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IA with OmniGraffle

June 25, 2004

A recent find has been making parts of my life easier: OmniGraffle, a diagramming tool which comes bundled with the latest Macs.

Though I’m probably the last OS X user on the planet to try them out, I figured I owed it to myself to take a spin through some of the free software that came with the new Powerbook I picked up last month. There are some real gems bundled, including the Art Director’s Toolkit, the iLife suite, and a few applications from the Omni Group.

OmniGraffle is a diagramming and charting tool that’s simple, elegant, and easy to use. I was building my first for-production-use chart within a minute of starting up and clicking around for the first time. The various stylistic graphics for technical and business purposes mean dragging and dropping your way to a useful flowchart is a snap.

Boolean gates, flow charts, UML, and more are available; a somewhat Mac-centric network diagramming palette facilitates great-looking LAN diagrams (scroll down to ‘Network Layout’), for instance.

As soon as I got to the Garrett IA chart items, the natural reaction was to start plotting this site’s current setup. And some interesting things are coming of that. IA is obviously important, but has always been somewhat peripheral to me; the processes and information flows around here were developed unconsciously and intuitively. While this isn’t a terrible method for someone who uses the web daily and understands a lot of what not to do, a more formal plan of attack can’t hurt, can it?

Sample flowchart:

It’s not a perfect tool, since the connecting lines can be sticky at times. There are countless things I’d change about the styling palette, and I find it odd that I can’t easily change a graphic after it has been set; perhaps answers will come after more use. Still, it’s an interesting little program, and a great addition to the toolbox.

Reader Comments

Brian Fox says:
June 25, 02h

I’ve feel the same way about this great little app. I find it useful and I really love how easy it is to use, I just never find myself actually using it ;-).

I have used it to layout a recent web project and it did help to more simply define and direct the project. The newest version [3.1 i believe] adds even more goodies and would be worth a look [as 2.0 ships with most of the PowerBooks now].

Zaphod says:
June 25, 02h

AWESOME! Now, if only they’d release a version for Windows, I’d be over the moon.

I would have thought you’d be all about IA. In my mind, its almost a cornerstone of good design. My understanding is that ad hoc architecture (intuitive, organic) works great for the architect, less great for everyone else. A lot of sites are designed around how the employees/owners/designers organize the information, which is not necessarily the same way that makes sense to site visitors. Interestingly, the same problem exists in identity design.

That’s my take on it.

June 25, 02h

I love OmniGraffle as well. I’ve been using it for school related projects (data structures, gantt charts, pert diagrams) because its quicker than Illustrator and easier to use and change things. I’ve yet to use it on a paying gig, but I plan to on my current project. Thanks for the Garrett link, I shall go over that like its candy.

Dave S. says:
June 25, 02h

“I would have thought you’d be all about IA.”

Don’t get me wrong, a lot of the time it’s a part of my design process – but it’s not ‘formal’ with big charts and in-depth thinking and stuff. It’s more scratchings on a notepad, and adjusting on the fly. In other words, I’m a terribly amateur IA practitioner, but I DO pratice.

I found OmniGraffle at a good time, when I’m interested in learning more about the formal processes.

Ben says:
June 25, 02h

The feature of OG that sucked me in fastest was the integration with OmniOutliner - say you create a site map in OO and save it to disk. You can then import it into OG and it’ll be automatically object-ized for you.

I haven’t tried this trick with the Garrett visual vocabulary yet, though - I only discovered that while playing around on Wednesday.

brian w says:
June 25, 04h

Another incredibly nice thing about OmniGraffle is that they offer unlimited one-day Trial Licenses. If you’re a cheap bastard, you can get a fresh one every day and they not only don’t mind, they actually encourage it. I’ve never seen a company with such a generous policy. If anything, it makes me *more* eager to pay for the app, which is probably the intended effect.

Keith says:
June 25, 04h

I love OG. I use it quite a bit actually. It’s funny you mention this because in doing the IA for a very small site recently I actually used another great Omni Group program – OmniOutliner.

It’s a very simple outlining program, but I love it for that and it’s something I use all the time.

It’s great as an IA tool for doing content inventory and non-visual site maps. Or, you can use it to outline articles or blog posts.

