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Friday Favorite: Curio

Friday Favorite: Curio
Brett Terpstra
Brett Terpstra|December 12, 2008 12:00 PM

I've been looking for a project management solution for a long, long time. I've tried everything from homemade systems -- based on folders and Spotlight tagging -- to attempting to bend applications such as Bento to do what I really want: collect my notes, work-in-progress files, communications and brainstorms in one place with a fluid way to associate them, organize and rearrange them, and find them quickly ... without forcing me into a single mode of thinking.

The first time I looked at Curio, I had what I've learned is a fairly common reaction to it: I balked at the apparent lack of structure. As every designer knows, a blank page is a scary thing. It was a few months later that I was reading an article about it which re-sparked my curiosity (no pun intended), and I dug back in. It was at that point that I realized that Curio was the project management, note-taking and brainstorming solution I'd been looking for, or at least as close as I've found so far. Read on for an in-depth look at Curio's possibilities ... and a 10% off coupon code!

The idea

As my interest in Curio grew, so did my curiosity about the motivation behind it. I emailed the developers, George Browning and Greg Casey at Zengobi, with a few questions, mostly centered around the genesis of the application. The story goes like this, according to George:

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"I was hanging out at the hotel pool -- for a much needed vacation -- while my wife and some friends attended the HOW Design Conference in Orlando, Florida. For reading materials, I read through various conference notes and magazines. As I read, I began to see the same problems crop up again and again. How do I brainstorm? Where can I find inspiration? How do I collect my ideas? How do I organize this design project?

As the problems continued to repeat, the inklings of Curio began in my head. I promptly called Greg and told him the scoop. Upon returning home, we scheduled a number of focus group meetings with friends who were all designers. Greg and I would flesh out some prototypes and they'd promptly shoot them down: "too structured", "too left-brain", etc.

I should also tell you that I'm a HUGE whiteboard fan. I always did all my brainstorming and all my planning on huge whiteboards.

So, as Curio's freeform UI began to take shape, I realized that Curio could replace the whiteboards and notebooks that many of us use every day. Those two objects help form Curio's product definition. Every potential feature goes through a filter: 'does that feature make Curio a better project whiteboard/notebook?'"

Personally, the first thing about Curio which really caught my attention was its ability to gather just about any type of file, integrate Quick Look previews and allow annotations. The second thing that drew me in was the ability to customize every single page, or "Idea Space" in Curio terms, to look and act the way I wanted. You can create some spaces with rigid columns and notebook lines, organizing everything into outlines and lists. You can also have some pages based around mind maps with scrawls and sticky notes stuck wherever a thought or idea grabs you. Not least among my personal favorite aspects, you can create your own elements and backgrounds, modify text attributes and generally make yourself feel at home. All of these Idea Spaces are organized into a nesting hierarchy, but even then you can link between Idea Spaces with ease. As George explained to me, almost anything that forces a certain mode of operation was discarded during development, creating an application which provides power under the hood, and flexibility on the surface.

So, essentially, what you've got is whatever you choose to make of it.

Curio for project management

As I mentioned, my goal was to collect my notes, brainstorms, files and communication all in one place. Curio makes this possible through a bundle format which can link or embed an array of file types. I started throwing in my Mindjet MindManager maps, important emails, Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign files, web links, PDF's ... all of the things which go into one of my projects. Curio doesn't just collect a list of files, it generates previews and lets you position and format your collections in any way you like. I tend to have an Idea Space filled with reference images and web archives, all pinned to the plaster wall background I like to use for such spaces. That space links to various mockup spaces where I can create "Instant Documents" using my own templates. A new Photoshop document with a 12 column grid and guides for various screen resolutions is just a right click away. I can link those mockups to a page with a comp, which can be printed, or exported and emailed, with any notes or annotations I need to make. As a somewhat random side-note, I've found that Curio also works quite well with versioning systems like Git and Subversion. It also has its own built-in archiving functions for storing snapshots of entire projects.

