OmniGraffle: The Mac Diagramming Software Powerhouse

Anyone who works extensively with diagrams will be hard-pressed to find a more full-featured application than OmniGraffle. It packs all the functions anyone needs to create attractive and professional charts, graphs and diagrams.

But how about those of us with less formal diagramming needs? How does OmniGraffle work for us? We’ll be exploring this question today as we uncover the power of this mainstay of the Mac environment.

A Slew of Diagramming Tools

OmniGraffle Features

OmniGraffle Features

OmniGraffle is the best-selling diagramming application for Macs. As its name indicates, it is developed by OmniGroup, which also produces OmniOutliner and OmniFocus, among other well-regarded applications.

Downloading and installing OmniGraffle is easy and presents nothing new for anyone who has installed a Mac application before. This may change once the new Mac App Store is fully functional, as the folks at OmniGroup have stated they fully support this new approach. Stay tuned.

OmniGraffle is available in two editions, Professional and Standard. The Standard edition sells for $99.95. OmniGraffle Professional is $199.95. Family packs are available for $149.95 and $299.95 respectively, while academic pricing is $49.95 and $119.95.

For those on the go, OmniGraffle is also available in an iPad edition that fully exchanges diagrams with Mac version.

OmniGraffle is packed with a slew of tools to help you build impressive, professional diagrams. However, it is not a program you can fire up and just start using. There are so many features, even after two weeks of use, I still feel as if I have been only scratching the surface. This is both its strength and its weakness.

For people who make and present diagrams frequently, I can’t imagine a better application than OmniGraffle. I suspect I’m preaching to the choir about that; anyone doing this kind of work on a Macintosh is most likely already using OmniGraffle.

The question is, how does it work for the rest of us? I’ll get to the answer to that after a closer look at the application.

A Canvas for Your Thoughts

When you launch OmniGraffle, you are asked if you want to create a new document. A document is a collection of canvases on which you can build your diagrams. As you create a new document, OmniGraffle prompts you to select what style of diagram you want to make. How the choices are grouped into categories also gives some hint of the versatility of OmniGraffle’s canvas.

Diagram Style Prompt

Diagram Style Prompt

Hint: Don’t worry about being locked into a diagram style. You can always change the style via the Format menu.

After you select from the options presented, your new document opens with a fresh canvas. You can start adding objects to the canvas in one of two ways. The method that seemed most intuitive to me was selecting the figure tool, drawing the figure on the canvas, and adding the text. This, however, is not as smooth an operation as it sounds, as you have to draw each object individually and manually apply the links. The far easier and faster method turns out to be using the outline sidebar (which is opened with a toolbar button), typing the headings as you go and adding structure by tabbing headings under one another.

You can add many canvases to any document. This is a good way to build a presentation (Presentation mode is a feature in the Pro edition). You can access the various canvases you create in any one document through the canvas sidebar, which sits on the left hand side of the screen, and can be opened and closed with the toolbar button.

Screen Layout

Screen Layout

OmniGraffle could easily be considered a drawing program with diagramming features. It is loaded with sophisticated drawing tools and features. For instance, you can create layers on each canvas. You can designate any layer to be a “shared” layer — that is, a layer than can appear in any of the canvases in your document (Pro edition only).

OmniGraffle comes with a generous number of pre-defined stencil shapes, and provides access to a library of user-created stencils to augment your selections.

But you are not limited to the pre-defined shapes. You can create custom shapes using the curved Bezier lines and shapes tool. Sophisticated fill and line commands allow you to further refine the look of your diagram, and smart guides help you align your objects to get your diagram looking just as you’d like.

Creating a Diagram

So let’s put OmniGraffle to the test. I’ll use it to create a quick (and hypothetical) plan for a party, admitting from the start that creating such a wimpy diagram with OmniGraffle is like driving a Ferrari to the corner Kwiky Mart for a bag of pork rinds.

I’m going to select one of the brainstorming diagram styles and get going.

A Brainstorming Diagram

A Brainstorming Diagram

I picked the “Notes” style diagram, but after populating it with a few objects, I realize I don’t like the look and feel. No problem, I can select a new style — this time “Clouds” — and get the following diagram:

New Diagram Style

New Diagram Style

As you can see, however, this diagram could use some cleaning up. OmniGraffle doesn’t appear to do a great job auto-adjusting when switching from one diagram style to another. But I can make a few changes using the multitude of styling tools available.

I have changed the background color and blend, cleaned up the object sizes so the text all fits, and have indicated the influence of the number of “Guests” on the selection of the “Location” with a link. None of this is automatic, but it was all fairly easy using the Inspector tools.

