Speeding Up in OmniGraffle: Customizing your Inspectors

As designers, we're pretty spoiled for options to express our visual and interaction designs. That said, one tool I end up using at least a little on every project is the venerable OmniGraffle. Sometimes it's just to draw a technical diagram or to quickly sketch a lo-fi wireframe, but in any case, I end up using it when I need to capture an idea visually in a way that's clear and polished.  

Shawn Mole, VP, Experience
#Design | Posted

As designers, we're pretty spoiled for options to express our visual and interaction designs. That said, one tool I end up using at least a little on every project is the venerable OmniGraffle. Sometimes it's just to draw a technical diagram or to quickly sketch a lo-fi wireframe, but in any case, I end up using it when I need to capture an idea visually in a way that's clear and polished.

That said, any asset you build for a project needs to be weighed against the time it takes to create it. I value good communication very highly, including artifacts, but there isn't an unlimited amount of time; to turn to Graffle instead of throw-away paper or long-lived prototypes, it needs to be the right tool for the job and I need to be fast with it.

To speed up working in Graffle, one of my favorite “tricks” isn't a trick at all, it's right on the default toolbar (you have already customized your toolbar, right?): the inspector palette. If you're not familiar with the Graffle's Inspectors, you may not know that they actually have a host of behaviors that normal palettes in OS X don't, and they're all useful:

  • Tabs can be made sticky: when you select another tab, they will remain open
  • Groups of tabs (Style, Properties, Canvas, and Document) can be moved around independently
  • Each group has a keyboard shortcut (normally command-1 through 4) to quickly show and hide

When I'm working I tend to be in a particular mode, and I'm going to go back to the same tabs, group of controls, over and over again. For instance, when I'm quickly building a new diagram I'll rough it in with lots of boxes, and for each shape I'll change the color and stroke. In this mode, I want quick access to Fill and Stroke tabs, so I just do the following:

  1. If not open already, open the Inspectors (from the document toolbar, from the Inspectors menubar command, or with the keyboard shortcut cmd-shift-i)
  2. In the Style group, double click the Fill and Stroke tabs (they'll get a little green lock icon when you double click them)
  3. Grab groups 2-4 and drag them to snap them off  and position as you want (or close them entirely)

OmniGraffle Style Inspector  with Fill and Stroke locked and Shadow Open

The result is that right after I place an element, I can quickly change all it's settings without having to open or change items (If I need to, I can open other tabs without closing Stroke and Fill). It may sound small, but this actually helps flow a lot: you don't need to remember where things are or switch tabs constantly. There are also other advantages, for instance, you can drag color swatches between tabs, from fill to stroke or vice-versa. You can also position other palettes exactly in relation to your fixed controls; I like to put my color picker right next to the Style inspector, so it's a quick trip to get a new color.

When I'm finishing up a diagram, I'll tend to swap modes, and want to have easy access to the Canvas's alignment tab and properties. Quickly hitting cmd-1 will close my Styles group (saving what I've locked). I can quickly open up my alignment and property controls in the space where my styles just were.

If you're not picking your Inspector tabs for the mode you're in, give it a try. It may take some tweaking, but you'll probably find one or two arrangements that you grow to love and help you complete tasks quickly.

(Note that most other apps in OS X don't sport all these behaviors. However, in some apps, such as iWork, you can option click inspector tabs to open up multiple inspector windows.)

Shawn Mole

VP, Experience