"Design is about making order out of chaos," said Cipe Pineles (1908-1991), an accomplished magazine art director. When you have to take complex, seemingly chaotic information and visually present it to clearly demonstrate a concept, you need the appropriate tool. OmniGraffle 3 is an intuitive, full featured application up to the job. It is Mac OS X compatible, inexpensive, and doesn't bog down under the speed of your thought process.
Information design might also be called concept mapping, flowcharting, or just plan diagramming. This is the niche market where OmniGraffle excels. This application is not a spreadsheet-based chart builder like you find in PowerPoint or Keynote. You don't start with plot points and end up with a bar, pie, or fever chart. You start with a concept and end up with an elegant graphic communication on paper or screen.
The program is very intuitive to learn, but a heavily illustrated manual and tutorial booklet is included in the boxed version. The Help, accessible as you work, is very complete and directions are succinctly well written.
OmniGraffle's Stencils are ready-made collections of common objects to jump start your project. Stencils are provided or available free on the Website for a wide variety of concepts: family tree, brainstorming, org charts, office layouts, map creations, solar system charts, scientific diagrams,Website flowcharts, networks, GUI interfaces — even toy building blocks.
You can create your own objects and Stencils as well. For example, Stencils for garden landscaping, film lighting and camera-move mapping have been created by user-contributors and posted on the Omni Group Website.
The OmniGraffle interface is well-designed. It displays the work area canvas with floating and dockable palettes called Inspectors. There are individual Inspectors for Fill, Image, Stroke, Shadow, Lines, Alignment, Shape, Layers, Color, Font and several more. You open just the Inspectors you want for your project, and can dock them together and collapse and expand as needed.
You can drop a shape from the Shape Inspector, adjust its color, stroke and fill (each with its own Inspectors), and add a customizable drop shadow, if desired. You can chose to make your shapes connection magnets with points on all sides that "snapattach" to connecting lines. Chose a font, size and style of text and align it precisely inside or out of the shape. Wrap it to the shape if you desire.
The Lines Inspector gives you arrowhead start and end-point choices as well as choices of angular or curved lines. The rubberband stretching of lines as you draw them allows you to maneuver between shapes with full flexibility. And the bends are not difficult Bezier style, but simply fluid, anti-aliased curves that form every time you click a point to change direction.
OmniGraffle's Smart Guides are impressive. As you slide a shape over the canvas, blue lines with measurements pop on and off, indicating distances and midpoints of the other shapes and points you are aligning with as you pass by. When you're resizing a shape, markers tell you when your size matches that of other shapes.
While road testing the application I discovered a very cool feature. I could drag a file onto the canvas from the Finder without opening it, such as a PDF, TIFF, JPEG, PNG, GIF, or PICT. The graphic immediately opened in the diagram as a scaleable element. If I dragged it onto one of the geometric shapes I had pre-highlighted, it opened as an embedded picture in the shape. The Image Inspector allowed me to make the graphic fill the shape, tile it, or I could scale it within the shape while watching the results in real time in the diagram.
And then, one of the most appreciated features came into play. I used the Layers Inspector to put each individual shape and its connecting lines on its own layer. Each layer can be turned on or off, locked, or tagged to print or not. I could create a buildup of the graphic in various layer combinations and export sequential JPEG's, which I then inserted into PowerPoint to make the diagram grow from slide to slide.
I also could have exported the diagram as a TIFF, PNG, HTML, Vector PDF, Vector EPS, or Omni- Outliner format. If you need a more advanced choice of file formats, plus other pro features, you can upgrade to OmniGraffle Professional 3 for a $50 fee.
There are functional similarities to programs such as Illustrator and Freehand, but OmniGraffle's interface is more elegantly executed and the speed of response in imports, moving elements around, and drawing is smoother and faster than most programs I've used in OS X. And of course, OmniGraffle is a dedicated diagramming app with all the needed functions turned into Inspectors for ease of use. You create gorgeous and meaningful information design, even if you are not an artist or statistician.
"Left brain, meet right brain," says the application's promotional brochure. The only downside is that you might be tempted to diagram every concept you come across, and brainstorm on the Mac instead of on a napkin in a restaurant. But then, with all the chaos of information around us, a little organized clarity and order is necessary, wouldn't you agree?