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Omnigraffle Professional 4

Wednesday 16th November, 2005

Not all Mac users class themselves as right-brained designers, video editors, or graphics people. OmniGraffle Pro is a superb charting and diagramming application, designed to provide right-brain functionality for left-brained people. Version 3 was good, but version 4 shows how much more ease of use can be squeezed out of an application if you really try.

The big interface bugbear of the last version has been trimmed at a stroke. Gone are the 18 or so floating palettes, and in their place are three (effectively tabbed), palettes that share 15 panes between them: easier to keep track of, if not as fast for power users. There’s also a tools palette that can be anchored to the top of the active window or float. It seems odd at first, but it means that when switching between documents, the tools are always above your work area. OmniGraffle also has a new utility drawer containing two powerful features: Master Canvases and the Outline View.

Every OmniGraffle document can contain multiple pages, or canvases, each with its own page size and orientation, and each including one or more layers. Layers in turn, can have their visibility, editability, and printability toggled on and off. With the utility drawer set to Canvases, you get to see a combined view of canvas thumbnails, with a reveal toggle to show the layers within a canvas. Master Canvases then act just like master pages in a DTP package, and are shown in a list at the top. For ensuring a consistent look and feel across a document, master canvases are such a boon that really you wonder why they weren’t in the last version.

The other utility drawer option is a basic text outliner. It lets you create an outline document using the return key to add a new item, and tab and shift-tab to promote or demote the current item within the outline hierarchy. Oh, and what’s this? The text outline you create is echoed dynamically in the main drawing area. Adding a child or a sibling to an item in the diagram (by command or option-command clicking with the current item selected) updates the text outline. If you happen to have Diagram Layout settings set to auto-update after any connection change, you get a lovely smooth animation into the bargain.

Then there’s the Diagram Style pane, where - via a set of predefined (and redefinable) diagram styles, or custom styles - you can choose how your diagram is to be formatted. Diagram styles let you decide how each level in your outline is styled, so that levels one to three drawn as green squares, and any levels below them are drawn as red circles. Or if you were wire-framing a website, you could have your outline show up as little web pages. The templates are really just OmniGraffle documents, so you can style items at the same level based on their order: the first child of a level 1 item might be blue, but the second might be red with a picture. It’s easy to reapply styles to an existing document, and once styled you can edit individual items using the many formatting tools available.

In terms of drawing, you can now draw freeform objects that can mix straight and Bézier curves. The only problem seems to be that while you can edit a shape, and even add new straight points to an existing object, there seems to be no way to add new Bézier points: so you need to think ahead when drawing new shapes.

You can now create object-based tables. Draw a shape, select it, and then click the Make Table button. You can then stretch the table handles that appear on the top and bottom and left and right of the object to add columns or rows based on the selected shape. Once created you can resize individual rows or columns, or edit and format individual cells within the table to your heart’s content. This is a very cool way of making tables.

Other improvements include automatic dimensioning of shapes to a specified scale (inches, metres, points, etc) as well as improved import and export of document formats: at last you can export and copy diagrams as a vector PICT. You can include hyperlinks in documents exported to PDF, which makes OmniGraffle’s existing ability to make objects clickable even more useful and appropriate when you’re sharing work with people who don’t have OmniGraffle.

Using OmniGraffle is an incredibly interactive process - you just can’t help fiddling once you get started, especially since the diagrams you can produce are simply gorgeous. They are certainly comparable to the sorts of graphics you’d get back if you sent the work out of house, with twice the fun, and at a fraction of the cost.

Buying Advice

Thanks to the intelligent auto-layout options, diagram styles, and Master Canvases, a two-minute, back-of-the-envelope diagram can look as stunning as something from a graphics bureau. OmniGraffle Professional deserves a place in every left-brained user’s dock.

Get Further Info
Manufacturer Omni Group
Pros Diagram styles; outline view; tables; dimensioning; master canvases; bézier curves; cleaned-up interface.
Cons Bézier implementation makes curves difficult to edit.
Price Professional £84 excluding VAT, upgrade £53; Standard £49 excluding VAT; upgrade £18.
Originally Published MacWorld, Wed, 16th Nov 2005