How-To Geek

Ask the Readers: What’s Your Favorite Brainstorming Tool?

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We all have our own idea-generation workflows and this week we want to hear all about the tools you use to generate yours.

Some people write lists, some create mind maps, some outline, and others plaster their walls with Post-It notes. This week we want to hear all about your favorite tools for brainstorming—the geekier the better.

Help your fellow readers learn more about your favorite tips and tricks by including links to applications and methodology web sites when applicable. Don’t forget to check in on Friday for the What Your Said roundup!

Jason Fitzpatrick is a warranty-voiding DIYer who spends his days cracking opening cases and wrestling with code so you don't have to. If it can be modded, optimized, repurposed, or torn apart for fun he's interested (and probably already at the workbench taking it apart). You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 08/10/11

Comments (73)

  1. SillyIdeas

    I’ve found mind mapping very useful in writing my PhD. Initially, I used to use MindMeister, a cloud-based mind-mapping service that has a free offering – I shared my mindmaps with my supervisor, all seemed very nifty but ended up feeling a bit clunky (and frankly I realised I didn’t really want to share my brain-vomit with my supervisor until I’d considerably neatened it up!).

    I’ve moved to XMind now, again the free version (do miss the various export options from the free version), but seems much more responsive, still has all the basic functionality including some sharing, and as a bonus it’s portable, so I carry it around with me between two offices and two homes (don’t ask) quite happily. Once I get my PhD and a decent job, I’ll consider paying for the full version – though it’s an annoying annual license rather than a one-off payment.

  2. Jason


  3. Brian

    I traded in my standard 8.5×11″ pad for a double sided 9×12″ white board. Sometimes people do a double take, but it saves me a lot of time and paper too!

  4. Lady Fitzgerald

    I use a desktop post it note program, Word docs, and a desktop calendar.

  5. Brodiemac

    A whiteboard. The bigger the better. I have a 8′ x 4′ whiteboard in my workshop when I am brainstorming about woodworking projects.

  6. Daniel Rae

    MindGenius for me!

  7. Mike

    Hardware: a whiteboard. Software: FreeMind.

  8. ParkerReno

    Definitely a whiteboard, nothing compares to it atm (but I don’t have any touch screen computers, I would imagine a nice one would work the same if not better.)

  9. Matt

    I use Wunderlist. I use their Android app, iPad app, desktop app, and I can even check it via the web if I’m somewhere I don’t have one of the other devices with me at.

  10. Aaron

    I start with a bike ride around the neighborhood. Then write stuff down on my huge whiteboard standing up, then go make the ideas pretty (MS Word, Photoshop, camera, etc.).

  11. Cryptic

    I listen to music and just daydream. I listen to a lot of metal that has a lot of atmosphere to it and that often gives me a lot of ideas, especially for writing.

  12. Jacob

    Good old fashioned legal pad for me. Nice and linear; great for just putting thoughts down.

  13. Van

    I’ve tried a lot of mind-mapping software (Xmind, Blumind, etc.) but none of them hold a candle to

  14. Drawlix

    I use workflowy this is the best tool

  15. hellerdude

    Xmind for PC
    iThought on iPad
    Synr through Dropbox

  16. Brian James

    It has to be MindGenius for me. Mind mapping software with it’s very own brainstorming mode! It doesn’t get geekier than that ;)

  17. dave

    Nothing, I’m a disorganized mess. Thanks for the article though, now I’ve got some ideas to check out.

  18. PurdueGeek

    Table 43 at Harry’s + Beer.

  19. Lisa

    Whiteboard for the daily tasks
    X-mind Premium for serious brainstorming with our remote team – It has a share feature that is handy for feedback

  20. James

    a white board

    Why perform 3 steps for a software program when marker to board is two ? (cap off marker, marker on board)

    Some tech kids/young adults are so ingrained into the Matrix, they believe anything w/o script is like a chariot is to a Prius

  21. Mark e.

    I often grab a handy piece of paper but if I am in front of a PC I use FreeMind or if on my phone or tablet I use Thinking Space Pro. These are file compatible so if I need the file both places I drop it in Dropbox and have it on phone/tablet/PC.

    I need to get some white boards though, I can see where this would work well out in the shop….

  22. warrenjmeyer


  23. Hans Troost

    For both personal and group brainstorming I use a mind mapping tool like MindManager.

    Works pretty fine to gather and organize all thoughts and idea’s coming up….

  24. Elliot

    I have a medium-sized whiteboard which sits leaning against my desk, and an assortment of marker pens lying about. Great for quickly jotting down ideas, especially changeable ones, and pretty eco-friendly.

    Otherwise, pen and paper. I have never found a piece of software easier to use for things like mind-mapping or brainstorming than pen and paper.

