During the last several years, a new genre of visual thinking tools has emerged. It combines the best features of mind mapping and diagramming with a free-form digital canvas, enabling users to create rich visuals to express their ideas.
One key to the significant growth of these tools is their flexibility. Users of them can add and arrange words, images, icons, connector lines, video clips and other media to brainstorm, show relationships, map out processes and explore ideas.
What niche do they fill?
Most of us don’t work in visual thinking mode all the time, nor do we engage in linear note-taking all the time. Most of us do a combination of the two, depending on the nature of our work. These tools support such a hybrid work style.
Here are some of the things they make possible:
Brainstorming: These tools enable you to quickly and easily add words, images and other media to an open canvas, without having to worry about their arrangement. You can always rearrange them at will later.
Lateral thinking: These visual tools enable you to generate a wide variety of ideas and potential solutions, because they let you branch your thinking and as many directions and as much depth as you need to. They also feature an infinite canvas, giving you plenty of room to fully explore your thoughts and ideas.
Organizing your ideas: They are especially well-suited to emergent thinking. This school of thought says that you should not force your ideas into a predetermined structure too early. Rather, the ideas should suggest their own structure, which should emerge gradually. The ability to capture ideas quickly and then experiment with different arrangements of them make visual note-taking tools a powerful platform for organizing, evaluating and improving the value of your ideas.
In contrast, mind mapping forces you to identify a central topic; all ideas must then branch outward from it. Although you still have complete freedom to rearrange them, the main map format still forces a de facto structure upon your information.
Text-based note-taking tools, such as Evernote, Roam and Obsidian, use the note as the unit of knowledge or ideas. Their user interface somewhat limits how are you can show relationships between them. Yes, you can link them together. But that’s not the same as seeing them visually in relation to each other.
Three visual note-taking tools
Here’s a rundown of what these tools are and a high-level look at their capabilities:
Coppice: Coppice combines the best elements of note-taking applications with the ability to link pages together – like a visual wiki or a mind map on steroids. Pages enable you to add rich content. Like a wiki, you can link pages together. And your thoughts can be connected to each other, like in a mind map or diagram. Read my recent interview with its developer.
Clover: This application offers a canvas that supports text, shapes, images and sketching, plus a “daily notes” area for capturing longer, text-based inspirations. It also enables linking between pages and a “quick notes” tool that enables you to capture ideas fast. This tool is still in beta testing, but shows a lot of promise. Visit the Clover website.
Milanote: Picture a cross between a digital note-taking tool, a mind mapping application and a digital moodboard. That’s what Milanote offers. The application gives you access to hundreds of templates – everything from brainstorming and and mind maps to creative briefs and project plans. Or you can start out with a blank workspace and follow your own path. Read my review of Milanote here.
Are you using a visual note-taking tool for thinking, brainstorming or project development? If so, please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.