In a future episode of Mac Power Users, Stephen and I will talk about our inputs and outputs on our Macs. So I built a diagram using OmniGraffle. Here’s the process.…
Since first posting on my OmniGraffle-based status board a few weeks ago, I have received a lot of emails. Some folks like the idea and want to do something similar. Others think this is a dumb idea, with some pretty good reasons for thinking so. In this post, I’ll address both categories of feedback.
Building and Using the Status Board
For the folks who like the idea and want to build their own, here is an OmniGraffle file with dummy data.
The one I’m running for myself incorporates a font (a variant of Futura) that I purchased ages ago. I have removed that in the sample, but you can set the OmniGraffle typography to your satisfaction. Likewise, you can change the box shapes, colors, and general layout. That gets down to the bottom of why I built it in OmniGraffle. I wanted something that I could customize over time, and none of the other apps or web services really fit the bill. Best of all is OmniGraffle’s preview mode that lets me run it full screen (using the Mac’s Spaces feature), so the status board is always just one swipe away.
In terms of mechanics, there aren’t many. Make a template box and fill it in with your project name. To connect links, OmniGraffle has a feature that allows you to do just that. Select the object and then paste in your link. For every active project, I have an Obsidian page and an OmniFocus project. I link both to the status board this way.
As part of my daily shutdown, I take the Status Board out of preview mode and make adjustments. If I finished a project, I delete the block. If the project changes status, I move the block. I also check all the “waiting on” blocks to see if anything changed over the last few days. This often prompts a “checking in” email to whomever I’m waiting on.
Several folks are interested in the idea of a status board but don’t want to pay for OmniGraffle. I get that. In my case, I already paid for a license, and the app was already on my computer. (I use OmniGraffle for legal- and MacSparky-related graphics.) You could build this as a PDF or even a Pages document.
You could also do this with any number of dedicated Kanban-style apps and services. OmniGraffle’s advantage is how I can combine multiple Kanbans on one screen and my total control over how things look and where they are on the screen. Again, this board is not shared with my team, so collaboration is not necessary.
On Why All of This Is a Dumb Idea
Another frequent criticism was that this whole process is unnecessary. Because all of my projects are already in OmniFocus and Obsidian, I could already have very effective lists showing projects that are active, on hold, on radar, and any other status using tags. Both OmniFocus and Obsidian have excellent tag support, and I’ve already implemented these same tags in them. So with a few key presses, I can put myself in perspectives or views that give me this data.
This means I’m duplicating effort setting up the Status Board and giving myself one more thing to keep updated and current as I work. In reply, I would say, “Yes. You are correct.” It is more work, but it is very little extra work in the grand scheme of things.
I have been using OmniFocus tags for project tracking for years and the doing the same with Obsidian since I first started using the app. The problem was that I was still letting things drop through the cracks. My brain works much better visually than words. That is the reason why if you ask me for directions, I will draw you a map instead of giving you directions. It is also the reason I am constantly making diagrams, charts, and workflows in OmniGraffle to sort complex things out in my own head. And ultimately, it is why I wanted a visual representation of all the active projects in my life on one screen at any time with just one swipe.
I recently read Cal Newport’s A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload . One of the things Newport talks about in the book is finding alternatives to email for different kinds of work. He explained that as a college professor, he manages graduate students using a Trello-based Kanban board.
While it has nothing to do with email or collaboration, this got me thinking about how I’m managing my various projects when wearing my lawyer, podcaster, blogger, and field guide producer hats. Traditionally, I keep lists of active projects in a text file (currently in Obsidian). I tag all active projects in OmniFocus as an “Active Project” and then set a custom perspective to surface only active projects.
But I also know that I think visually, and the idea of a Kanban-style status board for my projects does have a certain appeal to me. So over the weekend I went down the rabbit hole of the current crop of Kanban-style apps. There is a lot out there. Trello, monday, and Notion all look like they’re up to the job. But in this case, I’m looking to make something that only I’ll be tracking. (I do my team-based stuff in Basecamp.) Because I don’t need it to collaborate, it doesn’t need to be a web service.
One of the Newport book stories was about the copper works at the Pullman railcar factory and how, in the early 20th century, they made what could be considered a big spreadsheet on the wall of the factory to track projects and labor. Again, because I don’t need to share this with anyone on the Internet, I considered doing something like this with a whiteboard in my studio, but I also wanted to figure out if my solution could show up on mobile devices and link to my projects. Also, I have this gigantic monitor, so I figured I could use all of that screen real estate. I experimented with Pages and Numbers but ultimately built my project status board using OmniGraffle.
OmniGraffle has a great set of alignment tools. I made a standard rounded rectangle box in which I can list the project’s name and, if there is a related OmniFocus project, I included a small OmniFocus icon. Using OmniGraffle’s linking tools (and some contextual-computing-style linking), I added a link directly to the related OmniFocus project on the OmniFocus icon. Then the full project rectangle gets a separate link to the project document in Obsidian. I can re-arrange the blocks as needed and, when done, I put the OmniGraffle document in preview mode (Option-Command-P). This blows the diagram up to full-screen size, and all of the embedded links are live so that I can jump from there to any specific project or OmniFocus document. On the macro level, I’ve also included links to the specific locations in Obsidian, OmniFocus, Basecamp, and Airtable, where appropriate. Here is the final product with a lot of confidential data blurred out. You can still get the idea.
