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Draw What's On Your Mind With NovaMind

NovaMind, the flagship mind-mapping program of the Australia-based NovaMind Software Pty Ltd., has recently attained a new maturity with the release of its version 3. This is extraordinarily impressive software, proving once again that you don't have to be a large company - in fact, it's probably better not to be - in order to produce an application that's original, interesting, useful, and attractive.


A mind map is a drawing, connecting words and images that radiate ultimately from a single central idea. As someone who has been viewing and drawing mind maps all his life (since they are, in essence, just the kind of thing any decent teacher is constantly developing on the blackboard while talking), I was surprised to discover that someone thinks he has invented them and has even made the term "mind map" a registered trademark, and has made selling them, as a technique for remembering, learning, planning, and presentation, the basis of a big business.

<http://www.buzanworld.com/images/thumbnail_mind _map_3_large.jpg>

Now, as TidBITS readers already know, my tool of choice for arranging ideas is the outliner, with variations; and a mind map seems to me, at first blush, merely a variation on an outliner - and a poor one at that, distracting the eye with colors and pictures and squiggles, and crowding the hierarchy into the clutter of a single canvas. But despite my personal reservations over the mind map hype, I do also understand that some people simply swear by them; for those to whose mental makeup a traditional outliner, with its rigid hierarchy and primarily verbal logic, feels cold and restrictive, a mind map's warm visual and associative appeal can open those same mental doors of organization using, as it were, a different key.


So perhaps mind maps are not, for personal use, my natural cup of tea (though, as I say, I've often covered blackboards with them while tying ideas together for my students); but in that case, the fact that I'm so struck by NovaMind - the fact, indeed, that NovaMind makes me reconsider my prejudices - testifies all the more strongly as to how stimulating this software is.

Drawing On Both Sides of the Brain -- NovaMind, then, is a drawing program, specialized for mind maps in much the same way as OmniGraffle is specialized for diagrams. To some extent, the comparison is an apt one: with NovaMind, you are placing objects into the drawing which then stay connected to other objects no matter where you move them, just as in an OmniGraffle diagram. NovaMind's interface makes heavy use of floating inspector windows for seeing and setting the characteristics of a selected object in much the same way as OmniGraffle - which is no coincidence, as NovaMind uses the same inspector window code as OmniGraffle (the wonderful Omni Frameworks).

<http://www.omnigroup.com/applications/ omnigraffle/>

Every object, consisting effectively of some text (which, according to the "laws" of mind-mapping, should be kept short), is created as either the child or the sibling of some other object - except, of course, for the original central object, which is always "just there" and can have only children. NovaMind provides automatic assistance with object placement and rearrangement, if you like, so you can brainstorm rapidly without attending to how things look. When you do attend to this, though, you get lots of interesting ways to add interest, variation, and expressiveness to an object.

The text can sit on a line, which can be straight or wavy, or inside a rectangle or ellipse. The text, and whatever it sits on or inside, can have color and a shadow, and can incorporate a picture, which you can import from just about anywhere (and NovaMind comes with a big collection of graphics). Lines (including connecting lines) can have different thicknesses and dot patterns. An object or connected group of objects can be surrounded with an automatic shape, for emphasis and isolation. An object can display an "adornment" (a little icon that might signify the object's type). An object can have any number of free-floating graphics and text boxes attached to it; they need show no visible connection to the object, but when you move the object, they move with it. And you can even draw a link line between any two objects, including attached graphics, perhaps to show a connection of ideas that cuts across the hierarchy.


Then there is a whole boatload of features letting you can use your mind map in interesting ways. An object can have a checkbox, a start/end date, a priority, and even a little pie chart showing the percentage accomplished. Also, an object can be assigned any number of "resources," which are entities global to the mind map. Thus, a mind map can be a to-do list or a rudimentary project manager (and you can export from NovaMind to Merlin, a dedicated project manager). Objects can acquire automatic numbering, as in an outline. An object can have longer text attached to it, in a separate window, making NovaMind a writer's tool; there is even a specialized version of this feature, designed for screenwriters. Sections of the map can be hidden or shown. An object can have a hyperlink, which can be to a URL, a file on disk, or to a specific object in another mind map.

