In the modern world, it's not enough to do what you've always done.
You need to be constantly innovating just to keep up. Computers may not be creative themselves, but they can help. A range of techniques have been developed to stimulate and structure new ideas and the PC is particularly suited to helping with structure. There isn't room here to go into creativity techniques themselves (drop me an Email at [email protected] if you'd like further information and WWW references), but I'm covering three Windows packages that can help generate and give structure to creative thought.
Idons For Thinking
When brainstorming, it's traditional to make notes on a flipchart. This makes it difficult to take the ideas and structure them. Sometimes scraps of paper or Post-it notes are used, so they can be shuffled around. Scottish company, Idon, goes one step further, producing magnetic shapes that can be scribbled on, then moved around a board. Usually these are hexagonal to allow for a range of layouts.
Idon has now produced an electronic equivalent. The clumsily titled Idons For Thinking is an on-screen tool to draw shapes, links and notes. As usual, these can be enhanced by using different colours and fonts. In principle you could do all this with a flowchart, but Idons For Thinking incorporates plenty of examples of different structures to facilitate idea generation, problem solving, scenario planning and more. A typical session would involve generating a range of ideas, then grouping them using an enveloping shape referred to as a cluster. For instance, if you were looking to improve your profitability, you might group ideas together that involve cost reduction, developing new products, or changing your target market.
There's no doubt that Idons For Thinking has plenty of meat in it, but the user interface does get in the way. Typically, your model will involve several linked pages of shapes. In fact, this approach is strongly enforced in the examples provided and in the way Idons uses a top-level page to navigate to your projects. The real disaster is that these links are activated by double-clicking with the right mouse button. Apart from the fact that this is physically difficult to do, it runs contrary to all habit. Time after time I found myself left clicking, which brings up a totally different window to edit text and notes for the selected shape. Even this editing is clumsy, full screen rather than direct in the shape or a floating window.
There are very limited export options too - just plain text.
Idon's magnetic shapes are a great way to organise ideas, and in principle the electronic form offers much more flexibility for using colour and shape coding to add information to your diagram, but the interface needs so much work I would recommend waiting for the next version.
VisiMap implements a single creativity tool in great depth. The approach is based on mind mapping, developed by Tony Buzan. While conventional notes are written linearly, the mind works in a different way. Each new thought may be sparked off by another; different links form an organic Web rather than a simple list. A mind map is an attempt to represent this structure visually.
Like all mind maps, VisiMap starts with a central blob - the topic or key idea. From there, branches radiate out, carrying keywords that form the main subjects. Each of these can have smaller branches, and so on.
The reason mind maps work so well is that you don't need to build the branches in any order. As a new thought comes up you can slot it anywhere in the structure. This makes them great for making notes in a meeting or for generating new thinking. Structuring information in a mind map also makes it much easier to remember.
VisiMap does a lot to make your on-screen map effective. You can control the colour and fonts of the different branches, and add icons to give a more powerful image. Each branch can carry an associated note, shown in a split window at the bottom of the screen. To be effective, a tool for generating maps should make it extremely easy to pour information in, and then to restructure it. VisiMap has got this down to a fine art.
Adding a new branch is simply a matter of clicking on the start point and typing. The style facility makes it easy to define colours and fonts for a particular level.
Similarly, restructuring the map to look the way you want it can easily be achieved by drag-and-drop. Once you've generated your ideas or made your notes, VisiMap can switch between a map and an outline view, and can pump your text into a word processor ready to polish up. If you use Word or Ami Pro, you can even export the information as an outline that the word processor will recognise. There's a good range of graphic formats supported, plus a surprisingly effective option to generate HTML.
There will always be a place for quick sketch maps on paper, but VisiMap does a great job of putting mind maps onto the screen, and keeps the process easy enough to be quick - an essential when dealing with ideas. It's a shame that pictures can only be incorporated using icons because icon editing is fiddly and limits you in scope. But that apart, this is an excellent program.
The Axon Idea Processor
Like Idons For Windows, Axon uses shapes to represent ideas, but there the resemblance ends. Apart from drawing diagrams, there are all sorts of facilities in Axon. The depth of the program, and the use of dense, overpowering dialog boxes make it non-trivial to get into, but given time and effort it can be rewarding. The keyboard needs to be used far too often in order to modify mouse actions, but at least it's easy to pop in a box simply by clicking on the screen and typing, while links operate with a single click.
Beyond recording your ideas, with full control of visual format, Axon comes with a number of features to stimulate thought. There are checklists, a mechanism for displaying a list of keywords to kick off a new line of enquiry. Axon comes with a range of checklists, structured by task, but you can add your own. Other features produce general-purpose questions, or random sentences or combinations of words to help trigger new ideas.
These aren't exactly rocket science as far as creativity techniques go, but they can do the trick.
More impressive are the features to extend a model. Axon supports multiple transparent layers, which cleverly become smaller as you get further back.
This allows for an effective 3D representation of concepts. Computation features add calculations to the mix. This makes it practical to build a working model, and can be used for numerical calculation or to provide living logic diagrams and decision trees. There is also basic support for Pert and Gantt charts, though it would be stretching things to consider Axon anything more than a very summary project management tool. Like Idons For Thinking, exporting is limited to basic text.
Axon provides an excellent idea modelling structure if you're the sort of person who likes to get your hands dirty and tinker.
PRODUCT AND CONTACT DETAILS
Idons For Thinking is available from Idon Software (01796 473709) at #240. Web site http://www.idongroup.com
VisiMap is available from Co Co Systems (01494 434464) at #99. Web site http://www.coco.co.uk
Axon Idea Processor is available from Axon in Singapore (00 65 7360422) at $150.(#100). Web site http://web.sing net. com.sg/~axon2000/axon_res.htm
- Good concept
- Flexible shapes and links
- Lots of examples CONS
- Awful user interface
- Limited export
- Very quick to get ideas down
- Easy to restructure
- Excellent exports
- Can only incorporate icons, not bitmaps
- Good visual modelling
- Some idea generation
- Calculation features
- Limited export
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