A Great Idea for Great Ideas

Once upon a time, OmniGraffle software was provided free with every Apple Mac computer. That’s how I learned about it. Now, I use OmniGraffle on my iPad and the desktop. When it comes to sketching out ideas, and presenting them in a clear and colorful manner, there is no better (or easier-to-use) product.

So, what does OmniGraffle do? Well, it depends upon what you want it to do. Start with a blank sheet, or some on-screen graph paper, or set yourself up for a cloud cluster (also called a mind map), or a whiteboard, or a chalkboard. There are connected notes, so you can use it as a kind of bulletin board, Whatever works for you, you’ll find the basic template in the full Standard or Professional version for use on the Mac (a great many features are available on the iPad version, which may suffice for some users).

Choose the template, then start drawing. Easy enough to begin with a box, color it, shade it, add text, make a copy, the sorts of things that you do in PowerPoint or Keynote all the time. Here, the tools are more varied, more versatile, including a bezier tool to draw shapes as you would in Adobe Illustrator (if you don’t know how to do this, it’s worth asking someone for help, but once you understand how it works, you’ll find yourself using this tool quite often).

So, let’s say that you begin with a free-form drawing, a visual exploration, a sketch to explain an idea to yourself or to others. It begins to make some sense, so you want to change its form, maybe move into a cloud of connected ideas, or a set of related on-screen index cards, or an organizational chart with colors to indicate levels or positions. Easy to do–this software is designed for versatility, and for intuitive thinking. The results can become quite sophisticated–and yet, they are not difficult to pull together, even under the pressure of time.

Automatic layouts save time, and make everything look a lot tidier, a lot more clear. There’s quick and easy access to frequently used tools, like color palettes and the font selector. There’s a user community called Graffletopia that creates “stencils” that can be used to create, for example, a director’s plan for film, or visualizations for software programmers. Browsing through Graffletopia, the utility of OmniGraffle becomes very clear: this is a visualization tool for working professionals. It’s easy to use, versatile, and, you’ll find, quite popular among certain knowledgable groups.

OmniGraffle is not a drawing tool, but instead, it is a tool for making (and easily revising) diagrams. I like the language from Omni’s website: “OmniGraffle knows what makes a diagram different from a drawing, and gives you the tools to create amazing diagrams quickly and easily. Lines stay connected to their shapes, unlike with illustration programs, where you would have to redraw your diagram every time you moved something.” As someone who often uses visuals to explain–and has become quite tired of the limitations of, say, Keynote or the level of sophisticated required for Adobe Illustrator–OmniGraffle feels just right to me. I find that the interface is intuitive (best if you’re already a Mac user), and that, from time to time, I need to take a moment and figure out how a tool works. That’s good–it’s just a few steps more sophisticated than my current abilities.

Most of the time, I’m sketching a diagram between meetings, capturing the basic idea. And although I can complete a pro-quality diagram on the iPad (and often do), I find myself in need of some certain advanced features, such as import/export from/to Visio (a Windows-only product). Most of the time, my diagram is on the simple side: colored boxes with type, perhaps a cloud to indicate an interesting idea. By holding my finger down, then dragging, I can group my clouds and/or boxes. Better yet, a smart selection tool allows quick selection of, for example, just the blue rectangles. I can create Adobe-style layers, then copy, or turn them on and off. Very handy, qick, and effective. Easily learned, too, in daily use, the iPad version has proven to be extremely useful, in part because it combines some of the best features found in OmniGraffle Professional (such as tables) with a sophisticated automatic diagramming tool, and a freehand tool, too.

To be clear, there are three different OmniGraffle products, each with its own unique set of benefits.

OmniGraffle for iPad costs $49.99 from the AppStore–a high-priced product that turns out to be a very good value because it does so much, so easily. OmniGraffle Standard, for Mac, costs $99.99, and OmniGraffle Professional, also for Mac, costs $199.99. Compare their features here. And, happily, you can get a free trial download for either of the Mac products (and any of the many excellent OmniGroup products). They do things the right way. It’s impressive.


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