Mind mapping is a creative exercise for brainstorming and finding connections. Used right, it can be a super powerful way to generate new ideas, or connect related ones.
To make a mind map, you start by writing a central idea or theme in the middle of a blank sheet of paper. Then you draw lines branching out into new "nodes," each with its own related idea or theme. From those nodes, you draw yet more lines branching deeper into the different concepts, and you keep going, branching out more and diving deeper, until you're out of ideas—and the relationships between things appear.
Of course, mind mapping on a piece of paper has its downsides. You're limited by the size of the sheet you start with, there's no easy way to digitize it and make it searchable, you can't undo any mistakes or easily make edits, and if you lose your mind map, you don't have a backup. That's why, if you do a lot of mind mapping, you should consider going digital and using an app.
We reviewed close to 40 different mind mapping tools, and after thoroughly testing them, here are the nine best. One of them is sure to be the right way to map your mind.
The 9 best mind mapping tools in 2021
Coggle for mind map beginners
Mindly for mobile mind mapping
MindMup for creating public mind maps
MindMeister for collaborating on a mind map with a team
Scapple for fluid, non-traditional mind mapping
Stormboard for in-person mind mapping sessions
Ayoa for a modern approach to mind mapping
MindNode for Apple users
SimpleMind for not having to subscribe to anything
What makes for great mind mapping software?
Mind mapping with a sheet of paper and a pen is an incredibly intuitive and natural way to work. Yes, it has some downsides, but for a mind mapping app to really be better, it has to bring quite a lot to the table. While every one of the mind mapping tools on this list has its own unique benefits, they all meet at least the following criteria:
It's actually a mind mapping app. A lot of drawing, diagramming, and charting apps are marketed as mind mapping apps—but they aren't. While it's true you can make a mind map in them, you could theoretically also use PowerPoint, Photoshop, or MS Paint. These kinds of apps generally lack features that make mind mapping easy, like automatically linking nodes, brainstorming modes that let you get a lot of concepts down quickly, and search. For an app to make this list, we dug past the marketing and made sure it was designed from the ground up for brainstorming, not drawing.
It gets out of the way. Mind mapping with a pen and paper is ridiculously easy. No app is ever going to be quite as simple, but they should come as close as possible. After a short learning period to get up to speed, you shouldn't have to stop and think to create a node, or dig through menus to connect two ideas. The app should just fade into the background—the same way your web browser does.
It offers an unlimited canvas. One of the main downsides to using paper is, well, the paper. A digital app should have a practically unlimited canvas size so you can make a mind map as big as you want. Using an app is all about overcoming the analog downsides, not reinforcing them.
It allows you to attach files. Sometimes you need more than a few words to fully illustrate a concept—and doodling is a big part of analog mind mapping. For an app to make this list, you need to be able to attach images, videos, documents, web pages, and other assorted extras to your mind maps.
It allows you to save and export. You can't easily edit, save, or share your paper mind maps, so one of the big reasons to go digital is that you can. All these apps let you come back to a mind map later and change it up, save it, and export it in different formats, so you can send it to your colleagues, classmates, or anyone else you like.
Looking to further improve your team's online collaboration? Try one of these workflows that add automation, so you can streamline the process.
Best mind mapping software for beginners
The moment you start a diagram in Coggle, you'll see the central node of a new mind map, along with an enticing plus sign to get started adding new nodes and ideas. Each time you click on the plus sign to create a new child node, Coggle will automatically choose the direction, placement, and color of the new node. But you can always drag the nodes around to rearrange things into a format that fits your layout a little better. Or you can right-click on them and select Choose Style to change the color, or if you're on the Awesome plan, the line style and thickness of the connections.
If you prefer to use keyboard shortcuts during your mind mapping process, there's a cheat sheet of keyboard shortcuts in the bottom-right corner of the canvas. Click the green X icon to hide it and the green question mark icon to bring it back.
One of our favorite features is that Coggle lets you format your mind map items and messages with Markdown, so you can get as fancy as you need to while adding your text, images, and links to the canvas.
If you want to bounce some ideas off a colleague, you can go ahead and add them to your mind map, carry on a conversation in the messages sidebar, or go into full-screen presentation mode to take a step back and do more high-level ideation.
Coggle Pricing: Free for up to three private diagrams; $5/month for unlimited private diagrams and extra mind mapping tools (like additional shapes and color control).
Best mind mapping software for mobile
Mindly (macOS, iOS, Android)
Mind mapping on a mobile device comes with a lot of special challenges, thanks to small screen sizes, the inconvenience of scrolling and zooming, and the readability issues that accompany all that. But Mindly's outside-the-box thinking makes mind mapping on a smartphone possible—and, honestly, pretty fun.
Like most mind maps, you'll start with your central node, add text and icons, and change the color if you want. Then, it's time to start adding any associative ideas in the surrounding circle. To do this, tap on the + icon on the outer circle: Mindly will automatically create a new node and zoom in to let you focus on the matter at hand. As you go deeper into sub-ideas (and sub-sub-ideas!), you'll always be able to find your way back to the original center node by tapping on the circle in the top-left corner of the screen.