  25. Set271

    Most of my best ideas come to me in a arts n crafts store or even a home improvement store. Years ago I took a test published in OMNI magazine (remember that?!) sponsored by Mensa. My IQ wasn’t very high but it was high. What surprised me the most was what they called my ‘Three Dimensional Spatial Acuity’, which was one of my strongest numbers. I can look at items’ on the shelf and come up with something probably not envisioned by it’s manufacturer. I void so many warranties that way. Renovating/repairing my home forces me to shop in these stores and I usually spend more time(and money) than required because I’ll get ideas for more projects then when I walked in for. Then, at home with that odd piece of hardware or simple plastic box I’ll spend hours in front of SketchUp. But it’s mostly the crafts and home improvement stores which are the impetus for some pretty cool stuff.

  26. Grant

    We used flip-chart sized post-it notes. They have flip charts that after you fill a page, you can tear it off and stick it to the wall! Not great for one person, but for a large group, they are excellent.

    For just me, I use a text file in an outline kind of format, starting very general and adding layers of detail as I go.

  27. omagana

    Hardware: paper and fountain pen.

    software: MindManager and freemind.

  28. John

    @Home – Sticky notes and note cards
    @Work – Grease board(s) and sticky notes
    @Neither – Pen and dinner/drink napkins – I’ve had much success with these for blueskying new ideas.

  29. Michael

    Mind Jet, Mind Manager. I use this in and out of school, my dad started me on it as he used it for work.

  30. Garry


  31. Simon

    My vote goes to MindGenius

  32. Mike--

    I like to use a good ol’ fashion chalkboard because the friction of the chalk on the board makes my illustrations much neater. The lack of friction on a whiteboard coupled with a few cups of coffee, makes my whiteboarding look no better than a pre-schooler’s.

  33. Rick S

    I almost always use paper out of my printer. I write all the important stuff down then lose the paper.
    Sometimes I use a file that I have just for that purpose. But most of the time it’s the paper.

  34. John in Brisbane

    Often I’ll think about it at odd times until some point at which the idea seems worth taking more seriously. Then I’ll write out some sort of conceptualisation as a paragraph or two. I’ll often come back to it and add points and many layers of indented sub points! Mind maps and sketches on paper are often used too – gets the ideas flowing. Then, if it is a design or invention etc, I will often sketch it up using something as simple as MS Paint in Windows. Often pen and paper is easier but even a dodgy computer sketch can make the idea look either more interesting or more absurd. A big part of the process is putting the hand drawn or printed diagrams, mind maps etc up on the wall in my office. I bought a cheap a3 printer and while it doesn’t seem like much, being about to print things out that size makes a big difference. If the idea is really on my mind, I stick stuff on the wall where I can stand next to it and add notes etc when walking past.

  35. Brian J

    Has to be MindGenius for me. Mind mapping software with its very own brainstorming mode?! It doesn’t get any geekier than that

  36. ChrisR

    Novamind5 is the best for both solo and group brainstorming in my opinion!
    Best mobey I ever spent!

  37. Ciprian

    XMind works for me. It has both a free and paid version. The free one has lots of features and works great.

  38. Alan McNamara

    A free copy of Conceptdraw MINDMAP 5 Professional (I loved the price!).

  39. Michael

    This is one of the few times that I pick up a pen and paper, or a white board if I have one around.

  40. John

    A whiteboard or LucidChart – blows away everything else I’ve tried.

  41. Heather

  42. IgorP


  43. John Lopez

    I have tried a vast array of brainstorming and management tools, to the point of being quite exhausted by the fact new ones keep appearing.

    In the end I setted on MindJet’s MindManager. While I really love The Brain for multiple connectivity, I just couldn’t live with it long term (although it was the runner up and I only recently didn’t upgrade to the latest version… if the server version wasn’t so painfully expensive I might have keep it.)

    MindJet’s MindManager simply works in such a straightforward way, responds quickly to input and moves seamlessly from brainstorming (it has a brainstorming “wizard” that tries to walk you though the process… along with many templates that address common needs) to organization (easy drag and drop, annotation marks and note taking) and for me the reason I use it, project management.

    Brainstorming is great, but if you don’t actually follow up it isn’t as effective as it could be. So being able to organize my brainstorming into a work breakdown structure and then tag times, people and resources directly onto the result of my brainstorming was the feature that I couldn’t live without after using it.

  44. Xeogin

    Staring at a popcorn ceiling is still the best for me. Looking up optimizes the blood flow & the random dots become like constellations of branching out thoughts. Any program with cut down on potential creativity by delaying that process. I am aware that after about 20 minutes your initial idea fades from focus, but that’s when you should already be started working on something. After that comes stage 2, which I wouldn’t really call brainstorming. It’s more like dumping what you’ve already done and want to do. That’s when these tools would seem most useful individually, but usually I just like writing a mostly linear or completely all over the place without much linking, dump, so a notepad (or notepad.exe) is usually enough. The only stage I really see these tools as useful is collaboration, so that you can share your thought process and how everything involved would be actually useful, and so others can help identify shortcomings. Some of these tools go a step farther, and it’s one I find appalling: Guided thought process wizards… what’s the point of being put in the box? The best ideas that come from brainstorming are from thinking out of it. I understand much of the world just wants their jobs to be easier, but the people that want to brainstorm I’d hope want to make something new and different, not recreated, or worse yet, rehashed.