Anyway, OG was one of the nicer surprises for me when I switched to Mac.

OT: Now if I only had Homesite as I, like many others, don’t really like BBEdit. ;)

And, yeah, I know you’re all about Notepad Dave, but some of us are hooked on Homesites highlighting….

Gerard says:
June 25, 06h

It looks a lot like Microsoft Visio…

Neil says:
June 25, 06h


If you want to change a shape after you’ve created it, just select the shape you want, then go to the Shape menu and select the shape you want it to change to. You’ll notice that much of OmniGraffle’s menus work when you’ve got a shape selected and want to affect a change. It’s a wonderful application and together with OmniOutliner, makes creating diagrams a breeze. As mentioned earlier, you can import OmniOutliner files into OmniGraffle. You can also set your preferences in OmniGraffle as to how to specifically import the OmniOutliner files. It’s really powerful.

Enjoy your new found toy!

Sean S says:
June 25, 08h

I’ve been using OmniGraffle for so long I’ve become more fluid brainstorming on it over the traditional pen-on-napkin. I’ve used it for flowcharts, design layout, hierarchies, interface design, etc. It’s definitely worth the price!

Thalwil says:
June 26, 01h

Welcome to the club! I’ve been using OmniGraffle for a while now and I also love it - it’s great, not just for IA but especially also for web layout design! (I’ve never been a fan of Photoshop layouting).

If you haven’t tried it: go get the demo and the free one-day licence!

Scott says:
June 26, 02h

These are the times when I wish I had a mac, that software looks really cool!

Ronanm says:
June 26, 02h

Mathew Hoy of has created a very nice stencil set for Omni Graffle (it can be found at ).

I would link to his instructions for installing but he doesn’t seem to have any permalinks. I suggest you scroll down his home page until you get to the relevant part.

Zaphod says:
June 26, 03h

“…not ‘formal’ with big charts and in-depth thinking and stuff…”

Interesting. Many people of an artistic bent believe that formality and process is an impediment to creativity. I think that’s half-right - I’d say that imposed formality and process is an impediment to creativity. Despite the professed allegiance to complete freedom and lack of rules, in reality, most artists limit themselves to certain kinds of expression. To me, art is not so much thinking outside of the box as creating one’s own box, one’s own framework of rules and process, even if that framework incorporates spontaneity.

Once one realizes that, its a simple step to notice that even complete obedience to a rigid set of parameters is a type of freedom if it is self-imposed.

Paul D says:
June 26, 05h

I just placed an order for my first Mac (20” iMac) so it’s nice reading up on some of the cool apps available. Is it just me, or do you Mac users have a lot more fun on your computers?

~bc says:
June 26, 06h

A few notes… unless they’ve just changed, Apple only ships v2 of OG. Go get v3 right now! It’s a big improvement, and I liked 2 a lot. Also, w/ v3, the also have a Pro version which works w/ Visio files! Special prices for peeps who get a version on their Apple bundled. Don’t walk, run, its good stuff!

Haunani says:
June 26, 10h

>>It looks a lot like Microsoft Visio…

>Yes but it works and looks nicer and is produced by a cool company!

Yeah..but don’t inadvertently invalidate an industry best-in-class business standard because it’s not produced by a ‘cool company’. Microsoft bought Visio from another company.

Visio is one of the *best* software for creating schematic wireframes, sitemaps, screen and process flows and allows exportation into several file formats to allow collaboration.

A competive User Experience designer should not be without this valuable productivity tool. I’m happy to hear that the latest version of OG works with Visio file formats because it will make cross platform collaboration more successful.

June 26, 12h

It is a shame that there is not a Windows version of it. I’m a (business) consultant type and I use diagrams or sketches of processes a lot to illustrate my powerpoint slides, and unlike Visio the OG output looks smart with the dropshadows and semitransparant colours.

At work I have a windows machine and Vision and in the end compatibility issues made me drop OG for use. Which is a shame: making a Visio diagram look good is far more work.