So now I have three screens on my Mac. The left screen is Fantastical in full-screen mode showing the week view with 14 days. This is where I block time and plan future days. The center screen has no full-screen apps. Instead, it has all my windows from my working apps. (How I arrange that is a post for another day.) And the third screen, to the right, is my OmniGraffle generated project status board. I’m only a few days into using this status board, but I can already tell I’ll be keeping it. Another nice benefit of doing this in OmniGraffle and storing it in iCloud is that I’m equally able to view and edit the status board on iPhone and iPad with the mobile version of OmniGraffle.
The Omni Group recently released version 3 of their popular diagramming and graphics tool for iPad, OmniGraffle. The new version add several new features including multi-column interface, a floating tool palette that gets out of your way, expanded keyboard shortcuts, art boards and are board layers, SVG paste on canvas, and more.
One of the things I really like about the new version is the refinement of the interface and user tools with the moving pallet and overall attention to detail for making a professional level application for the iPad that is both powerful and easy to learn and use.
I have always thought of this application as pretty special. It’s one of the first applications for iPad that really took advantage of multitouch as an alternative input mechanism. From the beginning, the Omni Group has been refining and perfecting this interface in OmniGraffle and you can clearly see benefits of all that work in this third version.
Moreover, this time I got to spend a fair amount of time on the inside. I produced the tutorial videos for the new version for the Omni Group and saw the painstaking efforts the developers and designers went through to get this application just right.
There’s a lot of talk these days about what you can and cannot do on iPad. To me, one thing is clear. You can make beautiful diagrams and related graphics on an iPad with OmniGraffle. Check out OmniGraffle three for IOS the Omni Group website.
I mentioned in yesterday’s OmniGraffle sponsorship post that I made some cool new Star Wars Apple watch faces. That resulted in several emails from readers asking exactly how I did that. So here goes.
Custom Apple Watch Faces
Apple’s not big on custom watch faces. In fact, I would be surprised if they ever open the watch up for just anybody to make their own watch faces. Apple does, however, allow you to make a watch face based on your photo album. The idea is for Apple Watch owners to use their favorited photos on the background of a basic digital watch. If you love your dog, you can have your dog on your wrist every time you check the time.
I tested this watch face and didn’t like it because my favorited pictures (largely family pictures) don’t look good on a small screen and definitely don’t make a good background for a digital clock. That got me thinking about what would make a good background. Specifically, could I make something that approximates a custom Apple watch face so long as I’m willing to stick with the digital clock available on the built-in photo watch face? The answer is that it is absolutely possible to make interesting custom watch faces this way. The trick is to have a simple graphic and a pure black background.
Icons Are Key
As you may know, I love Star Wars. So I decided to make myself a series of Star Wars watch faces. Images shrunk down to a watch face size look pretty odd and anything with too much detail compresses into just a blob of pixels. Icons, however, are different. They are usually graphically fairly simple and can easily scale down to a small size for your watch face.
So I did a Google search for Star Wars icons. Specifically, the search was “Star Wars icons PNG”. It turns out there is a treasure trove of Star Wars icons on the Internet. Below is a more refined search of “Star Wars icons R2D2 PNG”.
A lot of icon files, particularly in the PNG format, are saved without a background making it really easy to drop them onto a black background to make your Apple watch face. To add a layer of difficulty for this tutorial, I picked this one that has a bright orange background. I then open the file in Preview and used the Instant Alpha feature to remove the background. It’s fairly simple. Just drag the mouse enough to remove the background and nothing more. When you’re done, save that file and then you’ll have a background-less PNG file of R2D2.
A Black Background
Next I needed to get that icon on a solid black background. This is the part where I use OmniGraffle. In OmniGraffle, I made a black square. Notice it is not gray or partially black. It’s solid black. When the watch face displays on Apple watch, anything other than black looks off. I tried using gray backgrounds and other colors and they all look silly because of the way the watch is made. A pure black watch face fades right into the background. If you look at Apple’s own watch faces you’ll note that almost all of them also use the pure black background.
Then I simply drag the R2D2 PNG file on top of black square in OmniGraffle. The photo watch face displays the time in the lower-right corner of the watch. Therefore, that section always needs to be solid black. (You can make an adjustment to display the time at the upper-right portion of the watch face if you prefer but I want the icons on top.) While respecting the area for the time display, you can set your icon anywhere else on the black square. I center larger icons and place smaller ones to the left but do whatever blows your hair back. Don’t make the icon too small. Don’t forget that watch face is still pretty small. Once I got things laid out exactly how I want in OmniGraffle, I export the images as PNG and then import it into the Photos application.
