This page has not been updated since 2004 and is no longer being maintained.

Overview of Windows Graphical Brainstorming Tools

This page reviews many graphical brainstorming and idea organizing programs. Sometimes these programs are known as "Thinking Tools" or "Creativity Tools".

Is there a Windows-based creative information organizer I've missed? If so, please email me about it.

I maintain a separate page reviewing outlining programs.

If you want to contribute a few paragraph's commentary on one of these programs, I will welcome the help. I don't regularly use most of these programs (my review is usually based on an hour or two of experimenting), and I am doubtlessly missing many subtl e benefits various packages provide.

My History with Outliners and Brainstorming Tools

I am a big fan of outlining programs. In the early '90s, I used a DOS program called GrandView and when I moved to Windows eventually converted to Ecco, which was discontinued (but still works fine) in the late '90s. For many years, I've used Visio as an idea-organizing tool, supplementing the Ecco outlines. I review Windows-based Outlining progams on a separate page.

When I discovered the program "Inspiration" (which is both an outliner and a graphical idea organizing program) I started looking more into programs which represent ideas graphically, and which would help extend my creativity. Some programs aim merely to "tell the story" of your ideas, others actively try to tickle your brain with various idea-generating techniques, attempting to enhance your creativity.

Usually I supplement my outlining with a more free-form organizational metaphor, usually using Lotus Notes. With Lotus Notes, I can combine a hierarchically organized outline view of the documents, with full text searching, hypertext links and traditiona l relational database like reports (for example, a sorted view of items to do). Using Lotus Notes allows me to organize documents from various tools, such as Visio, Ecco, Microsoft Word, and email messages, something which Ecco all alone cannot do.

Catalog of Windows information organizers & creativity tools


Inspiration is a very interesting graphical outliner, like visio and ecco combined, with the ability to move back and forth between a flow-chart and an outline. What's novel about it is its focus on speed: Visio tends to get in the way, so at work we flo w-chart on a whiteboard. With Inspiration, it's so quick to use, I don't need to whiteboard! In the coming months, I hope to give Inspiration a real at-work trial, and will put notes about it in here. The outliner looks minimal, but capable (it's only a one-pane outliner, thank goodness!)

The various types of creativity techniques the author discusses in Inspiration are:
- visual outlining
- textual outlining
- idea mapping
- mind mapping
- rapid-fire brainstorming
- concept mapping
- storyboarding
- diagrams

. . .


Axon is a program which tries to unite diverse idea graphing techniques, so you can use several different visualization methods in the same project.

Everything from concept maps, mind maps, unstructured individual notes (much like paper index cards), decision trees, graphs as spreadsheets, 3D navigating, is supported (but wait, there's even more!)

In this respect, Axon is similar to Inspiration, which also supports many graphical techniques. Where Axon differs from Inspiration (and most other tools) is in the meta-data stored with each note, allowing Axon to "understand" your data, and display it t o you in many different ways. The best metaphor might be the "pivot table" feature in spreadsheets, where you see your data in a while new light thanks to the row/column relationships (which are a kind of meta-data): with Axon you define meta-data for you r notes, which allows various "pivots" of your aggregated information.

Axon also pushes the limit further than I've ever seen in the "psychological research becomes software tool" category. Many Information Organizing programs have academic and research roots, but I think Axon goes further than any. In that respect, Axon i s a "less commercially viable" progam than most: the interface is more imposing, there is a steeper learning curve, and there's lots of researchy "psycho-babble" (my favorite is referring to the brain as a "meat machine" -- shades of the brilliant crackpot Buckminster Fuller) . Also, the "prettiness" of the created graphs is not marketing presentation-quality.

However, these restrictions matter little if your goal is pushing your creativity, attempting to organize your ideas in many ways, perhaps "riffing" to see what works best for you.

Axon is not easy to learn, so be prepared to invest some time.

Axon features myriad graphical types. An innovation I've never before seen is the spreadsheet-graphic (pictured above). The numbers in the graphic are actual spreadsheet cells, calculated in reference to each other, so that changing a constant assumpti on changes the calculated values.

There is a free light version, and the commercial version is inexpensive.

There is a Yahoo Group for Axon.

. . .

Mind Mapper

MindMapper is useful shareware windows program for easily creating mind maps. You click on the item you want to create a child-word on, press the insert key, type the new child-word, and it is automatically linked, with the text styled to visually show the dependency. I personally prefer a tool like Inspiration that can do mind maps as well (but not as quickly) because I prefer more flexibility. However, if you enjoy the "Mind Mapping" techni que, this might be a useful program for you, because of how fast it is to use.

