ThinkComposer from Instrumind – a comprehensive visual tool

Phew! This has been a looong task, working through ThinkComposer, a tool with many blades, compartments, pockets, drawers and attachments.  At last, after helpful exchanges with its designer at Instrumind, it’s up on Mind-Mapping.Org.

This is an interesting product in many ways.  It can produce a wide range of diagram types and visual models immediately after installation, it allows users to specify new diagram types, and it even has the capability to generate code when that is appropriate and specified by the user.

Let’s start with the out-of-the-box capabilities.  Ask this software to make a new diagram and you’ll see this choice of types:

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click for full-size image

The visual models included with the software are: Business model, class diagram, concept map, data model, fast-food cuisine, flowchart, genealogy tree, mind map, organization chart, sequence diagram, timeline, use-case diagram, web environment and an ‘all-purpose’ diagram.

An impressive list.  I haven’t tried all of them … I wanted to post this review before Christmas! But I have tried the business plan, mind map, flowchart and the concept map.  I’ve also included some examples of finished diagrams contained in the installer.

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click for larger image

ThinkComposer refers to each of the diagram types as ‘domains’.  Each pre-defined domain provides access to a set of diagram elements, but you can add to the set, and you can define new domains using the very many additional diagram elements and shapes shown on the right:

Each node (mostly referred to in ThinkComposer as an ‘object’) can contain a whole diagram, allowing users to drill down through multiple levels,  or by moving through successive tabs. Objects in the diagram can include text, images, attached files, links, custom-fields or tables.

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click for full-size image

The user interface is unusual, and doesn’t follow a typical Windows program’s style.   There is the diagram canvas in the middle, and around it is a frame of control panels, shown here:

At the top, is a ribbon-style set of controls and, though it is not a Microsoft-style ribbon, it is easy to understand.

On the left is a linear list of the objects in the diagram, and below it a panel showing, if an object is selected, how that is related to other objects.

On the right, is a pallet of objects available, and below it panels of markers and other items that can be added to embelish the diagram.

It’s worth keeping an eye an eye on the hints panel near the bottom-right corner of the window.  This often indicates controls that are available to you at any one time.

When you hover the cursor over an object, icons appear, indicating how the object can be manipulated. Objects have a layer of additional information that can be added, including structured data to record such data as field properties in a data model.  These are not constrained and can be defined to suit the user’s needs.

So, a few examples, then – some I made myself to judge the usability of the software, and some that come installed with ThinkComposer:

Initial business model outline

It makes this type of business model easily.  I just took it to the initial stages, but you would go on to fill out the details when planning or analyzing a business.  Source: Roy.

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Class diagram

I prefer to use a purpose built UML tool like Visual Paradigm – the one I use for software design – but this looks capable of producing a decent and useful class diagram.  Source: ThinkComposer web site.

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Concept map

ThinkComposer makes a good job of concept maps, as good as CMAP, the leader in the field.  I made a small one myself and found it easy and usable.  Here’s a more complex one.  Source: ThinkComposer web site.

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Data model

Again, it is capable of making a data model.  Being familiar with ERwin, I prefer that, but we all prefer the tools we know and ThinkComposer is workable.  It includes the various cardinality connection types that data models need.  Source: ThinkComposer web site.

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Fast food cuisine

This is a good example of how a specialist diagram can be developed using ThinkComposer for specific purposes that may have no existing visual tool.  Source: ThinkComposer web site.

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Flowcharts are possible without much difficulty, though I found some things I’d like to do – like keeping all lines rectilinear – not so easy as you can see, but this may be down to my inexperience with the many controls.  Source: Roy.

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Genealogy tree

Source: ThinkComposer web site.

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click for full-size image

Mind map

After the smooth experience with ThinkComposer’s concept map it turned out that making a mindmap with this software was something of a struggle.  I have reported the issues to the developer, who is working on them.  Nevertheless I was able to make the map below.  Source: Roy.

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Organization chart

Source: ThinkComposer web site.

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click for full-size image

Sequence diagram

If you don’t have integrated UML software, you could use ThinkComposer to make sequence diagrams.  Source: ThinkComposer web site.

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Being able to build timelines is a handy addition to all the other tools here.  Source: ThinkComposer web site.

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click for full-size image

Use-case diagram

Again integrated UML software is one way of visualizing use cases, but you can use ThinkComposer to make them as well.  Source: ThinkComposer web site.

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click for full-size image

Web environment


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‘All-purpose’ diagram

Source: ThinkComposer web site.

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click for full-size image

Define your own diagram type (‘Domain’)

So, we’ve looked at all of the built-in diagrams.  But ThinkComposer’s designer doesn’t see these as the main motive for using the software.

The fact that you can assemble your own diagram elements, describe how they interact and what they contain, means that for many cases where no existing visual tool fits your needs, you can build a Domain from the ground up with the components provided by ThinkComposer.  You can use your own template from then on, to work visually in a way that suits you.

File generation

Some software that helps us produce diagrams can also generate code.  One I’ve mentioned above, ERwin, can generate SQL that will create a database as described in an ERwin data model diagram.  Some UML diagrammers can generate program code.  But these are specific to a purpose.

