OmniGraffle makes it easy to leave Visio behind

The other day I posted an article that three months after switching from Windows to Mac that I had a pretty good set of applications that I was using on a daily basis. I wrapped it up with a couple of things that I was still firing up Windows for and at the top of my list was finding a Mac based replacement for Microsoft Visio.

I had so many people recommend OmniGraffle 5 from The Omni Group that it quickly became something I wanted to check out. I've been a pretty heavy user of Visio for two primary tasks: creating UI flow charts for my web sites and generating screen mockups to cover functionality in my applications.

The UI flow charts are pretty simple since a page on a relatively static web site is easily represented by a small box on a design surface. OmniGraffle does a fine job of doing much of what Visio would do; drag a box out of the stencil list on to my page and there it is. Double click on it to fill in a title or some contents and off I go. Much like Visio I can draw connector lines between the boxes to indicate flow. OmniGraffle also allows multiple pages and the ability to set action links within an object so that clicking on it can jump to another page in the drawing.

The biggest difference between OmniGraffle and Visio in this area is really of the defaults for presentation. By default OmniGraffle renders everything with nicely muted shading and smooth edges. The results are some highly presentable flow charts directly from the design stage. Visio on the other hand requires that you go in and apply themes and turn off the grids and alignment points if you want your design to look nice on the screen. It can be done with Visio, it just doesn't look as nice out of the box as it does with OmniGraffle.

If you use multiple canvases and create actions to link your page elements together you can actually create a pretty interactive document. OmniGraffle also includes a Presentation functionality that takes over the entire screen so that you can show off your designs very easily.

Where OmniGraffle leaped ahead for me was in it's ability to render UI mockups. At first I was actually pretty disappointed; I didn't see any templates that were specific to user interface layout. Then I noticed in the Help menu a link to Graffletopia. Whoa! There are over 200 great looking templates in there! I downloaded a couple of the UI templates and was really impressed.

I'm a huge fan of building up UIs on paper before committing them to code because those early paper prototypes allow you to do some front end usability testing with people. The important thing to do is get through them quickly yet still make UI designs that look fairly attractive to the folks you are going to be presenting them to. They don't have to be perfect and look like a final UI but it helps if they are neat and clean.

With OmniGraffle I was able to generate some amazing little screen designs very quickly. How do they look? I mocked up this screen in all of 10 minutes on the first night I started using OmniGraffle:

It really is that easy. I actually had to manually change some of the controls for this screen shot but the process for doing that is very intuitive; just layering items on the page and sending them to the front or back of the stack is really all you need to know how to do.

Visio File Compatibility
Version 5.0 of OmniGraffle has added file compatibility with Visio, both to import and export. I loaded up a couple of files that had some fairly complex components; they imported fine for about 95% of the elements in my documents. The areas where things did not import properly were some of the background embedded image files I had in my files and in some cases the formatting of text was off by a little.

Visio has an XP interface template that I have used quite extensively in my screen mockups and I was really pleased when I found that all of those elements came through fine.

If you are a recent switcher from Windows to Mac and you've been worried about finding a good replacement for Visio, stop worrying. Just grab a copy of OmniGraffle Pro. 

Now I know why all those folks were recommending it to me.


Anonymous said…
Glad to see another individual recovered from The Collective. :)

I've been using OmniGraffle since v3 and it is the single best graphic application I've ever used. I'm in academics, and I've repeatedly seen fellow researchers who use Windows struggle with the complexity of Illustrator or Freehand to make figures for their research manuscripts and had to laugh...

I just fire up my Mac, pop open OmniGraffle, and in 10 - 20 min. whip out something that looks better and is clearer and easier to understand than what they've been working on all day... And for some strange reason, they always say "I wish I could do that on Windows", not realizing that they can do all they need on a Mac, and do it faster and easier.

I use OmniGraffle regularly for making figures and diagrams for research articles, and complicated images for use in Keynote for talks and lectures when what I need is beyond the built in tools in Keynote. I regularly get compliments from my colleagues on the design and appearance of the figures in my documents.

