Pros: Exceedingly flexible; very organic; fast and easy to use; intuitive; quick to learn; great documentation
Cons: Nothing I could find!
Rating: 5 out of 5
First published 4/25/2006
Inspiration is usable on both the Mac and Windows
Review copy courtesy of Inspiration Software, Inc.
If I were to be honest with myself, I’d admit I was ready to write this review a week ago. I kept telling myself there was more I should play with and explore, however, before reviewing Inspiration 8. Why? Because the software was just that much fun to play with!
One of the things Inspiration 8 is supposed to be good for is, well, inspiration. Brainstorming. Concept mapping. You know–that thing you may have heard about in writing classes where you put your main theme or topic down in the middle of the page and just keep writing whatever pops into your head around the paper, drawing lines between concepts to connect them, and just generally seeing what comes out.
The problem I’ve always found with software that tries to mimic or enable such organic processes as brainstorming is that they generally lose something in translation. Part of what makes these processes work is their speed and their element of “flow”–the fact that you can just keep going without any significant pauses or stopping to analytically think about things. Most software slows this process down just enough–or introduces enough mental stumbling blocks–that something gets lost. Surprisingly, I found just the opposite to be true with Inspiration 8. Not only does it not lose anything, but if anything I found it easier to brainstorm and do concept mapping with this software than on paper.
There can be difficulties with doing this on paper. One is that you can end up with a real mess on your hands, and for some people this gets in the way of brainstorming rather than helping. You find yourself with this paper filled with scribbles, crossed-out lines, sentences that get in the way of each other, and so on. Because of the way Inspiration works (which I’ll get to in a minute), this isn’t a problem. It’s quick, simple, and easy, and makes later rearrangement a snap, which takes all the frustration out of the process.
Range of Uses
Inspiration is primarily pitched at an educational level, where it can be used by teachers to teach classes, or by students to organize projects. However, it has a far wider application than that. I now use it to brainstorm and organize my reviews and articles–all of them. It could be used to brainstorm or storyboard a roleplaying game adventure. A writer could use it for any step of the inspiration or organization process, for novels, nonfiction, etc. I even used it to create my plan of attack when turning my review of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Cleaning” into a plan to clean my home.
Every time I found myself thinking “gee, this would be a handy feature to have,” I’d look at the menus and I’d find it. Every. Single. Time. I don’t think there was a single feature I lacked for.
Here’s the general idea of how you might go about creating a diagram. I opened a diagram and labeled the first symbol on the page with my main theme or topic; in this case, that was “Inspiration 8 review”. Then I selected “rapid fire–without links” which enabled me to rapidly enter ideas, signalling the end of one and the beginning of the next with a single hit of the return key, each one becoming its own new bubble on the diagram. (You could also use the “with links” option which would automatically create a link from the first bubble to each new one created.)
Once I had all my little bubbles, I clicked on the linking tool and started easily creating links from one bubble to another just by clicking on each. If I got the direction wrong by clicking on them in the wrong order, I’d just select the link and reverse the direction with another simple tool; you can also have links that have arrows in both directions (or neither), and you can optionally label your links. If you decide later to rearrange some of your links, you can just click on one, grab one end of it and move it to a different bubble.
Next I used the auto-arrange feature. This takes your connected concepts and neatly arranges them into a web or tree of various types so you can easily examine the arrangement. There are quite a few options you can engage to make this look the way you want it to. Occasionally it seemed that the arrangement wasn’t entirely optimal in terms of making things fit neatly on the page, however, you can easily “zoom to fit window” (or zoom in or out as you choose), so this isn’t a big deal at all. By turning on auto-arrange instead of just arrange, I made sure each new change I made would be reflected in the tree shape I chose.
I converted my diagram to an outline with the touch of a button, did a little re-arranging again, and with another single click transformed it back to a diagram. If I had wanted to, I could have exported the entire thing (or just the outline) to Word–this function is surprisingly simple and quick. I added a few “notes” to some of the concept bubbles, changed the shape of the major sub-topic icons to make them stand out better, resized the map to fit the window, and printed the whole thing.
I don’t honestly think I can convey the ridiculous wealth of features here, but I’ll give you the gist of it.
While you can use this program to simply plan out your own projects, you can also incorporate video and sound if you want to use it to create more interactive or presentational works. Many curriculum templates are included to give you an idea of how you could use this tool in an educational setting. For instance, there’s a diagram to help students do a benefit/risk analysis of the use of radioactive isotopes. The ability to export to Word makes this easy to integrate with other activities, and it can even include live hyperlinks. If you want to include a limited library of icons and such with your template to help students focus on certain things, you can create your own libraries.
The ability to convert from diagram to outline and vice versa is impressive and incredibly helpful. I can’t express how useful this has been to me as a writer. The fact that the auto-arrange feature has an array of tree/web arrangements is fantastic.
The wide range of icons and symbols available for use is truly astounding. While you can stick to simple symbols if you like (default is an oval, and there are the usual flowchart symbols such as triangles and squares, as well as stars and talk-bubbles), you can also choose from a dazzling array of clip-art and photo images. You can search this database of icons by keyword, and I found that it was surprisingly good at turning up images that fitted what I wanted. This can jazz up your diagrams, making them more fun to create or use.
You can also muck with font styles and sizes, bubble background colors and patterns, and so on. You can select entire sub-topics and levels at a time in order to, for example, color all the bubbles for an entire topic in one color. It’s child’s play to create, label, and redirect links. The notes feature allows you to easily add detailed information to flesh out your outline or remind yourself of little details, and you can resize the notes to the amount of text in them at the touch of a button. There’s an included spell-checker, and although you’ll definitely want a decent-quality color printer, the printing quality is stunning. Even when I have to shrink something noticeably to fit it on a page it’s still quite legible when I print it out.
Learning to Use Inspiration
The “getting started” manual that’s included is perhaps the best-written manual I’ve ever used, probably due to the fact that the software is aimed at teachers and students. It’s incredibly clear and methodical without being boring or condescending, and without making assumptions about what you already know. It includes a very handy tutorial. I read the tutorial, which I think did a wonderful job of introducing all the concepts, but I admit I then jumped straight into using the software–primarily because I wanted to judge just how intuitive and user-friendly the user interface really was. I don’t think I had to look up a single thing, and only a couple of times did I have to stop and take a moment to figure out how something worked. I think every time I said to myself, “hmm, I bet X will do Y the way I want it to,” it did. That’s extremely impressive to me. It also comes with an extremely detailed pdf manual.
All in all, Inspiration 8 has to be, hands-down, the most impressive piece of software I have ever used. The flexibility, wide array of features, lack of noticeable bugs, intuitive interface, and vast possibilities it contains make me feel like a kid in a candy shop when I open it up.