Build Your Creative Confidence: Mindmaps

Aug 23, 2018WORDS BY Tom Kelley

Everyone is creative. This belief runs through everything we do at IDEO, and in 2013, it led my brother David and me to write a book that would help others—even those who don’t think of themselves as “creative types”—to unleash their creative potential. Creative Confidence has inspired thousands of people to adopt a creative mindset and apply it to the diverse real-world challenges they face. In this series, we’ll share some exercises from the book that can help you approach your challenges from a new perspective.

Creativity Challenge #1: Push yourself to think divergently and creatively

Actively engaging in exercises that foster divergent or unconventional thinking can encourage the generation of ideas. When you are searching for innovative solutions on your own, mindmaps can be a powerful way to come up with ideas or to gain clarity about a topic of exploration. They are extremely versatile, and we use them all the time. From coming up with ideas for a family vacation to identifying home projects to tackle over the weekend, mindmaps can be used for all sorts of problem solving. They help you chart the recesses of your mind surrounding one central idea. The further you get from the center of the map, the more hidden ideas you can uncover.

Tool: Mindmaps
Participants: This is usually a solo activity
Time: 15-60 minutes
Supplies: Paper (the bigger the better) and pen


Step 1: On a large blank piece of paper, write your central topic or challenge in the middle of the paper and circle it. For example, you might write “A great dinner party for friends.”

Step 2: Make some connections to that main topic and write them down, branching out from the center as you go. Ask yourself, “What else can I add to the map that is related to this theme?” In the dinner party example, you might write down “everyone in the kitchen” and “make your own sundaes” as two avenues of thought. If you think one of your ideas will lead to a whole new cluster, draw a quick rectangle or oval around it to emphasize that it’s a hub.

Step 3: Use each connection to spur new ideas. For example, under “make your own sundaes,” you might write “have dessert first” or “cook at the table.”

Step 4: Keep going. You are done when the page fills or the ideas dwindle. If you are feeling warmed up but not finished, try to reframe the central topic and do another mindmap to get a fresh perspective. If you feel you’ve done enough, think about which ideas you would like to move forward with. After drawing the mindmap shown here, David threw a big dinner party in which guests changed tables after each course, enabling them to talk to everyone in the room. Each challenge presents an opportunity for innovation.

Tips from the field

Generally the first set of ideas that branch from the center will feel cliched or obvious. That happens to everyone. Those concepts were in your head and were just waiting to be captured on paper. As the map progresses, however, your mind will open up, and you’ll likely discover some wild, unpredictable, dissociative ideas.

As you experiment with mindmapping, you may find it valuable in all sorts of creative endeavors. As David’s former colleague Rolf Faste used to say, mindmapping can:

  1. Get you started and help you overcome your fear of the blank page.

  2. Help you look for patterns.

  3. Reveal the structure of a subject.

  4. Map your thought process and record the evolution of an idea. (You can trace it backwards later in search of new insights.)

  5. Communicate both the ideas and the processes to others, so that you can guide them on the same mental journey.

You may be wondering when a mindmap is better than an ordinary list. Lists are great at keeping track of things we don’t want to forget. But the to-do list assumes we know what we want to put on it, whereas, at the start of a mindmap, we don’t yet know where it’s going to lead us. Mindmaps are good at facilitating divergent or unconventional thinking; lists are good for capturing the best answers among the thoughts you already have. Mindmaps help to generate ideas. As such, mindmaps are particularly useful early in the creative process. Lists are better later on, when you want to capture the ideas you’ve generated and are looking for a best solution to pursue. Each of the chapters of Creative Confidence started as a mindmap. Later they evolved into lists of stories and ideas that we wanted to weave together. When you are trying to create something new, use mindmaps to generate ideas and lists to capture the best ones. Together, they can be a powerful combination.

This post is the first in a series of exercises taken from Chapter 7 of . Purchase the book for more on how to use creativity to solve problems. Read part two here.

  • Executive Portfolio Director, San Francisco

    Tom Kelley is the best-selling author of Creative Confidence, The Art of Innovation and The Ten Faces of Innovation as well as a partner at IDEO. As a leading innovation speaker, Tom addresses scores of business audiences on how to foster a culture of innovation and tap into the creative potential of their organizations.