Visual modeling with hexagons and other shapes is a popular way to map ideas and knowledge, because it enables you to “cluster” related concepts together in meaningful ways and to visually represent multiple levels of ideas. Visual Concept 2.5 from Inspiration Resources is the most powerful, full-featured software program I’ve seen for visual modeling. It’s ideally suited to a host of individual and group business applications, including recording and manipulating ideas, mapping business processes, categorizing knowledge and much more.
In this software review, we’ll take a brief look at the most significant features of Visual Concept, and how you can utilize them in your creative work.
Visual Concept provides users with a generous workspace, with customizable toolbars running along the top and right side of the map area. To add a symbol to the workspace, you simply left click the shape icon in the toolbar. The cursor changes to an outline of that shape, which you can then “drop” in the workspace by left-clicking your mouse. You can select from a variety of symbol shapes, including rectangle, rounded rectangle, hexagon and oval (you can even create your own shapes, if you want).
Clicking on the text icon while the cursor is over a symbol enables you to add text to it. This is accomplished via a multi-tabbed dialog box, which enables you to specify the text font, size and color, and to type any notes you want to associate with that symbol. This multi-tabbed dialog box is a real time-saver, because it allows you to accomplish so many common tasks at once.
New in version 4.5 is pop-up notes. In other words, when you mouse over a symbol that has a note attached, its text automatically appears in a pop-up window. This can be especially valuable if you’re working on a large, complex model, and you don’t want to click on each object and open its note to see what it says.
Symbols can contain links to any type of file or web page, similar to most mind mapping programs. This enables you to gather information to support your ideas, and to share it easily with others.
If you select the text tool and click in a blank area of the workspace, Visual Concept assumes that you want to add title text, and a special dialog box pops up to enable you to do that, with settings that are specific to embellishing diagram titles (such as arranging the title text vertically, instead of horizontally).
Shapes can be connected with arrows, which enable you to easily create process flows and other similar types of diagrams.
As your map gets larger and more complex, symbol names may get hard to read. To get around this limitation, the developers designed Visual Concept so that, as you mouse over a symbol, its text appears in a status bar at the bottom of the screen – a nice feature that enhances the program’s usability!
As with most visual diagramming programs, Visual Concept enables you to zoom in and out on your workspace, and to see an “overview” view of the entire map while you’re zoomed in on a particular area of it. But the program offers another unique capability: scaling. Scaling enables you to change the ratio of the size of your map objects to the workspace itself. In other words, scaling up the objects in a map makes them larger, while at the same time reducing the amount of white space in your model. You can also left-click drag your mouse to define an area of the map you want to zoom into using the “define area to zoom” command – very convenient!
Another map manipulation capability that can come in quite handy is the “hand” tool which, when selected, enables you to drag your map around the workspace, This is faster than clicking and dragging a scroll bar to bring a particular symbol into the center of your workspace.
Brainstorming mode: The program’s well-designed brainstorming mode enables you to quickly record ideas in a text dialog box. You can view the entire list of ideas at any time by clicking the “show list” button in the dialog box, or view them one at a time using “back” and “next” buttons. You can then place all of your ideas at once in your workspace, either as separate objects or as a “cluster” of ideas – objects tightly grouped together. I like this feature a lot, because it helps you to record many ideas quickly, without the program getting in the way of your creative “flow.” I’m pleased to see that the developers have incorporated it into Visual Concept.
Clustering: Once you have added a number of symbols to your workspace and labeled them with text and notes, you can use Visual Concept to group them together in meaningful ways, quickly and easily. To create a cluster, you simply select the ideas that are most closely related and select the “create cluster” command in the program’s toolbar. Visual Concept moves the selected objects together, and encloses them in an oval shape, to which you can give a general title that describes what they have in common. You can also use a right mouse click to change cluster properties. If you discover another idea that you should have added to a cluster, simply drag and drop it over the existing cluster you have created, and use the “re-organize cluster” command. The objects will be rearranged to accommodate the new idea. You can also use this command to “clean up” a cluster after you have removed one or more ideas from it.
The sorting wizard: Whenever you’re working with complex visual maps, it’s always important to have well-designed filtering tools, so you can zero in on the content you’re really interested in. Fortunately, Visual Concept has a “sorting wizard” that does a great job in meeting this need. A dialog box enables you to select items that have some commonality, such as key words in idea or notes, by symbol color or by item number. The sorting wizard then gives you a number of options on what to do with your selection (create a new cluster, copy to a new model, copy to an existing model and several other options).
Simplify your model: When you’re working with complex diagrams in Visual Concept, you can easily get a bigger picture view of it, using the program’s unique “simplify” view. This view hides the individual ideas within your model, and only displays the clusters, their titles, and any arrows between clusters. You can easily switch back to the normal “development” view of your model at any time. I can see how this would come in very handy, because large, complex visual diagrams of any kind often become cluttered, making it hard to mentally take a step back to understand their essence.
Distill your model: Another valuable way to manipulate your models in Visual Concept is by “distilling” them. In this process, you take the title and notes of each cluster in your model, and treat them as separate objects or symbols, which can become the basis of a new model, or can be placed within your existing diagram. Distilled objects are linked back to the source model, so you can easily move between your higher-level and lower-level models. How is this useful? Distilling allows you to manage a higher level of complexity than you could within a single model. It also helps you to bring a new dimension to your visual diagrams. For example, let’s say you need to model department-level business processes in your company, while also having an overview model. You can simply distill the cluster titles of each department model into one linked companywide map.
Table view: As you can see, Visual Concept provides users with many ways to view their models. Another perspective it offers is the “table view,” which summarizes your ideas in a linear format, with columns for ideas, notes and links, as well as each object’s shape and number. I’m not quite sure how users would benefit from this capability, but I’m sure it’s probably valued by users who tend to be linear thinkers.
Presenting with Visual Concept: Using the program’s full screen display mode and keyboard shortcuts, you can utilize it to present your maps and models to others. You accomplish this by creating a series of linked models, so you can jump from one to the next while in full screen mode.
Output options: After you have finished creating your visual model in Visual Concept, the program gives you a number of export options. You can export your model as a text file, an image file or as an HTML web page, which includes links to all associated resources. You can also share your models in native Visual Concept format, using a free, downloadable VC Viewer program.
Templates: Rather than leaving users on their own to figure out how to use the program, the developers of Visual Concept have included a number of templates, including SWOT (strengths/weaknesses/opportunities/threats) analysis, brainstorming, weekly/monthly/yearly time planners and conflict resolution. In addition, you can save any model created in Visual Concept as a template, to help you to streamline future, similar diagramming tasks.
Visual Concept 2.5 is a very impressive, well-designed visual mapping tool that can be a major asset to any businessperson who must develop, manipulate and present ideas or knowledge. You can download a free 30-day trial version of the program from the Visual Concept website. You can purchase it for £98 (or approximately US$185).