OmniGraffle 5: Making your Diagram Look Good

This tutorial will help you create dazzling, professional-quality diagrams using Omnigraffle. From the fundamentals through to advanced techniques, it will have you communicating information more powerfully and visually in no time.


OmniGraffle 5 Diagramming Essentials

OmniGraffle 5 Diagramming Essentials

Create better diagrams with less effort using OmniGraffle

  • Produce high-quality professional-looking diagrams that communicate information much better than words
  • Makes diagramming fun and simple for Macintosh users
  • Master the art of illustrating your ideas with OmniGraffle
  • Learn to draw engaging charts and graphs to grasp your viewers' attention to your presentations
  • A hands-on guide filled with visual step-by-step examples that cover both the basics and the advanced features of OmniGraffle
        Read more about this book      

(For more resources on OmniGraffle, see here.)

OmniGraffle 5 how to

We will start with a few tips on making your diagrams visually appealing:

  • Colorize gently: Do not flush your diagram full of colors. It is best if you can keep to just a few colors. Use colors that match each other—if you feel that you are not good at choosing colors, you can use the ColorJack and Kuler websites.
  • Use few fonts: Try to use only two different fonts. These fonts should be without serifs, also known as sans serif. The text you are reading right now is a serif font—the titles in this book are written without serifs.
  • Consider your output media: The thickness of lines, the color (or lack there of) fill of shapes, and so on, means different things when used in a screen presentation, on a web page or in a printed report.
  • Symmetry is better than asymmetry: A balanced diagram is a good-looking diagram. However, any educated graphics designer will tell you there is a difference between visual and mathematical symmetry. If you are unsure about this – just do what looks correct.
  • Have one and only one focus point: The focus point is the most important part of the diagram.
  • Use titles, figure captions and legends: A diagram without a title is not telling the reader exactly what they are looking at. The exception to this rule is if the diagram is part of a report or a book.
  • Be liberal with white space: Avoid cramping shapes together, as this will make your diagram look busy and messy. If space permits – use a whole page exclusively for your diagram if needed.

Manually adjusting diagram elements

So far you have manually moved shapes around your diagram. You have also learned that you can use visual guides in your diagram to align elements. However, for the majority of tasks, you used the Smart Alignment Guides and the Smart Distance Guides found in the Arrange | Guides application menu.

Next you see a shape that is aligned with both the Smart Alignment and Smart Distance guides enabled.

OmniGraffle 5 how to

The thin blue lines going through My Shape in the previous diagram are a visual indication that the shape is aligned both to the shapes to the left and above. If you have a diagram with a lot of shapes close to each other, the Smart Alignment Guides may not seem so smart anymore. In fact, the guides will not align to whatever shapes you wish they should align to. In these circumstances, using manual guides is the only good solution for very precise shape alignments.

The Smart Alignment Guides will appear when you align two or more shapes to each other.

Between the shapes you see the visual measurements that appear when the Smart Distance Guides kicks into action. The guide shows that the distances between My Shape and the two other horizontal shapes are equal to each other—creating horizontal symmetry. The same is also true for the vertical distance guide.

The Smart Distance Guides appears when you try to distance three or more shapes from each other.

Resizing shapes

Until now you have resized shapes manually by dragging on the shape's resize handles (the small squares found on each corner and on each edge).

If you wanted to make two or more shapes the same size, you've had to do a lot of work manually. Instead of manually working on each shape, you can use the Arrange | Size menu commands . You can also find the same commands using the context sensitive menu that appears if you right click on any shape, or selection of shapes.

There are all together five sizing commands available (Make Same Width, Make Same Height, Make Same Size, Make Natural Size, and Size to Fit Image). You can size shapes to the same height, the same width, the same width and height, to their natural size and finally you can resize a shape to fit an imported image.

Size to Fit Image

Executing this menu command will resize the shape to cover the length and height of an associated image.

Make Natural Size

A natural sized shape is a shape where the height and the width of the shape are the same.

The resizing is done based on the longest length, either vertically or horizontally. If you resize a shape which is wider than it's tall—then the Natural Size is calculated based on the width of the shape. The same applies if the shape is taller than it's wide—the Natural Size in this case is based on the height of the shape.

The shape is always resized from the center line (either vertically or horizontally).

Let's learn by doing.

Start with a new canvas – add a rectangle to the canvas, and place a manual guideline through the shape's horizontal center line.