This is all great, but I needed a little more structure in the center of each project. For that, I pull in a "project management" template I've created and stored, containing empty lists for correspondence, work-in-progress files, tasks and notes. I can then drag or create elements in each list as the project gets rolling; emails and recorded Skype calls or notes from phone conversations and meetings go into the correspondence list, documents and mockups go into the file list, and tasks and notes can be added -- and freely associated with each other or other elements -- as they come up. I never have to worry about losing track of a client request or an early brainstorm. If a project gets unwieldy, Curio's search features come to the rescue. With built-in support for tagging, full-text searches and intelligent task management, it takes some work to lose anything.

Curio's task management is, for the most part, pretty effortless. It has an uncanny ability to sift through all of your to-dos, even throughout separate Curio project files, and bring them together in a "Project Center." Like any aspect of Curio, the organization and all of the details are flexible. You can implement a strict GTD system, or go with something a little more scattered; Curio does the organizing for you. You can assign start dates, due dates, tags and other metadata to your tasks, and use those attributes to sort your system-wide to-do lists in a manner which is most effective for you. Tasks can also be grouped in outline or mind map form, and the tick of a check box will allow start and end dates of parents to auto adjust to the children's time frames; effectively creating something similar in effect to a Gantt chart. It takes a little forethought to create an effective method, and you do run the risk of getting bogged down in creating the system. I've found this to be true of any good task manager, and a consequence of my obsessive-compulsive personality, though.

Curio for brainstorming

Many of the tools which make Curio great for project management also make it ideal for brainstorming, alone or with a group. Lists and mind maps are a main focus, and are vastly customizable to fit the needs of the current situation. You also have the "Sleuth" at your disposal, a web crawler which can pull in everything from text snippets to font specimens to reference images and stock photography. The fonts are my favorite: I can search the major type foundries using their own search tools, and with my sample text entered, I get my preview of the fonts I find. I can drag font specimens into an Idea Space and collect them, either as inspiration or storage for future use. Double clicking any of the rendered fonts takes me right back to the page I pulled it from, making it a cinch to go back and buy a font once it makes it through approval.

Part of brainstorming for me is note-taking. I generally do this with mind maps, which Curio provides internally. If my mind mapping needs ever exceed Curio's capabilities, I can easily insert my blank MindManager template, copy the current map or list as a text outline, and paste it into the MindManager map to continue expanding the ideas. Curio also provides a quick record feature which allows video and/or audio notes to be inserted and played back from within any Idea Space. There's even a presentation mode, which can turn your Idea Spaces into a Keynote-esque presentation.

I'm writing from a designer's perspective, but George is quick to list an array of other types of users:

"At first we had been targeting primarily designers. Very quickly after release, [though,] we had an incredibly diverse market: designers, physicists, movie directors, ministers, writers, entrepreneurs, engineers, managers, students and professors. Essentially anyone who was using a whiteboard or notebook and saw the value of a completely freeform, unstructured environment could find value in Curio.

I think a lot of times right-brain people are told, 'don't find inspiration ... don't do free thinking on the computer, [...] it will restrict you.' That's one of the [struggles] we've had, keeping Curio a freeform environment, not to impose any structure on you."

A work in progress

There are quite a few Curio features I haven't mentioned here. There are also a lot of things I'd like to see in Curio. In fact, I sent pages of feature requests to Zengobi, which they graciously responded to in our conversations. Through my chats with George, though, I began to understand the challenges of trying to keep "feature creep" at a minimum (as folks like me request more and more specific features), maintaining flexibility without imposing structure. George and Greg have no end product planned, Curio will remain an evolving project for as far into the future as they can currently peer. Personally, I'm especially interested in some more "geek features," such as an expanded AppleScript dictionary and more in-depth Spotlight indexing of embedded content. I also talked with George about making linking more wiki-like, thinking along the lines of another personal favorite of mine. The product, though -- as it stands right now -- is more than powerful enough to have taken over and consolidated almost every aspect of my project management and brainstorming.

A lot of the features I've mentioned are only available in the Pro version, which retails for $149USD. The standard version lacks some of the task-management features, Idea Space templates, Presentation Mode and other niceties, but cuts the price down to $99USD (comparison is here). There's also academic pricing available, starting at $69. Free trials are available for download at the Zengobi site.

Zengobi has been kind enough to offer TUAW readers a 10% discount on a Curio purchase. The code to enter during checkout is TUAWXYZ.

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