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Visual Presentations Made Easy

An overview of features found in free, open-source, online, and proprietary diagramming programs

Visual Presentations Made Easy 
Elliot Harmon - December 16, 2012
When a project calls for a visual presentation, you may want to turn to a specialized piece of software commonly known as a diagramming program. We've created a list that should help you get started in finding the tool that most closely fits your organization's needs and your work style.

Editor's note: This article was adapted from an article authored by former TechSoup staff writer Brian Satterfield in October 2006 and updated by former TechSoup content curator Elliot Harmon in June 2012.

Do you need to put together an organization chart? Need a flowchart for training new employees and volunteers about a certain work process? How about a map of your computer network? Or maybe you want to distribute your notes from a recent brainstorming session in an attractive, easy-to-read, visual format? Applications like Microsoft Paint or your word processor's built-in drawing feature might do the job in a pinch, but trying to build a professional presentation or complicated diagram with such a tool can get unwieldy. On the other hand, using a high-end graphics program like Adobe Illustrator to make a simple diagram can be unnecessarily time-consuming and frustrating, especially for inexperienced users.

When a project calls for a visual presentation, you may want to turn to a specialized piece of software commonly known as a diagramming program, which usually provides a number of different symbol sets for creating particular types of visual maps and drawings.

For instance, if you wanted to map out the local area network you're building at your nonprofit's new headquarters, you might:

  1. Open a diagramming utility.
  2. Look for a symbol set called "computers" or "networking."
  3. Create the basic diagram by dragging and dropping icons for computers, servers, and printers onto the work grid.
  4. Finish the diagram by adding arrows and connection lines to show how all of the hardware devices interface with one another, as well as any explanatory text.

Using a diagramming application rather than graphics or word-processing software can reduce the number of hours required to create visual presentations. Your time is valuable; you probably want to spend more of it working on that important project than diagramming it.

We've taken a quick look at several popular diagramming tools. Diagramming applications vary widely in terms of their feature sets and costs. All of the applications that we list offer free trials, so this list should help you get started in finding the tool that most closely fits your organization's needs and your work style.

For our list, we've tried to focus on tools that match the needs and budgets of most nonprofits and public libraries, while also reflecting the broad range of options available. We've divided our list into proprietary applications, free and open-source alternatives, and online diagramming tools.

Proprietary Diagramming Tools

All of these tools have free trial versions available for download.

ConceptDraw Pro by Computer Systems Odessa

Cost: $200 retail; nonprofit discounts available
Platform: Windows XP/Vista/7/8; Macintosh OS X 10.5.8 or later

ConceptDraw provides more than 100 symbol sets divided into categories such as website designs, general business and marketing diagrams, and project management charts. The program offers tools for resizing, rotating, and changing the color of individual symbols, as well as those for drawing lines and shapes. Like many professional diagramming programs, this utility can create diagrams with layers, allowing you to stack multiple images. You can save ConceptDraw diagrams in a variety of formats, including HTML, JPG, PDF, and PowerPoint. The application also includes a tool for saving diagrams directly to your organization's FTP server.

iGrafx FlowCharter

Cost: $550; support available at an additional fee
Platform: Windows XP/Vista/7

iGrafx FlowCharter features about 20 diagram templates pre-populated with symbols for comparison charts, workflows, organizational charts, and more. Users can customize the templates by rearranging or removing symbols or by adding additional shapes from FlowCharter's 100-plus symbol sets. If none of the templates meet your purpose, you can always create a diagram from scratch. FlowCharter allows you to build diagrams with multiple layers and also provides standard tools for drawing lines and shapes. The application can open files created in Microsoft Visio and can also automatically export files to Word or PowerPoint. FlowCharter saves diagrams as HTML files or in a number of standard formats such as JPG, GIF, or PDF.

Microsoft Visio

Cost: $250 to $1,000 retail; $13 to $51 admin fee through TechSoup (available in Standard, Professional, or Premium editions)
Platform: Windows XP/Vista/7/8

Microsoft Visio provides users with more than 100 different stencil sets grouped into 16 categories, such as organizational charts, project schedules, computer network layouts, and brainstorming maps. It's available in three editions, but the Standard edition should be more than sufficient for most nonprofit's diagramming needs. You can build a diagram containing shapes from multiple categories, then save it as a custom stencil for later reference. Like many diagramming programs, Visio lets you create diagrams with multiple layers and offers a standard assortment of drawing tools to help you resize, rotate, and flip shapes. Visio files can be saved in a handful of different proprietary Microsoft formats as well as JPG images, AutoCAD files, or XML and HTML pages. Visio diagrams can also be inserted into Word, PowerPoint, and other applications.

OmniGraffle by The Omni Group

Cost: $100 to $200
Platform: Mac OS X 10.6.8 or later

OmniGraffle has very robust graphing and diagramming features, and can export graphs to a wide variety of formats. Since OmniGraffle is designed exclusively for the Mac environment, its features and functions are quickly recognizable for Mac users. OmniGraffle has a very dedicated Internet user base: through websites like Graffletopia, users share templates and stencils for hundreds of types of diagrams, ranging from network architecture charts to Dungeons and Dragons maps.

