I don’t know about you, but I spend a huge amount of my time creating diagrams for use in articles, whitepapers, books, PowerPoint presentations, and ... well, all sorts of things really. Seriously, when I look back, I have spent hundreds and hundreds (and hundreds) of hours doing this sort of thing.
Note that I’m not talking about image processing here. When it comes to cropping and resizing photographs and suchlike, I currently use PaintShop Pro. Actually, having said this, on the basis that I’m going to need to install image editing software on a new computer and I don’t want to pay for another expensive license, I’m planning on moving to Paint.net
because (a) I’ve heard a lot of good things about it and (b) it’s free.
But we digress… the sort of thing I’m talking about is creating line-art diagrams. These can range from something reasonable simple, such as the periodic table images I used in my recent Elements in a Human Body
article, to some really rather sophisticated offerings, such as the illustration of a computer system (see below) that I created for my book How Computers Do Math.
So, if you wish to create drawing and flowcharts and suchlike, what are the alternatives that are available to you? Well, to my mind the lowest level of sophistication would be PowerPoint, which seems to have been designed by someone who didn’t really know what they were doing. At the other end of the spectrum we might consider something like Adobe Illustrator, which is phenomenally powerful (and phenomenally expensive – $599 retail or $560 from Amazon). The downside of all of this power is that learning to use Illustrator to do anything useful involves a very steep learning curve.
For myself, I’ve been using Microsoft Visio since time began (well, certainly since before Visio was acquired by Microsoft). I know I was using it as far back as the mid-1990s ... where does the time go?
An example drawing I created using Visio
Personally I find Visio to be easy to use, but I think that’s because I’ve been working with it for 15+ years. The thing is that I’m not sure how easy it would be to learn from the ground up. And another consideration is that Visio is not cheap. The Standard version retails at $249, the Professional version retails at $559, and the Premium version retails at $999 (they’re available from Amazon for $206, $435, and $632, respectively).
The Standard version is very powerful, but is only supports the creation of drawings, mind-maps, cause-and-effect (fishbone) diagrams, flowcharts, org charts, and project management charts. This is the version I use, because all I really want to do is create drawings. Actually, now I come to think about it, when I have needed to create a flowchart I’ve done so as a drawing from the ground up, because I didn’t like the way the automation worked in Visio.
And so we come to SmartDraw (www.SmartDraw.com
), which currently retails for $197 for a single user license (they also have deals for multi-user licenses). On the one hand this is still a lot of money; on the other hand – when you consider all of the things SmartDraw can do as discussed below – I would say that it's worth every penny. The folks at SmartDraw were kind enough to give me an online-tour of their product, and I have to say that I am VERY IMPRESSED!
First of all, you don’t have to battle your way through multiple versions of the product trying to work out which one is right for you. There’s only one version and it does everything, including creating drawings, flowcharts, org charts, project charts, mind maps, presentastions, timelines, decision trees, cause-and-effect diagrams, floorplans, landscape diagrams, elevations, maps … I tell you, the list goes on and on and on.
The really important point here is the automation. Take a flowchart, for example. You select a shape (action, decision…) from a library and then either drag and drop it in the diagram or select an option from a pop-up list (add above, add below, add right, add left … in relation to the previously placed object). The new shape appears in the chart perfectly aligned and spaced with appropriate arrows and nice shading and shadows as illustrated below:
An example flowchart created in SmartDraw
You can easily select from various color schemes (or create your own) and you can instantly apply a new color scheme to an existing diagram. Honestly, you have to see this to believe it. They’ve really gone out of their way to make SmartDraw easy and intuitive to use. For example, there’s an “Export to PowerPoint”
option that automatically creates a PowerPoint slide containing your creation. In the case of something like a flowchart, there’s an option to generate a series of PowerPoint slides reflecting the way in which the shapes forming the chart were added. And if you already have a PowerPoint presentation open, these new slides are automatically inserted into this existing presentation.
One of the things I used to use a lot in Visio was the maps, but these disappeared from the Standard version years ago. By comparison, SmartDraw comes equipped with maps of the USA (regional and state), Canada, the United Kingdom, Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, Latin America, and the world – it’s also integrated with Google Maps, which I thought was a really nice touch.
Below are a few examples of the sorts of things you can do you can see a whole lot more on the SmartDraw site itself (www.smartdraw.com/examples
). Also there’s a free download you can play with.
The bottom line is that if you want to create truly professional looking graphics and presentations without having to train at art school for several years, then I personally have not seen anything that comes close to the capabilities and ease-of-use offered by SmartDraw. I for one am very impressed.
An example mind-map created in SmartDraw
An example landscape diagram created in SmartDraw
An example map created in SmartDraw