back to article Say it with pictures

“Believe it or not, I can actually draw,” Michelangelo is supposed to have said. What would he have made of today’s diagramming software? Go to the pub and wax lyrical about your new iPad and you might be the object of keen interest. Move onto the subject of the latest diagramming software and you may start wondering who your …


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  1. ForzaRP

    Creately Desktop

    Great article Ken. SmartDraw is cool but I think Creately Desktop ( offers something that conventional diagramming apps don't have, which is online and offline functionality. Maybe you could do a write up on this app as well? Mmm, lovin it!

  2. Joefish

    Requires skill.

    One major issue is that presenting data in visual form either requires a very rigid structure of rules to precisely control the layout (Gannt chart, heirarchical organisation) or some degree of artistic skill. And that's not something that's easily taught or picked up in an office. Or automated by Microsoft, Rational, et al.

    It's all very well bunging your system design into a UML package, but for those who churn this stuff out I have news for you - two circles with a line between them does NOT explain how your user interface connects to your database. To lay out a system or an RDB diagram on a page with both the scope of how it all works and some indication of the detail of how it's implemented takes a lot more time and skill than is generally appreciated. Having it done by machine just produces unreadable documentation purely for the sake of it.

    Mind maps are possibly an exception as they do enable you to get a lot of points down along with relationships in a simple and coherent way. Mainly it's because they have rules and conventions themselves, they're just more subtle and more natural to understand.

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  4. Tom Wood Draw

    ...hardly belongs in the "proprietary" camp, being open source (and also using the open OpenDocument standard file format).

    1. KenYoung


      Thanks Tom, the red marker pen has duly been in action.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    as comment

    Gaphviz ftw.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      second try

      That would be Graphviz.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    Crayon Pusher

    One who makes a lot of diagrams in the course of their work.

    I'm on Visio for work, OmniGraffle out of work and just discovered "Live Interior 3D", which is very cool for doing interiors, flipping between 2D and 3D and integrating right in the app with Google 3D Warehouse.

  7. AndyDent
    Thumb Up

    Go Go Graphviz

    I'm a long-standing Graphviz fan. I'm also enjoying using Instaviz on iPad which is a pretty good finger interface to create Graphviz diagrams.

    Glad to hear diagramming software getting a good going over.

    Is Visio stable nowadays? My past experiences using it to create complex diagrams have been very underwhelming.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    Google charts

    Great article, I'm looking forward to the rest of the series. You mentioned Google Docs - I presume you mean the Google Chart API? I hope you include a discussion of online charting tools in the articles.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Go Go Aris Express

    Excellent tool for process mapping - streets ahead of Visio in terms of usability.

  10. Brennan Young

    data connections?

    There are some good leads to follow up here. What I am especially interested in is how to generate diagrams from (especially online) data sources e.g. rss or csv feeds. This is touched upon in relation to visio, but only in passing.

    Any chance of a rundown of those tools which specifically address this approach?

    And shouldn't lower-level code-based visualisation tools like Processing or even HTML-5's Canvas be mentioned?

    After all, the most interesting feature (and surely the future) of screen-based (rather than print-based) infographics is allowing the browser/user to manipulate the view, i.e. what used to be called 'interactivity' - not just in making histograms or UML more pretty, and easier to draw.

    1. KenYoung


      Interesting points, thanks. I am not aware of any diagramming software that allows you to take data from an RSS/CSV feed, can you point me towards anything? Also by browser manipulation do you include tools like those supplied by Google?

  11. JLu

    Evolution of visual processors

    Great post Ken! Indeed, the development of diagramming software has lagged behind that of word processors, spreadsheets, etc. Presenting data in visual form was in the past somewhat difficult and required some degree of technical (and artistic skill as Joefish mentions above). But we've come a long way, with many of the tools you mentioned in your article making it considerably easier these days for people to create and present great visuals. The evolution of visual processors will further push the envelope for visual thinking, and much like what word processors did for text, visual processors will help users to focus on the visuals and less on the tools themselves.

  12. Starlite Lemming

    Hard to do, harder to learn

    Good visualisation has a *huge* effect on how *quickly* and *effectively* information can be conveyed, whether it be using shading and borders in tables or more sophisticated devices.

    While Visio is enormously capable, it takes a very long time to learn. I've used it on occasion, and always wondered if I was really using the right part of the program and the right templates. There's just no guidance, since Microsoft assumes (as always) that everyone knows what it decides to call things (eg: types of diagrams). This is a huge obstacle to widespread use.

    Visualisation is also really hard to do well. Not many people have the knack -- think of all the atrocious PowerPoint presentations you've seen.

    Finally, the real aim of visualisation is, I think, to provide additional data (sometimes in the form of visual context) much more quickly than can be achieved otherwise. My favourite example is the run-rate charts used during the cricket coverage. In order to properly interpret the data, it's necessary for the viewer to first look at the scale on each axis, as it changes during the match. If they locked it in, so all 50 overs were always shown, and horizontally, there were heavy rules every 6 runs (per over) and light rules every 3 runs (per over), within two or three viewings, we could interpret the entire graph at a glance without reading a single word!

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