  45. PrivateSnafu

    good old-fashioned paper notebook

  46. Richard is a free mind mapping tool and I find it excellent

  47. cactusdr

    Created my own project manager template in Excel.

  48. Adewale

    Freemind for me too.

  49. RogerC

    I use MaxThink ( and Freemind.

  50. bobobano

    I picked up some melamine boards from Home Depot and layered them all around my lab, every wall is now a whiteboard.

  51. Gavin

    View Your Mind

  52. George

    make postit notes in the form of msgbox’s in MS Visual Studio!
    I’M A BIG GEEK!!!! (mum doesn’t approve)

  53. Stephen

    After putting it off for years, I finally spent a bit of time seeking and then finding quality mind mapping freeware: FreeMind.

    To use a worn-out business cliché, mind mapping is a virtual paradigm shift in documentation methodology! Brainstorming sessions and creative thinking don’t always occur in outline or spreadsheet-ready form, and mind mapping allows it to happen. Flow and branch, sidestep, digress, and sidetrack – and it can still be accurately documented with FreeMind or any other quality mind mapping tool.

    Getting started with FreeMind mind-mapping freeware:

    FreeMind official site

    I really enjoy the advice. Keep up the great work,
    Stephen Frasier

  54. Chris

    I always keep 3″x5″ cards folded up in a pocket with a pen so I am always ready when inspiration strikes.

  55. Kohaku

    I just use my mind to think about things and writing them down in a notepad or paper/pencil.

  56. Shahid Hussain

    Brain is the best tool to keep everything .. So I apply the same .. I plain what I gotta do / should or must do .. I keep that as my objective = )

  57. dannyw001

    For my office team – my laptop, MindManager, my Casio projector, and a projector screen. And a secluded conference room.

  58. Trevor Yannayon

    Android Phone = Thinking Space
    MacBook & PC = Simple Mind
    Analog = Notebook & Colored Pencils or White Board and Colored Markers

  59. Fier


  60. Time Traveler

    I came here and got all these great porgram ideas.

  61. Time Traveler

    Yeah. That’s spelt right.

  62. csorbazoli

    Freemind is great:)

  63. Carol

    In the office we use MindGenius for our brainstorming sessions.

  64. Bruce

    brainstorming…. white board then yellow tablet.

    once it becomes a project. Freeplane – MindMapping software. its ability to handle phases, changes, is incredible. Problems go in the problem branch which has a current, atsomepoint, and solved branches. As ideas are researched and problems solved u just drag their branches to a solved node.

    pretty slick. Work flow?? I don’t know what that means. My work never flows. It is disjointed, interrupted, etc. Have a central mm one click away that can easily change has changed the way I process work.

  65. snert

    Pen and paper.
    If it works. It don’t need fixed.

  66. Chaider Lima

    I usually notes my own obligations in my Calendar board which it ´s in my wall in my home. But when I,m in a Job training or meeting ; I use Notebook as well.

  67. KIMMY

    I plant the seed then it grows and matures and I steal it from my husband when he sleeps, in between the farting, drooling on the pillow and the 5 minutes of non breathing in between the bucksnorts whilest snoring like a fat kid in July who works in a coal mine in the Sahara Desert.. (meaning he literally stops breathing) so – being the genius I AM, I just make him go down the Rabbit Hole and I meet him next to the blue pill section of kmart, yes, right next to the blue light special in his dreams from when he was poor what trash. OH, and the CPAP is on order. So is the life insurance policy…

  68. Kevin

    Jot down main points anywhere
    Focus on them before sleep and when I wake up most if not all is sorted
    Hard to beat the old fashioned brain in the end

  69. sam

    searching the keyword on internet and then let the data flow in my mind

  70. tommy2rs

    I bounce ideas off the wife. If the word “dumbass” comes up then experience has taught me to add a visit to the emergency room into the plans.

  71. cute

    Pen and paper. They’re the best.

  72. Matt

    Never tried software for brainstorming, but will look into it.
    Generally, you can’t beat pen and paper, ‘cos you can doodle too. I get the point about being eco-friendly, though. My compromise is to use the trillion or so envelopes that come through the door every day. I have a box of them under my desk, ready to grab when I need to jot something down from a call, meeting, or just to mull over something for a project. Important stuff gets transferred, usually to my PC and/or Blackberry, later – the rest goes into the recycling. Saves a fortune in post-its!

  73. WittZi

    Yeah is fantastic. The guys that run it are very helpful and responsive and it’s a great cross platform, simple task / workflow / brainstorming tool.

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