#2 in the Effective Mind Maps blog post series
Icons and symbols are small visual elements that you can attach to topics in your mind maps, which add meaning and context to them. These miniature images can be used to depict priority (A/B/C or 1/2/3), types of activities (phone calls, meetings or travel), tasks, and types of information and ideas.
It’s been said that a picture is worth 1,000 words. A symbol or icon, attached to a topic within your mind map, can convey much more meaning and context, which can be quickly understood by your brain. Symbols and icons are also a powerful way to categorize the contents of your map, as explained by Tony Buzan in The Mind Mapping Book:
“Codes enable you to make instant communication between different parts of your mind map, however far apart they may be on the page… For instance, you could use a range of simple codes in all your notes to represent people, projects, elements or processes that frequently recur. Codes reinforce an enhanced categorization and hierarchy to the simple application of colors, symbols, shapes and images. They can also be used to link source material (such as biographical references) to your mind map.”
In many mind mapping programs, icons or symbols can be used to filter the contents of your map to display, for example, only those topics that are marked with a task icon. This makes them a powerful tool for managing the content of large mind maps.
Customizing your icons and symbols
I recommend that you invest some time in exploring the icon and symbol libraries of your mind mapping program. This will spur some ideas on how you can utilize them in future maps. Also, if your needs are specialized and extend beyond the standard set of icons and symbols that ships with your mind mapping program, you may have other options: Some programs enables you to import small images into new, custom icon libraries. For example, MindManager enables you to import icon files in 3 sizes: 16×16 pixels, 32×32 pixels and 128×128 pixels.
Sources of additional icons
There are dozens of sites on the web where you can download free or low-cost collections of icons and symbols for use in your mind maps, including:
The Vector Doodlekit provides a collection of over 700 hand-drawn symbols, which can help to give your mind maps a more organic quality. I reviewed it here. I also list the 6 programs that will allow you to add icons to their libraries (some programs restrict you to only use the collections they provide). Since I published my review of this excellent resource, the developer has launched version 2.0, with inverse versions (white symbols on black background) of all icons, keywords in file names to make it easier to find what you need and free, small bitmapped versions of these symbols that you can use immediately, without messing with high-resolution PNG and SVG files.
Or you can always “roll your own” symbols with an inexpensive icon editing program like IconCool Studio, which provides people who are not design specialists with the ability to quickly and easily create professional-looking icons.
How to use icons and symbols
You should make it a practice to utilize icons or symbols in most, if not all, of your maps, to add color, meaning and clarity and to help you to visually index their contents. What do I mean by this? Let’s take an example: If you designate all of the tasks in a mind map with a checkmark icon, this gives you the abiity to visually scan it and quickly see which items need action.
Another example: Let’s say you have created a mind map of ideas for future consideration. You add numbered icons (1,2,3) or letters of the alphabet (A,B,C) to indicate which are the most valuable, the next most valuable and so forth. Once again, you can visually skim your mind map and isolate those ideas with the highest potential.
But wait – it gets better: Some programs, like Mindjet (formerly MindManager), give you the ability to filter the contents of your mind maps based upon the icons attached to topics. In our previous idea repository example, this would allow you to display only those ideas with a “1” icon, while hiding everything else. In a large, complex mind map, this type of filtering can come in very handy!
How NOT to use icons and symbols
Don’t incorporate icons into your mind maps unless you also include a legend that explains in a few words what each one means. Just because you understand what a yellow flag means doesn’t mean other people viewing your mind map will be able to figure it out.
Don’t over-use icons and symbols. As with most things, too much of a good thing can diminish the effectiveness of your mind maps. Use them sparingly to emphasize key topics and information in your mind map. Ideally, they should add meaning and context to your map, in addition to providing some much-needed visual interest.
Remember, color and imagery stimulate the brain. So icons and symbols can also make the contents of your map more memorable.