Techniques: Off the Shelf

Creativity-enhancing software stimulates ideas and organizes thoughts

If seeing is believing, MindMan can help you and your business imagine a universe of ideas. Using color and images to bring mere words to life, MindMan software expedites mind mapping: a graphics-based method of taking notes, brainstorming, and organizing thoughts that helps you relate and arrange random ideas into memorable treelike diagrams. Unlike the outlining methods you learned in high school, mind mapping doesn't constrain your creative inclinations by requiring you to think sequentially.

Our clients, who hire us to help them develop new product ideas and new ways to use technology, don't always feel naturally creative, but MindMan software has made our work with them remarkably productive. As fast as ideas occur to us, we add them to a mind map, highlighting ideas and using a click-and-drag technique to connect related concepts with lines and arrows.

I put MindMan to work for a client, a publisher who wanted to develop newsletters targeting the computer industry. As we brainstormed, a technographer--my name for today's stenographer--entered our ideas into the computer, while a data projector allowed us to monitor her every keystroke.

Each mind map starts with an empty circle in the middle of the screen. For this session, our technographer filled the circle with the central concept: computer-related newsletters. Moving the cursor outside the circle, she added our ideas by tapping the insert key and then typing in the words, and MindMan drew links connecting the edge of the circle, our original ideas, and any subsequent ones.

Next, using a pull-down menu to get to MindMan's image library, I selected a pair of clapping hands to mark promising ideas. A little guy taking an ax to his computer marked the losers. We color-coded the ideas: red for no go, yellow for maybe, blue for "lacks adequate information," and green for "needs immediate attention." To the blues and the greens we added follow-up steps, the names of the responsible people, and the date by which their reports would be due.

At the end of the session, we had a computerized record of our ideas and the relationships among them. Although we could have printed the single-screen record onto a letter-size page, we exploded the map and printed it in "tiles" that we taped together on a flip chart. I had problems the first few times I tried such mosaic printing, but it worked well once I realized the program wanted me to specify size in terms of the percentage of the original paper size. Linear-minded users have the more mundane option of converting mind maps and printing them as traditional outlines.

Now that my client is familiar with the software, instead of a follow-up meeting, we might use MindMan's Internet-conferencing feature. We could work simultaneously to refine and update our mind map, using the on-screen chat window to "discuss" any issues that arise in the course of our collaboration.

MindMan's symbol library is limited to graphics for such concepts as a meeting, an airplane, and a PC, so we use its importing tool to augment that collection. When another client, a photographic-equipment manufacturer, wanted to mind map his catalog, I used my digital camera to photograph his products. Software that came with my camera let me load the digital file onto my hard disk, and using MindMan's photo program, I clicked on the file name to add those digital pictures to MindMan's library.

I've tried to build mind maps using programs that had been designed for such purposes as creating flowcharts, but they demanded way too much effort and software hybridization. MindMan, however, was designed specifically for mind mapping, and it performs extremely well. From the company's Web site you may download MindMan for a 21-day trial. It's worth a try.

The Product: MindMan--The Creative MindManager 3.0, from MindJET, LLC, in Sausalito, Calif. (415-332-6808;; $189)

Reviewer: Jordan Ayan, president of Create-It! Inc., a consulting and professional-speaking company in Naperville, Ill.

Requirements: Windows 95 or Windows NT; 486/DX66 or Pentium; 8MB hard-disk space; 256-color video card; Internet access for MindMan conferencing