nodes. Central concept will always impose itself on the process. Radial hierarchy.
  • Reviewing: drag and drop (for software) and colour coding. Pretty good for holistic view, but focused on one central concept or question.
  • Chaos: moderately messy in that order isn’t imposed in the writing process and the map grows organically

Software options: FreeMind, XMind

Concept Maps

Joseph Novak’s technique involves a branching map much like Buzan’s Mind Mapping, but crucially differs as there’s no central node and nodes are connected by contextual statements.

  • Writing: nodes have peers but no subordinates. No hierarchy.
  • Reviewing: draw connections and colour code. Gives a fairly good holistic view although its main strength is being able to follow a thought process jumping from node to node
  • Chaos: messy, although it requires discipline to apply the contextual information around each node at the time of writing that node

Software options: C-Map Tools

Mandala Charts

This is a 3 by 3 grid with a concept at the central box; each other box in the grid then becomes the central box in one of eight secondry grids. There is some interesting method around creating the opposites as flexible pairs. Look here.

  • Writing: nodes have peers and subordinates.
  • Reviewing: highly ordered and focused on the headings you have chosen. 2-level hierarchy, and rigid shape. Good holistic view of the grid.
  • Chaos: low mess.

Software option: MandalaChart for iOS

Document Outlines

Document outlines are a series of headings and sub-headings, and you can move them about, promote and demote headings, etc.

  • Writing: nodes are subordinates of headings. Strongly hierarchical. Furthermore, because this is written vertically, higher priority implied for the top of the sheet vs. the bottom.
  • Reviewing: again highly ordered and focused on the headings. Promote/demote headings in the outline. Holistic view is good but priority of headings is implied due to the vertical listing.
  • Chaos: low mess.

Software options: Scrivener, MS Word, OmniOutliner

Summary

Preference will dictate what each technique does for you, but in summary I feel that

  • Index Cards maximise the “blank sheet” and minimise influences of other nodes on thinking during the writing stage. Plus they’re very portable
  • Mind Maps work well to promote one central concept and allow ideas to grow organically
  • C-Maps do the same, but they’re more about meandering cognitive pathways than a central concept
  • Mandala Charts are about top-down order and starting with an holistic view of your concept (or life). But they can do interesting things by pairing up headings on opposite sides of the charts
  • Outlines are about preparing a structure for consumption by someone else (e.g. a document). I know people like making lists so they have that advantage, although I don’t care for them for brainstorming

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