What software to use for figures on Mac

Recently I was sitting next to someone at a conference and he was working on figures for a paper during a session. So far sounds pretty normal. Trouble was he was using microsoft powerpoint…on a Mac. I realized that we have neglected this important topic in Macademic.

There are several different software options for figures. Some people recommend using Keynote for simple figures. Keynote provides many basic functions such as smart connections between elements and alignment guides. This is certainly a possibility if you don’t make figures that frequently and they don’t need to be professional quality. Another alternative is Lineform which I used it for several years when I first switched to Mac. Eventually I found that it didn’t have enough features and was tedious to work with. Lineform has not been updated since approximately 2007.

Now I primarily use OmniGraffle and Adobe Illustrator. OmniGraffle is a smooth and relatively inexpensive program which is easy to learn and use. It allows you to work with both Layers and different canvases and has many features to draw and connect different shapes, manipulate the transparency and size of objects, as well as manipulate text. Here is an example of a figure in an academic article which was very quickly made with OmniGraffle:

A figure made with OmniGraffle. Note how the connectors can attach to different points (‘magnets’) of the text boxes.

OmniGraphSketcher is a great program to sketch graphs with which can be useful particularly for preparing for class. I would only recommend using it for plotting the simplest graphs (both axes linear and relatively simple functions).

The one problem with OmniGraffle is that it doesn’t allow you to edit scalable vector graphics (svg) or PDF vector files. These types of files can only be manipulated in graphic software such as Adobe Illustrator or Inkscape (the open source version of Illustrator). Adobe Illustrator is a powerful piece of software but it’s really expensive and has a steep learning curve. It is initially pretty unintuitive. If you do want to manipulate svg or PDF vector files with Illustrator be sure to “Release clipping mask” under the “Objects” menu and also “Ungroup” objects.

For more on graphics design visit Edward Tufte’s blog.


About Jessica Jewell

Jessica Jewell is an Associate Professor at Chalmers University of Technology and a Professor at University of Bergen where she researches the feasibility of climate action (https://www.polet.network).
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10 Responses to What software to use for figures on Mac

  1. I’ve been wrestling with programs for creating figures for the past few months too on the Mac, unfortunately I’m finding Omnigraffle hampered when compared to Visio for technical figures, for flow diagrams and charts it’s brilliant, but anything intricate and particularly involving curved geometries and it’s a chore… I’m slowly coming round to thinking that I might just have to bite the bullet and pony up for an academic licence for illustrator if I want to draw high quality technical figures on a Mac. Thanks for sharing your figures.


    • Jessica Jewell says:

      Thanks for your comment Neil! I can understand your frustrations with Omnigraffle. Indeed for curved geometries it’s really tedious (particularly curved text!). You might also check out Inkscape (if you do let us know how it works out).


  2. I’ve been very happy with Intaglio for creating figures / editing SVG files. Works pretty much like Illustrator but without the bloat or huge expense:



  3. Csaba Pusztai says:

    Yep, it pretty much depends on what degree of complexity you need in the illustrations. I find OmniGraffle fast and handy for conceptual art (flow charts, shapes’n’arrows), but I definitely need to fire up Illustrator when I need more than that. As a matter of fact, I find OmniGraffle’s handling of text (bullets etc.) too basic sometimes.


  4. Matthew Miller says:

    Thanks for the post about figures. Right now I’m struggling with the best way to make tables. I’m playing with multimarkdown. Ideas?


  5. Pingback: Simple tables on Mac | Academic workflows on Mac

  6. Pingback: Simple tables on Mac | Academic workflows on Mac

  7. Jo Frost says:

    Another one that I have used from time to time is Lucidchart which serves as an online alternative to Omnigraffle and Visio. It gives out free Pro accounts if you have a .edu e-mail address.


  8. Pingback: Academic workflows on a Mac | Josh Philpot

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