By default, the Apple Watch imports your favorited photos. However, in the Apple Watch preferences app on the iPhone, you can change that to import any album you choose. So I made a new album called, appropriately, “watch”. Now I have the Apple watch sync the watch album over instead of my favorites. I’ve loaded that album up with various bits of Star Wars themed custom faces I made in exactly the way I described above. It usually takes a few minutes but eventually the new images will sync over your watch and if you set the photo face as your default Apple watch face, you’ll suddenly find you got some nice custom watch faces. If you aren’t feeling like makinig your R2D2 watch face but would rather just download mine, here you go.
Obviously, you don’t have to just use Star Wars icons. You could also simple icons from your interest (or fandom) of choice. The Internet is full of interesting, cleanly designed icons. Put any one of them on a solid black background and sync over to your watch and enjoy.
This week the Omni Group released a public preview of OmniGraffle version 7. There are several nice improvements with this new version including:
You no longer have to choose an arbitrary canvas size when setting up a new OmniGraffle document. Instead, just click the infinite canvas and it will shrink and expand to fit whatever you’re creating.
The Omni Group has been moving toward these unified sidebars in many of its applications. I think they make a lot of sense if they’re done right. OmniGraffle 7’s unified sidebar places relevant tools next to each other and it all made immediate logical sense to me.
There are several new conversion tools. You can now convert a line to a shape. Just add a few points to the middle of your line and start pulling it apart. You can also add points to shapes and, for the truly adventurous, you can convert text to a shape. Turning text, like an ampersand, into a Bézier-handled object is going to be useful.
There is a lot more in the new version that I’m still experimenting with. They added SVG import and export and a new export panel that looks interesting. There’s also a new feature called Artboards for managing specific elements in your OmniGraffle document.
I’ve been trying the beta and you can too. If you’ve been wondering about OmniGraffle, this is a great chance to kick the tires for an extended period of time. No matter how you pay for your shoes, the ability to make professional looking quick drawings and graphics comes in handy and nothing does that better than OmniGraffle.
I have been using OmniGraffle on my Mac for years. It is, in my opinion, the premiere diagraming application on the Mac. I do some of my best thinking when I sit down and organize my thoughts visually with a diagram. The ability to quickly put together professional looking diagrams is a definite edge in my day job. I have even had other attorneys ask me what company I used for my “graphics” when in fact it is just me and a few minutes with OmniGraffle.
OmniGraffle on the iPad is not a simple port of the existing Mac application. The Omni team started from scratch. The user interface was re-designed from the ground up around the touch interface and the iPad’s screen size. Interestingly, the developers did not have access to an actual iPad when developing this application. Instead, they used a fiberglass cut out in bits and pieces of paper with user interface elements printed on it to figure out how to put the application together. Regardless, the programmers overcame this handicap and released an outstanding product.
There are many features worthy of exploration in iPad OmniGraffle. The first time you open iPad OmniGraffle, you are presented with a series of documents that show you the ropes. You should go through the built-in tutorial. There is a lot under the hood with this application and you can save yourself a lot of time down the road if you learn the basics first.
There is no menubar but instead a series of smart icons that are context sensitive. For instance, hitting the pencil icon brings up icons which are a pre-formatted square and free hand drawing tool. Once you create your object, you can move, resize, shadow, and color it just as if you were on your Mac. It is remarkable how quickly the gestures built into OmniGraffle becomes second nature. You can even attach objects with magnetic lines that remain attached as you move them around the screen. While none of this is revolutionary in comparison to the native Mac OS X application, it is remarkable that this can be created so easily without a keyboard a mouse. It almost feels like playing the piano.
That being said, a few times the interface was more complex than it needed to be. Setting object order, for instance takes some doing from the layers menu. I would prefer a simple “Send to Back” button.
I found the physical process of creating and moving these boxes with my fingers even more intuitive than doing it in front of the keyboard. The Omni group also included smart guides which allow you to snap your objects in alignment with one another. Even better, you can set up a grid with custom spacing and snap your objects to the grid as you create them. With very little time you can have a precise looking diagram and, with the touch of a button, remove the grid.
iPad OmniGraffle ships with a nice assortment of images, connectors, shapes, software tools, and variables. If you have any favorite stencils on your Mac, you can copy them over to your iPad and OmniGraffle will import them.
iPad OmniGraffle allows you to assign your objects to layers and turn them off and on as the need arises. I have already found it useful when sharing data with clients. Building a diagram in small pieces and then adding the layers one at a time makes it much easier for the audience to digest complex data.
iPad OmniGraffle is an outstanding implementation of the touch interface. Any aspiring iPad developers should take a long look at the care and deliberation that went into this application. Since the iPad released, the Omni Group has already made a significant upgrade fine tuning the user interface now that they have got their hands on an iPad.
At $50, OmniGraffle certainly is more expensive than most applications you will find in the iPad store but it is a professional graphics application. The OmniGroup has gone on record to explain that if you buy OmniGraffle and are unsatisfied, they will provide a refund. OmniGraffle, in any iteration, is not necessary for everyone. But if you find yourself using it on the Mac, pick it up for your iPad.
This review is based on an evaluation copy of OmniGraffle provided by the Omni Group.