Design Tips: Mind-Mapping for Data Visualization


Let’s say you have a project but you don’t know where to begin. The canvas is in front of you and you have a million different ideas that you would like to include.  Simply put, you don’t know where to start. We’ve all been there. Whatever it is, a great way to get through the hard moments is by using mind maps. It’s an increasingly popular tool for organizing projects. Let’s explore how these work.

What are they?

In essence, mind mapping is a tool for organizing your thoughts visually. Rather than writing things down in a list, you start off with a central idea and expand outward to see how the ideas relate to one another. The beauty of mind maps is that it can be used for anything. They are effective for brainstorming new ideas, for identifying key issues you want to communicate, for better understanding complex topics, or even to better visualize the relationship between ideas.

How it works?

The great thing about mind maps is that you don’t need that many materials to get started. A pen and paper is sufficient. Here’s how it works.

Step 1: Start with the central idea, the “theme” of the project. Think of it as the “trunk” of your tree. All the ideas that you have will emanate from this “trunk”. This could either be the theme, your message, or moral of whatever it is you are looking to communicate.

Step 2: Write down your subsequent ideas. Think of these subsequent ideas as branches that emanate from the tree, write as many ideas as you can and see how they fit in with certain “branches”. Look for connections and see how the ideas relate.

Step 3: You want to get as many ideas down as you can. Don’t worry about having too many ideas. Use a separate piece of paper for each idea you jot down. This ensures that you can move around as your mind map unfolds.

Step 4: The question is: how do you know when to stop? It’s quite easy. Once you see that you are repeating yourself you know it is time to stop. By this time your mind map should be “bushy”, as in, there are many ideas represented by many branches and leaves. You want to start “pruning”, as in, cutting away anything that doesn’t really fit into your central theme. In other words, you want to cut away anything that isn’t your story or project.

Using Mind Maps for Data Visualization

Using mind maps for visualizing data can help ensure that your message is told in the most effective way possible. Following the steps mentioned above, mind maps for data visualization can take the following form:

Step 1: Central idea should be based around intended target audience.

The central message, or idea, that you are looking to communicate should have an intended target in mind. The purpose could either be for storytelling, in the form of a web article, or as a business report or reporting market trends. Getting this down is essential for knowing which chart types and stories are  going to used transmit to knowledge to the  public.

For example, Jim is a Journalist who is looking to tell a story about how access to water has improved over the past couple decades. The central idea is exactly that.

Step 2: An established central idea helps you determine which chart types are best.

Once you have your central idea down, you are going to start jotting down subsequent ideas. The list of subsequent ideas includes countries around the world. This indicates that geography and location are important components of Jim’s story.

In creating a mind map, there are two elements that tie in to the central idea. To show access to water has improved, Jim needs first a temporal series to indicate access to water over time. From the mind-map, tying into the central theme, a map to represent the regions that are being discussed.

Step 3: With an outline, you can determine what data you need to best show your data story. 


The great thing about mind maps is that they do not have to be set in a specific order. This allows for dynamic structuring based on a central idea and can help you get from one point to the next in your project. Mind maps are a great tool for relating ideas and can go a long way in ensuring your data is represented in the best way possible.

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