When it comes to creating business diagrams on the iPad, OmniGraffle is hard to beat. It offers an extensive array of features, all wrapped up in an easy to use package that will have you turning out professional-looking organizational charts, flow diagrams, web page wireframes and other visual documents in no time at all.
The OmniGraffle experience starts when you first open the app. You’re greeted by a set of visual instructions that explain how to perform common tasks in OmniGraffle for the iPad. But this isn’t just a static page, but an actual OmniGraffle document. It contains several regions where you can actually try the tasks you just learned about. That’s very cool, and it’s an approach that other visually oriented app developers would do well to emulate. The main menu of the app also contains seven very attractive examples of the types of diagrams that can be created with it, which should inspire users to utilize its extensive capabilities.
Creating basic shapes in OmniGraffle for iPad
This well-designed app contains a number of sets of stencils, which you can use to quickly build professional-looking visual diagrams. Built-in stencils include Shapes, 3D Shapes, Connections, Fonts, Fills, Software, and Variables. Many third-party OmniGraffle stencils are also supported.
To add a shape to your diagram, you simply tap and hold one to select it, and then drag and drop it in the app’s workspace. From there, you can manipulate the shape’s size using drag handles. An “info” button on the app’s spartan toolbar enables you to adjust its other properties, such as fill color, border thickness, shadow and text label positioning. Each shape can have a transparent shadow which falls on objects or layers that are behind it. You can decide just how fuzzy or sharp you want the shadow to be, as well as choosing its position, color, and transparency. OmniGraffle also supports linear and radial fills, blending up to three colors with customizable centers and angles.
From this info menu, you can also modify the canvas of your diagram, including canvas size, background color, units and scale, background grid and diagram layout (or chart, mind map, diagram growth direction and separation between nodes).
This diagram layout dialog box also contains a clever “layout now” button which, when tapped, attempts to rearrange your shapes to conform to the type of diagram you have selected. I dragged 4 shapes into the workspace, selected the icon representing or chart and top-down growth direction and then tapped the “lay out now” button. OmniGraffle moved all of the shapes into a horizontal line, neatly arranged as one level of my org chart. This is a cool feature, which should be very much appreciated by new users of OmniGraffle.
Selecting and moving objects
As you would expect, you move shapes around the workspace by tapping and dragging them. What’s unique and quite welcome is that as you move a shape around the workspace, guidelines pop up to help you quickly align a shape with other adjoining shapes – both horizontally and vertically – as well as to the horizontal and vertical centers of the workspace. This is a real time saver, and eliminates the need to select several objects and then use an “align” command to make them line up properly. Snap to grid functionality and layers enable you to create more complex diagrams.
The method that this app utilizes to select multiple objects is also very clever. You simply tap and hold your finger on the screen adjacent to one of the shapes you want to select. A blue star-like pattern appears on the canvas, beneath your finger tip. When you drag your finger, a selection box follows its direction, enabling you to select multiple adjacent objects — very cool!
The drawing menu
Within the drawing menu, you can add text to a shape, connect shapes, tap and drag to create different sized shapes and create freehand shapes. This two-tiered menu keeps the main menu simple, while a single tap gives you immediate access to the app’s more advanced tools. In other words, if you’re just starting out with OmniGraffle, you can accomplish most common tasks using only the Main menu. However, if you want to have more finite control over your drawings, you simply open the drawing menu to reveal additional options. In my opinion, this is excellent user interface design.
To add text to a shape you simply tap the text button in the toolbar, then a shape or the canvas; you can also double tap a shape to add text to it. From the info menu, You can adjust text label properties, including size, font, color and style (bold, italic or underlined).
To connect shapes, you select the connector line button from the drawing toolbar and then drag your finger between two shapes. The program intelligently connects them. Even if you start dragging the line from within the shape, it still snaps to its outside edge. This intelligent behavior means that you do not need to be very accurate when you tap and drag to start the line, thankfully. You can also create unattached lines and can use drag handles to adjust the endpoints of your line or add a mid-point to it. In addition, you can add a label to a line, which opens up a whole range of possibilities in terms of cause and effect diagrams, concept mapping and more.