(OG combined with a Wacom tablet is a wonderful production boost I can tell: drawing diagrams is a breeze)

June 26, 12h

>It looks a lot like Microsoft Visio…

Yes but it works and looks nicer and is produced by a cool company!

vanderwal says:
June 28, 01h

I became a huge fan on OmniGraffle not long after I got my Mac a couple years ago. I was amazed at its ease of use after using Visio for years, I could knock out what was in my head in OG in 15 to 20 minutes where Visio would take me an hour. I often use OG to visualize ideas I am playing with and it easily makes graphics and PDFs that can be dropped into other apps. I work in a Windows environment and I will often wait until I get home to knock out an idea or graphic in a few mintues that I know would take far longer during the day using Visio.

Since OG is vector based I can make graphics for presentations and drop them in Keynote with some transparancy and drag them to the right size. It looks like it was always part of the presentation and designed professionally.

I am also a huge fan of OmniOutliner between OO and OG I do most of my thinking. I wish OO would have an export to Wiki formatting as that would save me a ton of time. OO is great for fleshing out ideas. It imports seamlessly into Keynote (PowerPoint with out the user swearing) and back into OO from Keynote.

It all depends on how you think best, but these tools are great tools for me to get my thought out so I can development them and share them.

Stephane says:
June 28, 06h

The first app I learned on the Mac in 1987 was a little outliner call More (, fast forward to the year 2000 and I rediscovered outlines with Brainforest on my Handspring. When I move from OS 9 to OS X, I fell in love with the apps from OmniGroup.

Ever since, I can’t do anything without sketching idea/text in Outliner, graphing everything in Graffle. Basically, every website I designed in the last couple of years started in one form or the other in an app from OmniGroup.

I find that the two must useful palette in Graffle are :
1 - Selection and Style
2 - Alignment
If you use them both (with the paintbrush button), your graphic are hard to mess up.

Kirk says:
June 28, 08h

Graffle and Outliner have pretty much become indespensible tools for me over the past year. I’d like to second the earlier comment about Graffle 3 Pro. Not only does it add Visio XML file compatibility, but it also allows for multi-page diagrams – that’s something that’s really crucial when you’re diagramming a fairly large site.

I’ve used Visio extensively in the past and I have to say that working in Graffle feels like much less of a battle.

Also, the last time I checked Omni offered substantial discounts for members of mac users groups. If you’re thinking about buying and you’re in a MUG this might be worth looking into.

waylman says:
June 28, 12h

Isn’t it interesting how no one is screeming amerature for using the default app that came with the OS. If any pro were to do so much as hint at such a thing with Windows, his reputation would come into question. Sure, as others point out, MS offers a competitive product, but for a price. (This is not meant as MS bashing but just an inocent observation)

All we see here are a bunch for ‘yeah, isn’t it great’ comments and a few ‘I want that for my OS’ comments. Makes me wonder if maybe I should make the switch myself. It’s been probably 10 years (the time I’ve been out of school) since I’ve even used a Mac, mostly because the price has scared me away. But then again, you do often get what you pay for.

I guess this is another one of those ‘I want that for my OS’ comments.

June 29, 07h

I’m not an OmniGraffle user as <whisper>I am Windows man</whisper>, but this reminded me of a project that a friend of mine was working on.

The project involved using an OG sitemap and a bit of AppleScript he wrote to automagically create the directory structure and linked html files (just templates other than the links, I believe).

Check it out here, and give him some incentive to work on it some more.

vanderwal says:
June 30, 07h

The following link should provide the resources to scrape a site and get the info needed to use AppleScript and OmniGraffle to dynamically generate a site map.

kadavy says:
July 01, 08h

Don’t crucify me for mentioning a WYSIWYG editor, but I’ve found that GoLive has a great site outliner. Once you’ve made you’re outline, you can click right on your pages to create them.

July 08, 11h

Thats too bad it only works on macs…looks like a good app though. Have fun Dave!

<p class=”wisper”>I dont like macs…Don’t hurt me Dave!</p>
<cringe />

Charlie Morss says:
July 14, 04h

Just a quick warning if you’re thinking the pro version will solve your cross platform issues with its Visio compatibility. I love OG, but it does not do very well with Visio files. My pro version is from about last sept, so maybe it’s improved, but I found it pretty much unusable for production work. I could open Visio files and tell what it generally was to look like, but that’s about it. It is not cross platform compatable like MS Office for the Mac and MS Office for the PC are (same company in that case, so I suppose we should expect that).