Creativity: Free Associative Mapping

Often I find myself wondering what action can be taken to re-invigorate that creative spark that we all seek when starting new projects or puzzling out an answer. There are many ways I’ve found to keep the creative juices flowing once they have begun, but that initial step of feeling creative enough to act is a lot harder to muster up. There are artists who say that “feeling creative” never really happens at all and that the art is a culmination of continued effort and study or an “unexpected path” branching off from some non-sequitur activities. While I agree that actively doing mundane things and hoping for a creative spark is one way to churn out a product, I also think there are more definite formulas to follow when seeking to produce ideas en masse.

One key way for me to begin a creative project from scratch is whiteboard free-associative mapping. I know free association is commonly thought of in regards to the work of psychologist, Josef Breuer, but a workable model for boosting creativity can be derived from that concept too. The model of free association was intended to help a patient by letting the subconscious thoughts seep through during a stream of conscious conversation and word association sessions. Though the process of free association was eventually replaced by the more helpful and definable psychoanalysis, free associative mapping is a great tool for creative idea generation today. If a workable creative idea is needed for a piece of art and that artwork has to be within a certain genre, then free associating words within that genre is a good starting point. The idea of art being derived from a non-sequitur path as stated previously isn’t incorrect, however partially directing the mind in search of that path is a lot more productive then just sitting around waiting for a muse. Even having no genre starting point can be free-associated.

The quick-start steps to free associative mapping are as follows:


Choose a starting point as your associative anchor and place it in the middle at the center of the page or dry-erase board. Your starting word or phrase can be anything. I know that may sound hard if you have no starting genre, but just think of it this way: having no starting point means you have no biases. A great way to start free association from bare bones nothing is to grab the first book on your shelf (or DVD cover) and pick the last sentence from the last page as a starting point. Your method for picking a starting phrase or word may be different, but either way choose a start point. Many software programs are available that lend themselves well to free-associative mapping. If you’re inclined to use the computer for logging ideas then check out programs such as MindMeister for mind mapping (I’ve included a couple resources at the end of this article). If software is not your thing or you just work better in the physical world, then stow the computer and start on a dry-erase board or sheet of paper.



Start your free associative map. If you are not used to the open minded state encouraged in free association, I suggest you begin this activity aloud. Doing so will keep you from missing any free flowing associations. Start by writing down the phrases or words that immediately come to mind while viewing the “start point” on your free associative map. You don’t have to limit yourself, but I suggest starting with no more than eight first level branches. This map will compound fast and there’s no reason to overwhelm yourself just getting started.


• After your first branch of associations, derive another layer of branches from the newly written words or phrases. Continue this branching process until a predefined end point. If you’re new to this process I suggest you limit yourself to four branching segments. Later when you are better at letting your mind “wander” down the paths of creativity consider limiting your free-associative mapping to fifteen minutes. Spending too much time free associating will overwhelm that creative spark. The image below is an example free associative map after only three and a half complete branches. The associations compound quantity quickly. Don’t limit yourself to a specific number of associations per branch. Some branches will spark ideas others will not, just bypass the word/phrase if nothing new comes to mind.


• When your multi-layered creative map is done, step away. Take a break from the process and do something unrelated for an hour or so before coming back to the project. This time allotment can be however long you need to free your mind from the project at hand so you can come back to it with a fresh perspective.


•After returning to the free-associative map, highlight or circle the words or phrases that immediately stand out to you when viewing the map afresh. These highlighted bits should not be the things you see while highlighting others, but the few things that stood out to you in your new first glance. Write down the highlighted phrases on a new sheet or dry erase section.


• From the list of highlighted words/phrases match up the words or phrases most commonly associated to each other. If you have a lot of directly associated phrases then clump them together by subject matter. Pick the clump of words and phrases with the most entries and write them down on a new page or section.


• These final entries derived from the whole should all be within a single category or subject matter. Dependent on the type of creative activity this exercise was meant to bolster, use this new list to derive the most commonly associated word, subject, object, etc. The final idea derived from the activity may not be even close to what you were originally thinking when you started. If, at the end, you feel the final topic is not what you wanted, then just repeat the process. The outcome is different every time.


• If you are satisfied with the outcome, then take the final subject matter and begin your project.


We all know that just having the subject matter isn’t the only step in the creative process, but it is a good start. In my opinion, getting started on something is better than sitting around waiting for nothing. If you use the method for free associative mapping described above you’ll never again have the excuse, “I had no idea where to begin.”

Similarly, research based associative mapping can be used to further this activity and help you to define your framework for project completion. The process is the same as free associative mapping, but instead of firing off unrelated thoughts to create branched subjects, each topical branch is independently researched to determine its most closely related subject matter. Create from that research your next layer of branches. Research based associative mapping is commonly referred to as outlining, however the “mind-mapping” type of visual layout approaches the outline in a much more creatively appealing way and some consider it a work of art in and of itself.

Free associative mapping is not the only means by which to spark your creativity, but it does work. This technique also works for large groups and will help avoid the “squeaky wheel gets the grease” problem that arises when groups are determining the best idea to work on. Free associative mapping gives weight to the most commonly associated concept not the most insistently voiced subject. I invite you to use free associative mapping on your next creative project and write about the experience in the comments section below.

Happy mapping!


Resources for mind mapping applications:

• Wiki List

• Android App

About Jon Decker

Jon is on a Grand Adventure... life.
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10 Responses to Creativity: Free Associative Mapping

  1. Hagrid says:

    Very beneficial blog post. I just bookmarked your site. I have enjoyed browsing your content. Thank you for spreading the information.

  2. Mark says:

    Great tip! Its always good to get back to the basics!!

  3. Alessandra Cogley says:

    I’ll try it, Thanks!…

  4. (R45H-0v3RR1d3 says:

    I didn’t quite understand when reading this, but tried to do it step by step. Before ‘stepping away’ for an hour I was freaking out. This works like that old ‘double your income every day’ story. I had hundreds of words on the map and didn’t think any of them were of any worth. When I came back, however I did see a dominant theme.

  5. Jon says:

    I’m glad you all liked it. Send me links to the projects if you get anything cool.

  6. Edelmira Cejka says:

    wow, awesome article. Looking forward to more. Really Great.

  7. Preia C says:

    What’s going down. I stumbled upon this & have found It positively helpful and it has helped me out loads. I hope to have a contribution soon. Great job.

  8. Neda Brussel says:

    Really appreciate you sharing this blog. Really looking forward to reading more.

  9. Sindy Mangon says:

    Really enjoyed this blog. thank you! Want more.

  10. Dunston9 says:

    A formidable post, I gave this to a colleague who was doing some work like this, and he bought me breakfast as a result. 🙂 Thnx for the treat! I’d love to hear more on this mapping idea. It’s got potential. Two thumbs up.

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