Mindly keeps things organized by folding away any sub-ideas as you work your way back toward your main node. You can drill back down into any node by tapping on it, or tap the arrow icon in the bottom-right and then Mindmap to see a mind map overview of everything. From the same menu, you can also print or share your mind map.
Of course, you can also sync your mobile mind maps with the desktop version of Mindly, so you can switch from on-the-go ideation to formal mind mapping sessions at your desk.
Mindly Pricing: Free mobile version includes 3 mind maps each with up to 100 elements; $6.99 on iOS and $5.49 on Android for additional features, including unlimited elements, passcode, and search; $29.99 on macOS.
Best mind mapping software for creating public mind maps
MindMup is an easy-to-use mind mapping app—and you don't even need an account to get started.
The toolbar at the top provides quick links to all the basic needs of mind mapping, from changing the color of each node to adding detailed text and file attachments. But it's the ability to publish and share your mind maps that sets MindMup apart.
While many mind mapping tools require at least an email address, MindMup allows anyone to create and post public mind maps. Free mind maps are automatically deleted after six months, but if you're using it for a quick brainstorming session, that does the trick. If you want to sign up or save private maps, you have to pay $2.99/month for MindMup Personal Gold.
MindMup Pricing: Free for public maps up to 100 KB; from $2.99/month for MindMup Personal Gold that includes larger, private maps and collaboration.
Best mind mapping software for collaborating with a team
MindMeister (Web, iOS, Android)
MindMeister is a robust tool that includes everything from quick keyboard shortcuts to the ability to embed live videos inside your nodes. And its collaboration features are extensive: you can add team members to your mind map, upvote and downvote ideas, and leave comments.
MindMeister is owned by the same people that make MeisterTask, a web-based, kanban-style project management app. The two tools are integrated so you can turn your brainstorm session into an actionable project, assigning individual items on a mind map to members of your team, tracking task progress, and syncing it all with your other project boards inside MeisterTask—which even integrates with Zapier.
As of this writing, MindMeister is in the process of beta testing a new editor. You can try it out yourself by clicking Open with New Editor in any mind map. It's got a cleaner, more minimalist user interface that, if anything, is even easier to use. Not all the features of the old MindMeister editor have been ported yet, like inserting live videos, so we're flagging this more as a point of interest. MindMeister still makes this list on the strength of its existing app, not the promise of the beta.
For an in-depth look at what a sample MindMeister/MeisterTask project might look like, take time to read through our article about how to jumpstart new projects with mind maps.
MindMeister Pricing: Free for the Basic plan that includes up to three mind maps and real-time collaboration. From $4.99/month for the Personal plan that includes unlimited mind maps, file attachments, and PDF exports.
Best mind mapping software for fluid, non-traditional mind mapping
Scapple (macOS, Windows)
Most mind maps require you to begin with a central node, branching outward from that single point as your mind comes up with new ideas and associations. But if you're using Scapple, you have more flexibility in terms of where your visual mind map leads.
For example, you're not limited to starting your mind map with a central theme. Instead, you might start with a tiny idea, then work "backward" to find the main idea. And Scapple lets it all happen organically, since individual nodes will only connect when you tell them to by dragging and dropping one on top of the other. In this way, complex relationships can be sketched out quickly, without losing the flow of rapid ideation. One handy trick is to use background shapes (right-click then New > Background Shape to add one) to create buckets for different groups of ideas. You can then move things about and link them as needed.
When compared with some of the other mind mapping apps on this list, Scapple's interface is relatively simple. You can't even style a note unless you activate the inspector by going to View > Show Inspector. But that simplicity also gives you the ultimate flexibility in terms of what goes where and how things should look.
One great touch is that the 30-day free trial is for 30 days of use, not 30 consecutive days. Use Scapple a couple of times a month and it's free for almost a year.
Scapple Pricing: 30-day free trial; $18 for the Mac or Windows app.
Best mind mapping software for in-person mind mapping sessions
Stormboard puts a twist on traditional mind mapping by using sticky notes and index cards, rather than nodes and branches, to record your ideas. You'll group your notes on different parts of the screen to represent connections during the initial mind map creation, then add the visual correlations with lines afterward.
There's even a "rapid-fire" mode that will pop up a new sticky note the minute you post the one prior, so you can literally type out your ideas one after another with no extra effort—and save the organization for later.
Stormboard also makes it easy to get your entire team involved in the process, since collaborators can record comments, create tasks, and add their votes to each idea. Plus, you can automate the process with Stormboard's Zapier integrations, creating ideas and storms automatically whenever trigger events happen in the other apps you use most. For example, new Trello cards or GitHub issues can automatically pop up on a dedicated board.
Stormboard Pricing: Free for the Personal Plan that includes a maximum of 5 stormboards; from $5/month for the Startup Plan that offers access to additional features like advanced recording, live editing on Microsoft Office Online, template section labels, and additional export options.