The “make a shape” button lets you tap and drag to create shapes of any size; the context menu is used to change the default shape. A freehand drawing button gives you the freedom to create more complex hand-drawn shapes. If you drag a line roughly in a circle until you form a closed loop, the app treats that as an enclosed object, to which you can then add a fill color. I’m not sure how practical the free-hand drawing mode is, because it’s almost impossible to draw a straight line by dragging your finger.
Thankfully, this app also contains an “undo” command, which makes it easy to recover from any design mistakes you may make.
Add tables to your diagrams
Surprisingly, OmniGraffle for iPad even lets you create tables. To do this, you first select a group of adjacent shapes. Next, you touch and hold your selection, then release. The context menu that appears contains a “more” command, which gives you access to the “make table” command. The app automatically groups and arranges your shapes to create a table. The table has one column and as many rows as the shapes of your original selection. For example, if you had three shapes selected, you will end up with one column and three rows.
To add more rows and columns, you simply use drag handles on the right and bottom edges of the shapes. I tried this with three rounded rectangles, and found it very easy to create a table out of them, and then to use the drag handles (which look like miniature tables themselves) to add rows and columns to it. This is a very clever way to handle this functionality!
Adding images to your diagram
In OmniGraffle for the iPad, images behave in much the same way as shapes. You can add many of the same properties to them, such as a stroke or a shadow. An image sub-menu within the info menu enables you to control the image layout (natural size, stretch the image to fill the shape or tile the image within the shape) and opacity. I tried this with one of the images I have stored on my iPad, and found the results to be very cool. By default, the photo I selected filled the rounded rectangle I selected. This is an excellent way to add visual impact to your diagrams. For example, you could place an image of yourself along with your contact information in one corner of your diagram. This feature opens up a lot of possibilities!
Selection and styles dialog box speeds changes
OmniGraffle’s main menu also contains a “selection and style” command, which enables you to view all of the objects that make up your document, and the styles that have been applied to them. A set of buttons at the top of the dialog box enable you to select objects by layer or by a linear list. A second set of buttons at the bottom enables you to show or hide objects by type (lines and connectors, stroke style, fill style, shadow style and font style). These sophisticated tools enable you to select a a group of objects with the same properties and make batched changes to them. For example, this dialog box told me that my document contained two rounded rectangles. Clicking on that type of object in the dialogue automatically selected both shapes in my diagram.
This dialog box is also used to view objects by layer, and to drag and drop objects from one layer to another.
Geometry settings: An even finer level of control
For an iPad app, OmniGraffle contains an amazing depth of features. Using a geometry sub-menu within the info menu, you can even make changes to object properties such as position, size and rotation. You can also select a “lock aspect ratio” setting, which if it is turned on, proportionally changes both dimensions of an object size as you drag it to resize it. These are capabilities you would expect to find in a desktop drawing program, not an iPad app!
Importing and exporting files
OmniGraffle for iPad can import OmniGraffle for Mac files via Apple’s Mobile.me iDisk or WebDAV. You can also export your OmniGraffle document to these two services or iTunes, copy your document as an image to paste elsewhere, send it to the photo gallery on your iPad or AirPrint it. You can also e-mail it as an OmniGraffle file, PDF or PNG image file. Lots of options here! My one disappointment is that there isn’t a version of OmniGraffle for Windows, and I don’t own a Mac. I’d love to see how well a diagram created on the iPad holds up when opened in the Mac version of the program.
if you are visually oriented person and like to sketch or diagram your ideas, you will find OmniGraffle for iPad to be a worthy creative companion. If you’ve never created business diagrams before, this app is the perfect tool to help you get started. Its developers have obviously spent a lot of time anticipating how users will interact with their app, and have come up with some very clever solutions to give OmniGraffle for iPad exceptional usability. Omni Group, the developers of this app, have succeeded in creating a powerful yet easy-to-use tool that should surprise and delight you and should be an excellent complement to OmniGraffle for the Mac.
You can obtain this excellent app in the AppStore for US$49.99 – a bit expensive as apps go, but I think its incredible functionality justifies its price. For more information about OmniGraffle for iPad, please visit the product page on the Omni Group website.