OmniGraffle 5 how to

After either using the Arrange | Size | Make Natural Size menu command , or right clicking and using the Size | Make Natural Size menu command , the shape is resized into a perfect square where each side has the same length and width.

OmniGraffle 5 how to

As you can see, the horizontal center is still intact.

Making shapes the same size

You have at your disposal three resizing commands that can only be used if you have selected more than one shape. The commands are to make the shapes the same width, height, and both width and height at the same time.

We cannot stress this enough, but the order in which you select the shapes affects the end result.

  1. Start by creating an OmniGraffle document with an ellipse, a rectangle, and a triangle.

    OmniGraffle 5 how to

  2. First select the ellipse and then select the rectangle.
  3. Issue the Make Same Width menu command.
  4. The result is an oblong the same length as the ellipse.

    OmniGraffle 5 how to

  5. Now – first select the triangle, and then select the rectangle.
  6. Issue the Make Same Height menu command.

The result is that the rectangle is now the same height as the triangle, as seen in the screenshot below:

OmniGraffle 5 how to

Let's try to select all the shapes and then use the Make Same Size menu command.

You can select all the shapes by using the +A keyboard shortcut command.

If you got the following result, this is because the rectangle and triangle where already selected (remember that the order in which the shapes are selected matters).

OmniGraffle 5 how to

If you instead had deselected any shapes prior to using the keyboard shortcut, the result would have been as expected because the ellipse was the fi rst shape you drew on the canvas.

OmniGraffle 5 how to

To complicate matters even further, as you drew the ellipse first, this shape was the top-most shape in your diagram.

If you add a new cloud-shape to the right of the triangle, and order this shape to be the uppermost shape using the Front function () on the Canvas toolbar , your diagram should now look as shown next:

OmniGraffle 5 how to

Now, hit +A to select all shapes on the canvas, and then issue the Make Same Size menu command.

The following screenshot is the resulting diagram:

OmniGraffle 5 how to


So far you have worked without using a visible grid on your canvas. With the aid of the Smart Alignment Guides and the Smart Distance Guides, you have made perfectly aligned and good-looking diagrams. If your diagrams are much like the ones you have created so far, you may never have to use a grid when placing shapes.

However, if you are making diagrams, which represent "real life objects" – using a grid is a must. These kinds of diagrams can be anything from a diagram showing the new office layout – to a diagram for showing offi ce visitors where various parts of the building are.

Enabling gridlines

You turn the visibility of grid lines on or off by using the View | Gridlines menu command. You could also use the +\ keyboard shortcut command.

OmniGraffle 5 how to

In the previous screenshot, you see the canvas with grid lines. The thick grid lines are called the Major Gridlines, while the thinner lines are called the Minor Steps.

Adjusting gridlines

You can control the measurement unit in the Major Grid Spacing input field using the Canvas Size Property inspector.

OmniGraffle 5 how to

The default spacing for the Major Gridlines is 2,54 cm / 1 inch. Between Major Gridlines, there are eight Minor Steps as default.

You can adjust the Major Gridlines and the Minor Steps by using the Grid Property inspector found in the Canvas selector.

        Read more about this book      

(For more resources on OmniGraffle, see here.)

Aligning shapes to the document grid

By using the Smart Guides, you really do not have to care about where your shapes are placed relative to the canvas grid. However, if you create diagrams that involve shapes that have to be correctly sized to match the "real world", you can get a lot of help from OmniGraffl e by enabling the Snap to grid checkbox and the Edges on grid button on the Grid Property inspector.

OmniGraffle 5 how to

The following discussion will demonstrate how OmnniGraffl e will help you create a floor plan (as seen in the previous picture) for an exhibition your company is holding.

  • Your company, which sells maritime gear, is arranging an exhibition for your customers. You have invited all your suppliers, and they will exhibit products and goods.
  • The exhibition is held in a room measuring 20 X 30 meters (65.62 X 98.42 feet).

The first thing you have to set up is a grid that will help you in drawing your diagram. A normal measurement in this regard is letting 1 cm on paper equal 1 m in real life (or the equivalent of imperial units, that is, 1 inch on paper equals 1 foot in real life). A meter is divided into 100 cm, but as your diagram is not really a builder's diagram, you do not need the high resolution of 1 cm in real life. A resolution of 10 cm will suffice.

