When deadlines are tight, almost everyone would love to have a secret application that can generate concepts and ideas more quickly and reliably than a design meeting can. No such application exists yet - which is a good thing, because it would put many creatives out of work. However, there's a wide selection of far simpler tools that can help organise your thoughts and feelings, clarify priorities and relationships, and give your creative subconscious something to work on.
These tools aren't a substitute for Adobe's Creative Suite. Most of them don't generate content for you, and it's important to understand that's not what they're designed to do. Instead, they help you create, share, talk about and map the ideas, concepts and elements that are important to a project. You can make this sharing and development process as abstract or as concrete as you want it to be. For example you might use a mind-mapping tool to summarise a set of brand associations, so that you can discuss which ones you want to highlight in a campaign, logo or website project. Alternatively, you could use some of the same tools to summarise and graph project roles, goals and outcomes.
The aim is to get a better understanding of what you're trying to achieve, and to help you clarify what matters in a project. Because creativity is very much about combining unrelated ideas, aims and experiences, you can also use them to explore unusual combinations of ideas that you might not have tried otherwise, simply by asking what happens if you take a concept from one part of the project map and blend it with another.
Some tools also include project management and presentation options. Commercial design is as much about selling and presenting ideas as it is about having them. So even though these tools can have a corporate slant, studios of all sizes can use them to improve internal management - to make sure everyone understands their place in a project - and also to simplify and streamline external client presentations.
ThoughtOffice is a brainstorming 'creative assistant' that uses a variety of strategies to help you invent, analyse, write about and advertise products. Although ThoughtOffice is aimed more at corporate managers and writers - there's even a comedy writers' module - some of the mind-mapping, project-naming and brainstorming features can help visual and digital creatives explore the key ideas needed to define a project.
Prices start at $95 for the basic ThoughtOffice product, which includes nearly 14,000 kick-start questions to help you brainstorm, and evaluation tools that can help you check the quality and relevance of new ideas after brainstorming. The more advanced products - all the way up to ThoughtOffice CEO - add more questions, more modules and monthly content updates into the mix.
iMindMap is the mind-mapping tool collection from Tony Buzan who has made a career out of promoting mind maps as a creative solution. Prices start from £50 for a single user, while the professional version costs around £200 per user and includes project management features and design templates for presentations. If you're impressed by mind-mapping you'll want to look at these packages.
Corporate mind-mapping tool MindGenius is designed to clarify the relationships between a project overview and low-level task-based project management. It has close links to Microsoft Office, and you can export content directly into Office for use in other contexts. It's perhaps less likely to appeal to design studios than some of the alternatives, but it can be worth considering as a formal project management tool rather than as a creative idea generator.
A free alternative is FreeMind. It uses Java to create simple concept maps that can be added to presentations or embedded in webpages. The look and feel is best described as basic, and it lacks the free-form hand-drawn feel that other mind-mapping tools can create.
It's also popular with software developers - and it looks it. But because it's free you can use it to experiment with basic mind-mapping techniques, before you decide whether to spend money on a more professional package with more creative visual features.
Another free alternative is Compendium from the Compendium Institute. It's a more advanced mind-mapping tool designed for group collaborations and problem-solving. Anyone who's been in a design meeting knows that points can be made and forgotten almost immediately. With Compendium's Issue Mapping and Dialogue Mapping tools they can be included in a presentation and dialogue. Eventually different needs, points of view and design goals can be integrated into a single consensus solution.
Compendium was created as a tool for academics, so it's possible that the learning curve might be steeper than it is for other products. Training is available, but anyone who designs in groups can benefit from experimenting informally with what it can do.
Finally, web designers may want to look at Artisteer - a web template generator that works with WordPress, Joomla, DotNetNuke and Drupal. Artisteer is click-bang web design. Use it to generate an almost infinite variety of new colour schemes and layouts on demand. Save the ones you like and import them into your own projects. You can even sell them separately. Artisteer won't turn you into a design god, but the professional version is only $129.95 and it can save solo developers and smaller studios hours of creative effort when working on simpler projects.
Understanding mind maps
From hand-drawn to 3D mapping techniques: what's the best way to summarise your ideas?
Mind maps are a lateral way to pick apart and combine related ideas. You can draw mind maps by hand - software can simplify the process by making it easier to edit maps, and by creating tidy-looking maps that are easy to read. But manual hand-drawn maps remain popular, especially with some creatives who prefer to be hands-on - literally - and who think that crossing out, colouring in, adding and moving elements are all part of the process.
The goal of a mind map is to summarise all the important elements around a key concept, and to show their relationships. A good mind map has obvious creative benefits. You can see how elements are related, and this feeds your creative subconscious with a picture that it can understand and work with. But traditional mind maps are flat, and some critics have pointed out that ideas and concepts can have more complex relationships. For example, they can work better in three dimensions, where they enable you to take slices through the map to add another layer of relationships. Many maps seem to reduce to simple circular hierarchies - perhaps because of unconscious assumptions. It's important to use a tool that enables more complex cross-relationships, even if it doesn't include full support for 3D mapping.