<http://www.projectwizards.net/en/merlin/ overview>

Getting Out of It and Getting Into It -- NovaMind can export to a great variety of formats. Besides the obvious graphic formats, and plain or styled text, you can export to OPML, to Keynote and PowerPoint, to Mind Manager (a Windows-based competitor, though there is now also a Windows version of NovaMind itself), and to HTML (Web pages) using an image map, a JavaScript-based navigation outline frame, or Java. Personally, though, I didn't find any of these export modes compelling. They may be helpful for presentations based on a NovaMind document, but NovaMind would not be a good venue for creating a dedicated Keynote presentation, and you probably are not going to use NovaMind to generate complex custom informative Web sites as you would use, say, Tinderbox. Also, many exports I tried lost some information of one sort or another.

When I asked about complete export to pure XML, I was amazed to learn that a NovaMind document is in fact XML - but neither a text editor nor NovaMind itself will give you direct access to this XML! That's because the XML is "tarred and gzipped" (those are Unix terms of art); so, you can access the XML from the command line, but only if you know the secret. Since, from the XML, you can effectively create your own export transforms, it would be nice if revealing the underlying XML were a feature of the program.

The documentation is generated with Help & Manual, a tool that makes both PDFs and JavaScript-based, easily navigable, searchable Web pages; so the form is quite good. But the content leaves much to be desired: it's rather tedious, full of careless errors, and in an odd order. I learned much more from some old tutorials and some new movies at the NovaMind Web site, and I soon realized that (contrary to the impression given by the manual) NovaMind is, at bottom, very easy to learn and to use, especially if you just draft your map's content first, and tweak and decorate its appearance later.


A List of Laments -- In some areas, NovaMind fails to conform to prior art. I'm not suggesting that all drawing programs should be rigidly alike, but some conventions are second nature, and some drawing programs set examples that others should follow. For instance, Shift-dragging a rectangle's corner should (but doesn't in NovaMind) mean "preserve the rectangle's proportions while resizing" (in fact, I could find no way to do this). And Option-dragging an object should (but doesn't) copy it; instead, it's the signal to detach the object from its parent and attach it to a different parent. There's a default shape and style for newly created objects, but if you manually change one object to a different shape, that different shape becomes the default, which seems to me contrary to what a default is. Also, I was surprised to find there are no "styles" in the OmniGraffle sense; you cannot even copy the color of one object, say, to another object. So it's rather hard to achieve uniformity of characteristics between objects.

Among other surprising shortcomings: an object can have only one hyperlink, and it emanates from the object itself, not from particular text within it; connections between objects cannot have text labels; objects cannot be rotated; NovaMind isn't scriptable. Some of these are slated for fixing in some future update. I hope the developers will take a look at OmniGraffle and Intaglio and consider bringing NovaMind closer to that level of drawing prowess.

Some behaviors seemed to me to be downright bugs. For example, suppose you have an object that incorporates a graphic image. There are three settings for the arrangement of the image and the object text: the text can be above the image, below it, or centered in it. If the text was originally below the image and you change the setting so that it's centered, the image is distorted (it stretches), and there is no way to say, "Hey, restore this image to its original proportions."

Conclusions -- My quibbles notwithstanding, NovaMind is a fine program and a remarkable piece of work - and a boon to those who already love mind mapping or think they might love it. To try it out, download the demo (a 20.9 MB download; it watermarks your output as "Unlicensed," and after 30 days it stops saving). NovaMind is $100 ($20 more for the Screenwriters edition), with a 30 percent educational discount. It requires Mac OS X 10.3.9 or later (Tiger is recommended), and is a universal binary. Extra graphics libraries, and a "branch proposal system" that recommends words related to the one you start with, are free additional downloads.



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