Best mind mapping software for a modern mind mapping approach
Ayoa (Web, iOS, Android, macOS, Windows)
Ayoa is the follow-up to one of our previous mind mapping picks, iMindMap. It was created by Chris Griffiths, a mind mapping expert and author who has collaborated with Tony Buzan, the man responsible for popularizing mind mapping in the 1970s. Put simply, it's got a serious mind mapping pedigree—and it shows.
Open Ayoa, and you have a choice of making an Organic Map, a Speed Map, or a Radial Map. You can also make a Whiteboard if you're doing some more corporate-style brainstorming.
The Organic Map is the most traditional, and mimics the kind of thing you'd draw with a pen and paper. You aren't confined to just putting words in boxes. Instead, you're encouraged to label the swooshing, Sharpie-like branches that connect different ideas. It's a much more natural process than a lot of the other apps.
A Speed Map is similar, but with a stripped-down setup designed for rapid brainstorming. You're almost forced to use keyboard shortcuts, like
Tab for a new child branch and
Enter for a new sibling branch, as the buttons to do the same are hidden away unless you deliberately click on a node. It's great when you want to ideate quickly.
A Radial Map is a totally modern approach to mind mapping. Instead of nodes and lines, every idea becomes part of a series of concentric circles. A peripheral segment of your central idea becomes the center of its own circle of ideas as you move outward. It's mind mapping that's moving beyond the limits of what can even be imagined with paper.
And Ayoa isn't just limited to basic (and not-so-basic) mind mapping. The chat, real-time collaboration, whiteboard, and task management features make it ideal if you're part of a small team looking to realize your ideas. Ayoa is also under rapid development so it's worth keeping an eye on their roadmap to see what features are coming down the line. When we reviewed this app last year, the whiteboard features didn't exist.
Ayoa Pricing: Free Basic plan with up to 5 boards, 50 branches per board, and real-time collaboration; $13/month Pro plan with unlimited boards, file attachments, and the ability to export your mind maps.
Best mind mapping software for Apple users
MindNode (iOS, macOS)
Most mind mapping apps are web apps and, if there's a native app available, it's really just a shell for the web app. It's fine if you want the collaboration, sharing, and other features you get with an online service, but what if you just want a simple way to brainstorm by yourself?
MindNode, a native Mac, iPhone, and iPad app, is perfect for Apple users. Start a new map on one device and it instantly syncs to your other devices using iCloud. The app is just as easy to use (and as powerful) whether you prefer to tap the plus icon to add a new node on your iPhone or click it on your Mac. And since it's a fully native app, no internet connection? No problem.
MindNode also has a load of other features that will keep you happy if you're deep in Apple's ecosystem, like a Watch app, Apple Pencil support, and integration with popular to-do apps Apple Reminders, Things, and OmniFocus. Select any node, and click Add Task to turn it into a to-do item. Or click the share menu and Export to Things (or OmniFocus), and your mind map will get converted into a project in your chosen app with all your to-dos ready to be checked off. It's a great way to turn a brainstorming session into something actionable.
MindNode Pricing: Free limited Mac and iOS app; $2.49/month for MindNode Plus with image support, tasks, themes, and styling options.
Best mind mapping software without a subscription
SimpleMind (Windows, macOS, iOS, Android)
If you just make mind maps for yourself and have no need to collaborate with other people, it can be painful to have to pay up every month for a subscription service or deal with the hard limits of a free one. What we love most about SimpleMind is that it's an affordable cross-platform app without a subscription fee that does basic mind mapping really well. It's far from the flashiest app on offer, but for many mind mappers, it might be the best.
Open SimpleMind, and you've got a blank canvas with a Central Theme bubble to work with. Tap or click on it to change it to whatever idea you're mind mapping, then tap or click on the small plus icons to create new branches and nodes. It's simple and intuitive, and there are keyboard shortcuts aplenty on the desktop platforms. As we said, not flashy—but done right.
And SimpleMind also has a few extra features that make mind mapping even easier. There's an outline view that converts your mind map to a bulleted list, there's a brainstorm mode for throwing ideas out there fast, and you can even sync your mind maps across all your devices using whatever cloud platform you like.
SimpleMind Pricing: Free limited mobile apps; from €24.99 for Windows or macOS (€44.99 for both), $9.99 for iOS, and $8.49 for Android.
Do you need a mind mapping app?
Mind mapping can be a great way to generate and connect ideas, but unless you do it all the time, you probably don't need a dedicated app—or at least not a paid one. If none of the apps above seems like the perfect fit, you do have other options.
First, reconsider the pen-and-paper method. It's really hard to beat, and you can always take a photo of it to save it or share it. It's not as tech-y as an app, but it works.
Also, check out Diagrams.net. It doesn't have the mind map-specific features required to make this list, but it's a free diagramming app that's great for making the occasional mind map. It doesn't have any limits on the number of connections or nodes you can place or on how you share your mind map, unlike a lot of the free plans in more feature-filled mind mapping apps.
This piece was originally published in February 2019 and has since been updated with contributions from Harry Guinness.