A Fancier Style

A Fancier Style

One of the handy features that makes altering the diagram quicker is the style tray. I’ll demonstrate how it works. Say I want to change the appearance of all the second-level items in this diagram. I start by getting one of them to look the way I want. When I select it, its formatting styles are reflected in the style tray, as here:

The Style Tray

The Style Tray

If I just wanted to change the fill, font, line or shape, I could do so with one of the attribute-specific boxes — those seven items in the longish box in the screenshot above. Or I can change all the attributes at once with the little style chit to the left, that’s slightly separated from the others. Here’s how to do it: While keeping the object “Music” selected, I drag the style chit onto each of the objects I want to change, and here’s what results:

Fresh New Styles

Fresh New Styles

The style tray is just one of the handy methods for altering your diagram. Their are a host of others. You can adjust virtually any aspect of any object with the various inspectors, and you can associate a different style with each level in an outline, so that each level looks the way you like it.

The Pro edition has more powerful tools for creating top-shelf diagrams.

The Pro’s

The Pro edition gives you the power to set up a layer of any canvas as a shared layer, which makes it instantly available for incorporation into any other canvas in your open document. You can also combine shapes into one — for instance to put a “hole” in an object.

When it is time to export or print your diagrams, OmniGraffle Pro supports Apple’s ColorSync technology to ensure color accuracy, and exports to scalable vector graphics so your diagrams look their best at any scale on any device.

If you frequently share diagrams with Visio, the top diagramming application for Windows, you should find the added support for Visio exchange invaluable.

For those who need more information about the figures in their diagrams, OmniGraffle Pro provides the ability to add notes and customizable data tables on a figure-by-figure basis using the Note Inspector. Notice in the screen shot below that I’ve added fields for budget and who is responsible.

The Note Inspector

The Note Inspector

Other features of OmniGraffle Pro allow you to show how your information is displayed in your diagram. A feature called subgraphs gives you the option of collapsing sections of your diagram to simplify what is displayed, while the table feature converts a group of objects into a grid as in the screen shot below, where I’ve made a table for menu options.

The Diagram Table

The Diagram Table

A Few Cons

Despite watching the many useful tutorial videos on the OmniGroup web site, I found OmniGraffle a little frustrating. Some basic functions have roundabout, unintutive methods for accessing. For example, the only way to change the fonts is with the standard Apple fonts control dialog box, which is opened through the text style inspector. One of the features touted by OmniGroup is the mini-inspector, which puts “the most common inspector controls at your fingertips.” This is a nice feature, but why isn’t there a control in the mini-inspector for fonts?

Likewise, there is no inspector option for changing the basic diagram type. Instead, you have to select “choose diagram style” from the format menu. With other diagram controls accessible from the Inspector, this just feels odd and is certainly not intuitive for new users.

For those who spend a lot of time with OmniGraffle, some of these quirks will melt into the background as they become second nature. But for those of us who might only have occasional need for diagramming, it could be a stumbling block trying to re-acquaint ourselves with the application each time we need it.

One helpful feature I anticipated, but found absent, is the ability to paste an indented text file into the diagram and have it explode to its various levels. This basic functionality is available in Curio and the free mind mapping applications Freeplane and Freemind. It is a handy way to incorporate brainstorming done in any outliner into your diagram.

Unfortunately, when you paste indented plain text into an OmniGraffle canvas all you get is the text in a text box. You can open an OmniOutliner file in OmniGraffle and have it converted to a diagram — so if you own OmniOutliner, you can use it for a conduit from any other outlines, but this is hardly user-friendly.

Mapping the Competition

As I have indicated, for those who need a versatile, power diagramming application, OmniGraffle is almost impossible to beat. In fact, for more heavy-duty diagramming, the only comparable product I’ve found is ConceptDraw, but I have not yet tried it myself.

But if your needs are more modest, you might be happier with Curio, an excellent information manager with a pretty good diagramming component, much improved in the new version 7.

Mind-mapping is not a strength of OmniGraffle, so if your diagramming is focussed on this activity, there are definitely better options, including the free open source application Freemind. You might also want to look at MyThoughts and NovaMind.

The Verdict

It’s hard to imagine a more robust collection of tools for building professional-grade diagrams. But OmniGraffle could be more intuitive to use. This, combined with its single-minded focus, makes it a less obvious choice for the casual user.

If my job involved frequently needing to create and present diagrams, there is no other application I’d pick over OmniGraffle. However, I am only a part-time diagrammer. OmniGraffle is way more application than I need. I’m happy with the diagram tool in Curio. When I need a fuller mind map application, I can use Freemind.

Because of this dichotomy I am going to provide two ratings for OmniGraffle. For casual diagrammers like myself, I’d rate it a 7 out of 10, while for power diagramming, I give it a 9 out 10 — so we’ll split the difference at a solid 8.


Need a diagram, process chart, quick page-layout, website wireframe or graphic design? OmniGraffle can help you make eye-popping graphic documents quickly by keeping lines connected to shapes even when they're moved, providing powerful styling tools, importing and exporting Microsoft Visio files, and magically organizing diagrams with just one click.