So basically, your Major Grid Lines is set to 1 cm, and Minor Grid Steps is set to 10. Each minor grid step equals 10 cm.

To see the complete grid in all its glory, you may have to zoom in to the canvas. You can zoom by using either the Zoom button at the bottom right on the canvas (), or using the View | Zoom | Zoom In menu command.

The following screenshot facilitates the canvas with a 200% zoom. Notice that the rules on the top and to the left are nicely numbered from 1 onwards. This is a pretty cool indication that you can easily create a room of 20 X 50 meters.

OmniGraffle 5 how to

The one thing that might hinder us is the diagram's origin (that is, the upper-left corner). It will be easier to work with the diagram if you move the origin a bit into the canvas. Dragging the blue cross on the upper left into the canvas achieves this:

OmniGraffle 5 how to

Use the Zoom button to zoom out to 50% to get the full overview.

Next, create an oblong measuring 20 X 30 meters. This is simply done by placing an oblong starting on the diagram origin and the dragging it to the canvas.

OmniGraffle 5 how to

Notice how difficult it can be to have the oblong starting in the origin when you have zoomed out to 50% also notice how time consuming it can be to get an exact measurement of 30 X 20 cm (representing 30 X 20 meters).

There are two things you can do to aid you in getting the correct measurements. One is to use the Snap to Grid checkbox we discussed earlier. The second thing you can do is to use the Inspector Bar.

OmniGraffle 5 how to

The left side of the Inspector Bar displays both the origin of a shape and the width and height of the shape. You can enter the correct measurement and placement information in these boxes. If you now enter 0 and 0 in the two first boxes; 30 and 20 in the next boxes, your shape should now be correctly set.

OmniGraffle 5 how to

To make our floor complete, we need to add a door and thicker walls. The walls should be 7 points thick. We need to add a door to the room—the door is 4 meters wide and is placed on the left wall, 3 meters from the top. Basically, the door is just an opening in the wall.

Zoom back to 200% using the Zoom button, and add an oblong shape with the correct size and without any strokes. This rectangle will represent the door in our building.

OmniGraffle 5 how to

Notice the various numbers in the Inspector Bar to place this shape correctly.

Now our floor is complete, and to prevent yourself from accidently messing up your diagram as you work on it, rename this layer to Floor and lock it to prevent changes. You use the Arrange | Lock menu command to prevent shapes from been accidentally moved around. You can also use the lock icon on the canvas toolbar, or the +L keyboard shortcut command.

Now add a new layer—this layer is where we are going to place the exhibition booths and other infrastructure.

First off, we need a couple of registration desks.

Given that this is a high level diagram, we're not going to add the detailed level of the desks themselves—but an indication of where the registration area is.

The registration area is just another rectangle near the door, as seen next:

OmniGraffle 5 how to

Remember that one of the "rules" we stated earlier is that symmetry is a good thing. Notice that our registration area shape is 8 cm high—and exceeds the door by 2 cm on each side.

If you have the standard version of OmniGraffle, you will need to rotate the whole shape 90°. However, if you have OmniGraffle Pro, you only need to press the overflow text fitting button, and then rotate the text 90°.

Even if the physical room is not really set this way, we must take some liberties with our diagram. The main reason for creating these kinds of diagrams is usability: The diagram should be easy to understand and easy for visitors to use for navigating the exhibition ground.

Next out is creating a few exhibition stand aisles.

There will be two rows of stands on each side of the room. The widths of these rows are 4 meters, and the length is 20 meters. One row should be named Sailboat vendors, the other Motorboat vendors.

The row of stands in the middle is 18 meters long and 6 meters wide (that is, 17 cm and 6 cm). The name of these stands is Equipment vendors.

Fill each stand row with a different color for easy indication and identification, as shown next:

OmniGraffle 5 how to

The only things lacking now are the concession kiosk, the toilets, coat check, fire extinguishers, and so on. The standard way to indicate these things is by using a special set of symbols.

Download and install a stencil named AIGA Symbols from GraffleTopia.

Place the kiosk, the coat check and the toilet on the left wall—use the appropriate AIGA symbols to indicate which is which.

For more information on these symbols, check out the AIGA website at

OmniGraffle 5 how to

Every diagram of this kind must have a legend explaining the various part of the diagram. Add the legend below, and you should be done.

OmniGraffle 5 how to

Notice the use of the vertical guide to align the legend text. The reason for this is that the Smart Alignment Guides did not work as expected due to the number of shapes on the canvas.