One caveat though, is that I do poster presentations at conferences from time to time, and have found that for poster size documents, OmniGraffle can really suffer a slow down. You need a top end processor and at the very least 2 GB of RAM to get OmniGraffle to work effectively with documents larger than about 11" x 17". For things like this, I've found that Visio is faster than OmniGraffle, but that is the only issue I've ever had with OmniGraffle.
Anonymous said…
yo dave,

just wanted to say that i appreciate this blog as i am hoping to traverse a similar journey as you by picking up a refurb macbook pro (if i land some sidework) and switching to the mac environment. i too develop in visual studio, so running xp via fusion will be the way for me as well. i feel like i'm getting a head start in the transition by reading about your experiences. keep up the great work!
Anonymous said…
Like many applications that you can compare between Windows and OS X, how they stack up very much depends on your usage profile. I use Visio for diagramming networks, as well as automatically generating topology diagrams using various plug-ins. Unfortunately OmniGraffle was a non-starter in this respect, which is a shame given the huge price of Visio!

David Alison said…
@Anon2: That's great because you're the kind of person I'm hoping gets value from this blog. It's one of the reasons I continue to write down what I'm finding. Glad it's helping!

@Rob H: That's a really good point - hadn't thought about how people may use the plugins for Visio (I never used them - just worked with the stock version).
Robert said…
This is unrelated to this post, but since you're a VM user, I thought you might be interested in the fact that ver 2 beta is now out. Wired has a quick write-up and a nice (youtube) video.
David Alison said…
@Robert: Thanks man - I actually watched that video this morning. Some cool stuff coming. I also love that VMware will give it free to 1.0 users!
Anonymous said…
Thanks for the blog entries. I read your article from a few days ago and kept shaking my head in agreement.

I was a diehard PC/Windows fan until last October when I got myself a sweet, new 17" MacBook Pro as my primary machine. It's clearly the best Windows laptop I've ever owned. I live and breathe in Visual Studio on a daily basis, so I'm still very much a Windows guy, but I would rather die than switch back to a PC laptop. I'm still amazed I can run 2 Windows virtual machines simultaneously with OS X with negligible hit to performance. I keep one VM (actually it's my Boot Camp partition) that runs my SQL Server database as well as my source control system. I then run individual VMs for each client. Once Fusion hits 2.0, I'll be really productive. The lack of solid multi-monitor support is definitely annoying me right now.

Anyways, I'm also searching for the same 2 replacement apps you are: Visio and OneNote. I'll give OmniGraffle a try. I don't use Visio all that much, so running in it Fusion works for me, but I'm always looking for ways to slowly switch to native Mac apps when it makes sense.

Keep up the great work on the blogs.
Anonymous said…
That slightly blurry text field will straighten up if you get it out from sub-pixel positioning (open the Geometry inspector and remove anything after the decimal points in the X and Y fields). Sometimes our smart guides get too excited and put your images between pixels, thus preventing them from looking their best. Otherwise, I'm glad you like OmniGraffle and the UI stencil!
Don said…
I did a 25 minute screencast all about OmniGraffle 5 last week!

You can download a HD version by subscribing to my iTunes free feed:


or watch the lower resolution Flash version on the site:
Anonymous said…
I'm as big an OmniGraffle 5 Pro fan as the next, but there is one common feature I need on a daily basis that I only get from Visio 2007 Pro: connecting shapes to records in a SQL db and having that shape altered based on the values of fields in a record. For flow charts there is no comparison but there will always be people who need those niche functions of Visio (unfortunately in my case I simply HAVE to use this feature).
Unknown said…
Hi, I am having sort of the same experience, and similar feelings too.

Shading and first appearance is definitely better in OmniGraffle.
Also UML support (one of my primary interest) is better. In Visio I had to correct every diagram every time due to connector's default behaviour (and had no fancy shading).

I am anyway missing some cool stencil in the network and process area, which are not present in GraffleTopia, I can still import them from my Visio library, but. Also database modeling is not as good as it is in Visio. I guess I'll have to keep using both for a while...
Anonymous said…

Sorry, but I just downloaded the trial standard version Omnigraffle 5.x. What does this tool actually do out of the box? No gantt chart, flow diagram, entity relationships, UML ??? Sure, I could spend hours drawing boxes ... I'm wondering what Anonymous achieved in 10-20 min. that took others all day. There are more features in Power Point!

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