Inspiration 8

Programs like OmniGraffle Professional (   ; February 2006 ) are effective for turning complex concepts into stunning diagrams. But what if you don’t even know where to start? For that, there’s Inspiration 8, a tool that lets you record and organize your thoughts from scratch or build diagrams from predefined templates. Although it’s primarily aimed at students in the sixth grade and higher, Inspiration is also suitable for brainstorming outside the classroom.

Rapid symbols

Like OmniGraffle, Inspiration lets you represent concepts as diagrams that consist of interconnected graphic symbols with text labels. Based on the premise that it’s sometimes easier to begin by recording ideas as they come to mind, new diagrams open with a generic symbol in place, ready to accept text that describes the document’s main topic. Inspiration’s RapidFire tool lets you add symbols without lifting your hands from the keyboard—whenever you hit return, Inspiration creates a duplicate symbol that contains whatever text you type next. This upgrade from version 7 (   ; March 2003 ) also contains a helpful new option that lets you specify whether Inspiration should automatically connect added symbols to their parents, or whether they should float freely.

Inspiration has also augmented its built-in symbol library with an extensive, Web-based collection that you can search by keyword. (The company says that its expanded repertoire includes more than a million entries.) Inspiration 8’s scholastic-level graphics still aren’t quite up to corporate boardroom standards, but they’re more than sufficient for their intended use. If the application’s included clip art and images aren’t enough, you can import your own graphics files and save them in the library. In addition to letting you record sound clips up to 30 seconds in length, Inspiration 8 allows you to import QuickTime movies and sounds.

A pull-down menu on the program’s revamped Arrange tool lets you choose from three types of symbol layouts, and clicking on the tool opens a dialog that offers additional options for arranging and linking symbols. Version 8’s brilliant new Word Guide displays definitions, synonyms, and antonyms, and even includes a button that speaks the word aloud in a synthesized voice.

Outlines and templates

Inspiration’s capacity to seamlessly switch between Diagram and Outline views remains one of its strongest points. Because the outline doesn’t show symbols or connecting lines, it’s easier to concentrate on refining the text components of your document. The program sports all of the features that you’d expect in a competent outliner, including the ability to customize the outline’s hierarchical numbering scheme.

For classroom work, Inspiration lets overworked teachers distribute partially completed diagrams that specify all of the steps necessary for students to finish a research assignment. You can even preface each item in an outline or diagram with a box that students can check off as they complete each step. The program ships with predefined document templates in five broad subject areas (language arts, planning, science, social studies, and thinking skills), and you can save your own templates for later use or to share with colleagues.

Interface oddities

Although Inspiration 8’s interface is as straightforward as ever, it still suffers from a number of annoyances. For example, Inspiration’s Main and Formatting toolbars are fixed rather than floating, and the Formatting toolbar is relegated to the bottom of the window.

The application’s menus aren’t as logical as they could be, either. You import graphics using the Edit menu, yet you import videos and sounds using the Tools menu. Plus, some of the commands aren’t logically placed. For instance, all of the commands under the Utility menu would fit better elsewhere, while Preferences appear both in Utilities and the application’s own menu.

Macworld’s buying advice

Despite a few quirks in the application’s interface, Inspiration 8 is an excellent tool for teachers, students, or anyone else who needs help organizing their ideas. The addition of new symbols and the ability to import movies and sounds only add to the program’s great value.

[ Franklin Tessler is a radiologist and frequent Macworld contributor living in Birmingham, Alabama. ]

Templates are an ideal way to guide students through research assignments.

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