This may look like a very simple diagram—and it is. However, it's also very clear and easy to understand.

There is only one very glaring error with this diagram: The texts of the three stand rows are not aligned. True, they are aligned to the center of each oblong but not to each other. We'll need to fix this


Unless you have OmniGraffle Professional, you will have to remove the text inside each shape, and then create stand-alone text shapes. You can then align these standalone text shapes to each other.

If you have OmniGraffle Professional, you just have to use the Text Offset controls in the Text style inspector.

However, for this very diagram, doing it the non-professional way gives you much more control than the percentage adjustments you can do with the Text Offset controls. It is often more desirable to use other means than percentage adjustments for finer controls over objects and their positioning.

And here is the complete exhibition map—observe that we have added a title to the diagram:

OmniGraffle 5 how to

To spice things up, we should add a list of suppliers and add this to the map also.

In the final version, we have a list of suppliers beneath the map, and the legend to the right of the map. The main reason for this is that if the vendors were to be placed to the right of the map, this could easily become the main focus point—which is a no-no.

OmniGraffle 5 how to

If you want to see the finished diagram in full color, please open the file named Exhibition.graffle. The file is found in the Ch:7 folder in the download bundle.

Aligning shapes to each other

You will sooner or later need to quickly align a series of shapes. OmniGraffle has several ways of doing this.

Start by placing a few shapes randomly on the canvas.

OmniGraffle 5 how to

From the Arrange | Align menu , you have several choices on how you want to align your shapes. It is also possible to right-click and get a context sensitive menu appearing with the various alignment choices.

OmniGraffle 5 how to

Most of the same choices are also available from the Canvas: Alignment inspector.

However, there are a few extra choices available like offsetting shapes either vertically or horizontally.

The behavior of the Alignment buttons is controlled by the Point of Alignment matrix.
The Alignment buttons may thus be used to align shapes to the lower-right corner, or to the center-bottom of the shapes – it is all controlled by the active point (blue) in the Point of Alignment matrix.
You will find a sub-set of the alignment options in the Arrange | Align menu, this also holds true for the context sensitive menu that appears on right-clicking the selected shapes.
The Alignment buttons are what actually control the alignment of two or more selected shapes.
The Horizontal Shape Alignment button (that is, the upper button) controls the horizontal alignment of shapes. The leftmost and rightmost shape will limit the horizontal alignment.
The Vertical Shape Alignment button (that is, the lower button) controls the vertical alignment of selected shapes. The top shape and bottom shape will limit the vertical alignment.
The red line associated with the buttons shows to what respect the shapes will be aligned to each other, and the selected button in the Point of Alignment matrix controls where the line appears.
The Spread buttons distributes selected shapes evenly between the leftmost and the rightmost shapes. The buttons will only work if you have selected more than two shapes.
The upper button is the Horizontal Spread button, and as its name implies; clicking on this button with three or more selected shapes will distribute those shapes horizontally without altering their vertical placement.
The lower button is the Vertical Spread button. Clicking on this button will evenly spread out three or more selected shapes in the vertical direction without altering the shapes' horizontal placement.
The Spacing button is used when you need to manually set the vertical or horizontal space between shapes.
The upper button is called the Horizontal Space button, and will set the horizontal space based on the value entered in the input field to the left of the button. Clicking on this button when two or more shapes are selected will not alter the shapes' vertical placement.
The lower button is called the Vertical Space button. Clicking on this button will set the vertical space entered in the input field to the left of the button without altering the horizontal placement of the selected shapes.
The Align to canvas checkbox overrides the outermost shapes and will use the canvas edge as the left, right, top, and bottom edges for the alignment.

The following table shows the resulting alignment when some of the alignment controls are used. All actions performed in this table, are on the basis of the shapes displayed at the beginning of this section.

Clicking on the Vertical Shape Alignment button:
Clicking on the Horizontal Shape Alignment button:
Entering 0,01 cm in the Horizontal Space button offset field and clicking the button:

Notice that the vertical alignment has not changed.

In the next article we will cover Shape Selection, Re-Styling and Color Picker in detail.


In this article we will cover the following topics:

  • Resizing shapes based on existing shapes on your canvas
  • How gridlines might improve your diagramming
  • How to efficiently align shapes to each other

Further resources on this subject:

Books to Consider

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