From the March 1998 issue of Startups

What should you name your product? How might you organize your business? If questions like these perplex you, brainstorming software may be the answer. These programs act as creative consultants, showing you new ways to look at problems.


Robert Schmidt is a computer and business writer in Culver City, California.

IdeaFisher Pro

This program gives you the tools to break a task into its components and explore each one. IdeaFisher (IdeaFisher Systems; Windows, $189.95) has two main sections. In QBank, a series of questions helps you isolate the problem. QBank routines include strategic planning, marketing and general problem-solving.

Once you've specified a problem, you can go to the heart of the program: IdeaBank, a patented database of more than 65,000 words, phrases and concepts arranged in topical categories. More than a thesaurus, it's a network of cultural associations, grouped and interconnected the same way the human brain stores data.

Here's an example of how it works: Let's say you want to develop a new picture frame. QBank prompts you to list all the qualities of a frame, including "level." IdeaBank then links this word with a carpenter's level. Voilá! A picture frame with a built-in level so it always hangs straight.

ThoughtPath

While IdeaFisher enhances the mind's organizing mechanism, ThoughtPath (Inventive Logic Inc.; Mac, $99; Windows, $295) sees the mechanism as a potential obstacle. This program's goal is to apply divergent areas of the brain to problems in ways you'd never think of.

ThoughtPath begins a task by having you describe the problem and its background. Then it asks you to make a wish. The logic behind this? Wishing uncovers repressed and "unthinkable" notions you can use to make connections.

Next, the program has you generate ideas for each wish and solutions for each idea. At each step, it offers triggers to spur novel thinking; the process aids creativity by letting you examine thoughts without censoring yourself.

Suppose your problem is not getting enough done at the office. One wish might be, "I wish I could work all the time." That might lead to ideas such as "work at home" or "work on the train." In turn, these might elicit the solution "buy a laptop computer."

Inspiration 5.0 Professional Edition

Inspiration (Inspiration Software Inc.; Mac and Windows, $99) is a visual-thinking tool that helps you clarify and organize your ideas. It displays your ideas and their relationships onscreen, letting you make connections that aren't obvious. From the juxtaposition of ideas, new possibilities emerge.

You begin with an outline view, placing your thoughts in a text mode, but Inspiration's power comes when you switch to the diagram view. This transforms your prose into a concept map, flow chart or other graphic representation. In this mode, you can insert objects or text, move them around and connect them with lines. When you reposition something, Inspiration adjusts the links in both the diagram and the outline so they're always in sync.

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Contact Sources

Cougar Mountain Software, (800) 388-3038, http://www.cougarmtn.com

IdeaFisher Systems Inc., 2222 Martin St., #260, Irvine, CA 92612, (714) 225-1100

Inspiration Software Inc., http://www.inspiration.com

Inventive Logic Inc., (800) 253-1844, http://www.thoughtpath.com

Micro Logic Corp., http://www.miclog.com