For most of us, brainstorming involves hastily written words on whiteboards and paper stickies, which require tedious transcribing and photocopying before we can share our ideas with others. There is a better way: Inspiration Software's newly Mac OS X-compatible Inspiration 7. (It also works in OS 9 and Windows, with an identical interface.)
Although it's primarily targeted at students and teachers, this tool will benefit anyone who needs to diagram and organize ideas quickly and easily. With it, you can create anything from a simple article outline to a Web-site plan or a complex scientific diagram.
Installing Inspiration in OS X is easy: less than five minutes after opening the CD envelope, we'd launched the program and were creating our first chart. The program opens in an all-purpose diagram view, with one symbol already placed and ready to be labelled.
At the top of the window are icons representing key functions. With a chart symbol selected, you click on the Create button to draw a connection to a new symbol, where your cursor lands so you can start entering text; clicking on Create without a symbol selected creates a free-floating item. Use the Link button to draw connections between items, the Hyperlink button to add customizable Web-site links quickly to an item, and the Note button to add a concealable "sticky" to an item or a connection. The RapidFire feature was made for fast-paced brainstorming: with the RapidFire tool selected, you just press the return key to create a new item connected to a starting-point item, so you can focus on transcribing your team's fantastic ideas.
There's need to worry about misspelling words: Inspiration has a spell-checker.
On the left side of the window is the symbol palette, which boasts 1,300 symbols (everything from basic shapes to line drawings of vegetables) - and you can import custom symbols via an easy drag-&-drop process. At the bottom of the window is a formatting toolbar, which can be used to select the font and colour of chart items. Clicking on the Arrange button opens a dialog box where you can rearrange the chart (to turn a top-to-bottom hierarchical chart into a left-to-right one, say). Charts and outlines are printable and can be exported in several formats, including JPEG, so you can incorporate them into Microsoft Word or PowerPoint documents, for example.
Although you certainly won't mistake Inspiration for an illustration program, its charts are attractive enough for most purposes. Its design capabilities lag slightly behind those of The Omni Group's OmniGraffle 2 - but where OmniGraffle offers prettiness (for example, more colour options in charts), Inspiration allows more-powerful but easily accessible chart-building tools.
By clicking on the Outline button, you can turn everything in a hierarchical chart, including notes and hyperlinks, into a hierarchical text outline. In outline view, just click on the Diagram button to go back to diagram view. What's more, any reorganization or editing done in outline view will be present when you go back to diagram view (and vice versa).
If you completed all your schoolbook reports before classroom computers became ubiquitous, this feature is sure to inspire delight - and a little bit of regret. It's also a good example of what Inspiration has to offer in an education environment: the ability to represent complex ideas quickly in a visual, easily understandable format, as well as a way to help students learn to prioritize and organize information.
In addition, the program has curriculum-specific templates for language, arts, science, social studies, and more - and all templates are customizable. Teachers unfamiliar with Inspiration should check out the demo at Inspiration Software's Web site.
This is the first version of Inspiration to run in OS X; other new features include multiple undos, a SiteSkeleton feature that converts diagrams to HTML, and some basic audio capabilities - you can record snippets of audio (as long as 30 seconds) and attach them to chart items. But although version 7's enhancements are noteworthy, consider whether you truly need them before upgrading.
Inspiration 7 earns high marks for its ease of use and excellent visual-representation and chart-drawing features. Users outside education environments may occasionally wish for a few more design tools - many of the included symbols definitely have a generic, classroom aesthetic. But if you've ever lost a great idea in a brainstorming session's flood of thought, Inspiration will blow you away: it handles the grunt work of brainstorming, so you can concentrate on being inspired. As a concept-mapping and diagramming tool, Inspiration 7 is at the head of its class.