ThinkComposer offers a general-purpose file generation capability and that is unusual.  To use this, you’ll need to use Liquid template markup language, which is fairly straightforward, in conjunction with the Composition Information Model, as defined in the ThinkComposer manual.  Which brings me to…

The Manual

This is written in a rather abstract style with extensive specialist vocabulary. I suggest that if you just want to use the wide range of diagrams built in, it would be good to start with the User Interface section (p.40 in the current edition of the manual).  You will need the other reference material to use the full capabilities of ThinkComposer.

Other forms of output

ThinkComposer offers HTML output, and this is neat, clear and quick.

It can also make a PDF or XPS file from a diagram.  This is fast and to an advanced level of detail that you won’t always need, but for technical work is likely to prove useful.


This may not be a tool for casual use, but don’t let that put you off trying its many capabilities.  It is in active development … a new version was released just as I was finishing this post.  The release fixes a few issues that I reported to the developer, who is very responsive.

Where to find it, and the various price options are set out in the Master List.

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A call to mind mapping software publishers [Updated]

Many users of mind mapping software use it for project management (amongst other things).

Some mind mapping software has the ability to record task information, like start date, due date, estimated working time to complete, dependencies and percent complete.

In addition, some packages can give alerts on approaching or past due dates, make Gantt charts, and export data to Microsoft Project and Outlook.

Gantt chart for project planning and management

These are the mind mapping applications (and add-ins) I know of  that support Gantt charts:

  1. ConceptDraw MINDMAPS (Project version) and Office,
  2. DropMind (task info, no Gantt charts, but can export to MS Project).
  3. FreeMind (attributes can hold task info, no Gantt charts, but can export to TaskJuggler). [Update 28 Aug 2011]
  4. Freeplane (attributes can hold task info, no Gantt charts, but can export to TaskJuggler). [Update 28 Aug 2011]
  5. iMindMap4,
  6. MindGenius,
  7. MindManager,
  8. mind2chart (with MindManager),
  9. MindMapper,
  10. MindPlan (with Lotus Notes),
  11. Xmind Pro,
  12. MindView,

I have six questions to the publishers of mind mapping software (please reply in comments here or email from the “Send us an Email” link on the right):

  1. Can any software that stores task data, export it in a form that can be read by OpenProj? OpenProj is an open source package claiming to be a substitute for MS Project.
  2. Is there any software, other than those I have mentioned, that allows task data to be stored?
    I am aware that FreeMind and Freeplane can store attributes of the user’s choosing against a node, and could be adapted to do this, but for the purpose of this exercise, I am looking for software that is specifically designed to store project task information immediately on installation.
  3. If so, can it make Gantt charts?
  4. Can it export to Microsoft Project?
  5. Can it export to Outlook?
  6. Are there any errors in the list above?

[Update 1.  1 April 2011 (not an April Fool’s update)
Andrew Wilcox has pointed out that iMindMap4 has task info and a Gantt chart view.  Thanks Andrew.  I should have caught that, as my image above includes iMindMap5.  Now I’ve added it to the list.]
[Update 2.  1 April 2011   Questions extended.]
[Update 3.  28 August 2011   FreeMind and Freeplane export to TaskJuggler added.]


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WebSequenceDiagrams and Scribblar

These are two new web-based applications I’ve found recently and just added to

Web Sequence Diagrams

If you use UML Sequence Diagrams, this very easy to use browser-based application makes it really easy to make a diagram from plain text.  You can download the diagram, or share a link to it, and even share a link to the page from which the diagram was made.  There, others can modify your text to amend the diagram, so it supports collaborative development of sequence diagrams, though access would have to be sequential, not simultaneous.

So, I made an example:

Here’s the text that made that:

note right of OrderTakingOnline: adds prices, calculates invoice amount
note right of SalesDept: verifies stock, Customer status
note right of SalesDept:Sends to Accounts
note right of FulfilmentDept:Requisitions Goods
note left of Stores:Issue Goods
note left of Billing: Raise Invoice/Packing List
Billing-->FulfilmentDept:Invoice/Packing List
FulfilmentDept->Customer:Goods/Invoice/Packing List
note left of FulfilmentDept:Dispatch Shipment
note right of Customer:(continues with payment, etc.)

Here’s the page for that and here’s the link to the image above at the site.

You could even use it for a rather limited form of swim-lane diagram


This collaborative whiteboard application supports real-time, multi-user access not only allowing sharing and development of diagrams together, but also image up- and download, text chat and live audio.

Scribblar is free unless you want to have it on your own web site.


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GoalEnforcer added

I’ve just added GoalEnforcer to  This is a project management product that uses a diagram like a 2-level mind map.  Nodes can have start and finish dates and show percentage completed.

Unlike a mind map, the node that starts in the centre doesn’t have to stay there.  You can step around the map and reveal information that was previously hidden, but you’re always limited to the one you have chosen to be the central node and the ones immediately around it.

In addition to the diagramming function, there are added-cost options that give you reporting and other capabilities.


Updated:  Link fixed, thanks to Maureen…