SmartDraw

Cost: $197 to $497; discounts available for educational institutions
Platform: Windows 2000/XP/Vista/7

SmartDraw offers 150 templates in categories such as software and web design, flyers and certificates, and network design. All of SmartDraw's templates are pre-populated with symbols, though you can easily customize them by dragging and removing symbols or by adding other shapes from the program's large library. If your diagram requires an even deeper level of customization, you can edit individual symbols by changing elements' color, size, and shape. SmartDraw lets you design diagrams from scratch, supports layers, provides tools for drawing lines and shapes, and offers wizards to help novice users quickly create drawings. The application can open Visio files and also saves diagrams in multiple formats, including HTML, PDF, GIF, and JPEG.

SimpleDiagrams

Cost: $25
Platform: Windows XP/Vista/7; Mac OS X v10.6 or v10.7

While most of the other diagramming tools listed here adhere to a clean, professional aesthetic, SimpleDiagrams distinguishes itself with its fun chalkboard look. SimpleDiagrams isn't as full-featured as more expensive options, but it's extremely easy to use and includes a wide variety of shapes and stencils. Additional image sets, both free and paid, are available at the SimpleDiagrams website. SimpleDiagrams requires Adobe AIR, which is available as a free download.

Free and Open-Source Diagramming Tools

Dia

Cost: Free
Platform: Linux, Mac, Windows

Open-source diagramming application Dia offers more than 30 symbol libraries for building diagrams ranging from simple flowcharts to complex Cisco and Sybase computer networks. The application also supports multiple layers and offers tools for quickly drawing shapes like polygons and boxes. Dia opens several different types of image files and can also export diagrams in formats such as BMP, JPG, and GIF. However, this free program can neither open Visio diagrams nor save drawings in HTML format.

Apache OpenOffice Draw

Cost: Free
Platform: Linux, Mac, Windows. Mac users are encouraged to try NeoOffice

Draw is a component of OpenOffice, a multi-platform open-source office software suite. Strictly speaking, Draw is a graphics program rather than a diagramming program, but it includes diagram and flowchart stencils and templates comparable to those of Visio. Draw can import and export numerous types of graphic files.

Web-Based Diagramming Tools

Web-based diagramming tools are completely hosted online. They're generally not as full-featured as desktop-based applications, but they're designed to make sharing and collaborating with others over the Internet easy. One point to consider is that if you use one of these tools, you won't be able to work on or access your diagrams if you're not connected to the Internet.

These tools let you embed graphs on a blog or website on the fly. In other words, if you update a diagram, you don't need to republish it to your site; it's automatically updated there too.

You can try all three of these tools for free; the paid subscriptions include additional features and support.

Creately

Cost: Paid version starts at $5 a month; discounts available for nonprofits and educational institutions
Platform: Online

Creately offers a clean, intuitive interface and mild learning curve. The free version lets you collaborate with a maximum of five other users, and any diagrams you export include the Creately logo.

Creately's paid versions remove the Creately watermark and let you work with an unlimited number of collaborators. A desktop version of Creately is also available that runs on Adobe AIR and can synchronize with your diagrams stored online.

Gliffy

Cost: Paid version starts at $5 a month; discounts available for educational institutions
Platform: Online

Gliffy is the most robust of the online tools we reviewed. Gliffy offers a wide range of templates and stencils. Through Gliffy's integration with Yahoo! Image Search, you can import pictures from the Internet as new stencils quickly and easily. Like Creately, the free version of Gliffy adds a watermark to any diagram you create with the free version. Gliffy's free version lets you create a maximum of five diagrams.

The paid version of Gliffy starts at $5 a month, with discounts for multiple users. For the differences between the available versions, see the pricing page.

Lucidchart

Cost: Paid version starts at $10 a month; discounts available for nonprofits and educational institutions
Platform: Online

If collaborating on diagrams is important to you, Lucidchart might be a suitable online solution. Its free version places no limitations on the amount of users you can collaborate with on a diagram — you're simply limited to editing documents with a maximum of 60 objects. Paid plans lift this limitation and add support for importing and exporting files to Microsoft Visio.

Lucidchart was also built on HTML5, the newest HTML standard, rather than Adobe Flash technology. This means the Lucidchart interface is compatible with a large number of web browsers and mobile devices without requiring additional plug-ins.

Webspiration

Cost: Free 30-day trial; paid version starts at $6 a month
Platform: Online

Webspiration is a web-based diagramming tool by Inspiration Software, creators of Inspiration, a desktop tool intended primarily for educational purposes. Webspiration doesn't offer as many features as Gliffy or Creately, but it's very easy to use.

Conclusion

There are many more diagramming tools on the market than we're able to cover here, but the selection we've covered should give you an idea of the variety of tools available. As you try the programs listed, you can determine which features are most important to you and find the tool that's right for your organization, whether it's on our list or not.

The features of a diagramming program are ultimately less important than the work you do with it. Once you get comfortable with a tool, it can help you create visually appealing and easy-to-use diagrams to aid your work.

Image: Sticky diagram, Shutterstock