. . .


Visimap is an inexpensive concept-map based brainstorming program (they call them "visual maps", hence the name). The cost is about USD $100, and a 30 day free evaluation version is available.

. . .

The Brain

The Brain is a series of programs for organizing multi-site information, spread across a network. The idea is intriguing, and a kind of extension to the concept of the web. This is really bleeding-edge stuff: very, very interesting, but (I would guess) d ifficult for the majority of people to grasp. It should come as no suprise that (a spawn of of Raymond Kurzweil's brilliant book: "The Age of Spiritual Machines") uses this product. Strangely, this company appears to be well funded, have a solid product line, and has a very professional appearance: attributes rarely found in the "wonk" software category.

Duncan Macdonald writes:
The Brain: has an intriguing UI, but, although I can see niche uses for it (eg a UI for providing information about places and
events) I still struggle with the feeling that there is less to it than meets the eye. I have also been frustrated by some aspects
of the UI which does not always follow ordinary Windows conventions. For example I found that although it was easy to drag individual tools (search, properties, notes, and history) from the tools window `desktop', there did not seem to be an easy way
of restoring them to a neat tabbed layout. ˙Eventually I wrote their tech support dept and received a prompt reply that solved
the problem. It had been caused by my failing to realize that a button (in the top right corner) that in Windows would have
closed a window in The Brain restores it to the `desktop'. Moral: try all the buttons before asking for help.

. . .


BrainStorm is a deceptively simple idea-organizing tool for Windows, with a long history on DOS. One interesting twist is its push for "open" brainstorms: it can publishing your brainstorms on the web both as a j ava-free text document, and a richer-functionality all-java web browser version (all three GUI versions are displayed above).

Duncan Macdonald writes:
Conceptually it is rather like The Brain but with a much simpler text UI that would be ideal for a Palm Pilot / Pocket PC format. Unlike The Brain it does not allow the direct creation of multiple parents, though one can do so indirectly. It also allows t he `hoist' and `hyperlink' functions of Grandview 2 (ability to link one hierarchy to another though in this case within the same outline). I think it is very promising. The help files give a good description of its aims. It does provide an outline (aeria l) view of the data. 900k download, 30 day free trial, less than 2Mb RAM.

. . .


FreeMind is an open source concept mapping program. It is written in Java, is totally no-cost, and works on all Java-capable programs. It is even available as a web browser applet!

. . .

Creativity Web

Charles Cave's Creativity Web, a welcome resource for everything about creativity, including dozens of reviews of creativi ty software programs. Unfortunately, the site is not kept very up-to-date, but nonetheless contains much valuable information.

. . .

Other programs

Below are some programs I have not reviewed, but that readers told me about.

Duncan Macdonald writes:
Demios Librarian - adds notes and links to files and search for content in linked files. An interesting app that has stuck in version 1.10. It has a rather untidy UI that spawns too many windows whose function s are not always transparent. When introduced may have required more resources than the PCs of the day could provide without affecting performance (ideally it needs to run as resident in background at all times). Tidied up and with modern PCs it would be a useful app and offers the most complete feature set of its type; in particular multiple tabbed notes, comprehensive searches (boolean, proximity, expression) across linked files.

Powermarks - although marketed as a bookmark manager it can index annotated links to local and intranet files. In comparison with Demios it does not allow multiple notes nor does it search the contents of lin ked files, but it can function as an access by annotation organiser and could easily be enhanced to equal Demios Librarian. As a bookmark manager it is superb, and works seamlessly with Opera, Netscape, and IE5. Potentially an essential app.

PC Magazine offer free utilities File Album and Explorer Notes that create collections across folders and annotate notes.

. . .

Many topics concerning ideas, thought, and plenty of other topics. Pages are created and added to by users, so the site rambles quite a bit, but covers many interesting areas, such as outliners and idea managers.

. . .

Book: Handbook of Creativity

The "Handbook of Creativity", edited by Robert J. Sternberg, is a collection of academic papers on all aspects of creativity. Each paper is very academically-minded: much quoting of existing literature, and little practical information.

This is the only scientific book I've found on the topic of creativity. Most books about creativity are more like diet-fad books: plenty of ideas, no tangible proof, but lots of tantalizing personal experiences.

Some of the articles give detailed background of scientific experiments measuring creativity, and are quite interesting.

. . .

Thanks to Garold Johnson, and Duncan Macdonald for their many submissions and comments.