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Creative Software Helps Brainstorming : Computers: Twelve years and $4 million in the making, a new program is designed to be a tool for igniting the inventive spark.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Marshall Fisher gives a sales pitch for his computer software package, he holds out the tantalizing torch of innovation.

He asks how much a potential customer would pay for a key to the subconscious mind, a tool that unlocks a warm flood of creativity and helps refine and structure a thought into a brilliant idea.

How about $495 (personal computer not included)? asks Fisher, a creativity guru and president of Fisher Idea Systems Inc. in Irvine.

Fisher, who spent $4 million and 12 years developing a creativity software program called IdeaFisher, proclaims that the program is a “must-have” brainstorming tool for everyone in search of a creative spark, from tiny advertising agencies to Fortune 500 companies.

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“We’re using the computer to expand the thinking process instead of just crunching numbers,” said Fisher, who amassed a personal fortune as co-founder of Century 21 Real Estate, the world’s largest residential real estate operation.

Fisher’s small office in Irvine is plastered with reviews published since IdeaFisher was introduced a year ago. With 300 books on creativity and the thinking process lining his shelves, Fisher is girded to fend off the criticism that he is trying to bottle something magical.

Although Fisher concedes that IdeaFisher is no substitute for independent thinking, he says it enables people to dip ideas into a pool of word associations or refine those ideas through a series of questions. The program recognizes that thinking is a process. And it is designed to help a person generate ideas for solving problems in much the same way that strolling through a supermarket reminds you of all the options you have for cooking dinner.

The software, which is designed for use on IBM, Apple and compatible personal computers, consists of two main features: the QBank and the IdeaBank.

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QBank contains more than 3,000 questions that help put a problem in focus. The user types in an idea and the program asks a series of questions that define the idea more precisely and additional queries that explore various avenues of thought. The program also asks questions comparing the quality of the idea with other ideas, using the results to pinpoint a starting point for a search through the IdeaBank.

The IdeaBank is a database of 61,000 concepts structured into 28 major subjects and 387 subtopics--all connected by 675,000 associations. Instead of using an alphabetical index, IdeaBank stores information much like the brain does: through associations. For instance, a word like car would be linked with traffic.

The idea of developing a creativity tool first struck Fisher in 1964, when he toyed with the idea of publishing a kind of “smart thesaurus,” or a book of words and associated terms and concepts designed to help writers. Although he never completed the book, he revisited the idea in 1977 after selling his Century 21 holdings. He began work on a computerized version of his smart thesaurus.

Linking the hundreds of thousands of associations contained in the IdeaBank and organizing them in a way that the computer could retrieve proved to be such a highly complex task that it took 12 years to complete, Fisher said.

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The company, which has 10 full-time employees, at one time employed 250 people to type information into the computer.

Gary Cunningham, a principal at the Roberts Mealer Cunningham advertising agency in Costa Mesa, said he uses the program to help companies select new names. For one client, IdeaFisher was able to generate more than 5,000 proposed names.

“There’s concern about software replacing people in ad agencies,” he said. “But I think it is like getting 100 bright people in the same room and putting their minds together. It puts pressure on other creative people to use it too.”

Jack Russo, a patent attorney in San Francisco, said he uses IdeaFisher to search for analogies when writing legal briefs and as a checklist generator when taking depositions from witnesses.

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“I use it to help form an idea like a conversation with a colleague would,” he said. “It paid for itself the first time I used it. It’s like having a yellow pad of paper that talks back to you.”

Jess Fisher, Marshall’s son and the company’s director of product development, cautions that the product isn’t a panacea, and he doesn’t guarantee IdeaFisher will work for everyone. An independent study by the University of Hawaii found that people who claimed to be drained of creativity reported a substantial increase in the number of ideas they were able to generate by using IdeaFisher.

Marshall Fisher declines to disclose sales figures, though he says he has not yet recovered his initial $4-million investment in the year the product has been out. There is little direct competition for the product, he said, saying that other products on the market focus on a single task, such as generating names for products.

The Fishers aren’t content with the attention they’ve generated with IdeaFisher. In September they will ship an updated version of the package.

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The company said it is negotiating with at least two larger companies to distribute IdeaFisher overseas. It is also developing custom versions for lawyers and other professionals and creating a laser-storage version of IdeaFisher that will use images rather than words.

“We’re saying that we have to start thinking to be competitive and use every tool at our disposal to be inventive,” Fisher said. “Otherwise we will be a third-rate country. Creativity makes the world go around. The rest is housekeeping.”


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