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8/96 Features: Go with the Flow

Text alone doesn't always do the trick.
Punch up your message with charts and graphics…
it's easier than ever!

By Joel T. Patz

Don't tell me. Show me! That's advice worth heeding when you're dealing with hurry-up-and-get-to-the-point business executives. Why take several pages of text to communicate a message when a single illustration can do it more quickly and effectively? Whether you're creating presentations, documents or Web pages, graphics can play an important role. And you don't have to be a designer to make the most of visuals--the business graphics applications available today are as easy to use as they are powerful.

A Vision of the Future

Flowcharts and organizational charts are the two most frequently created types of business graphics. In the past, it was sometimes necessary to use different applications to create these charts and other business-oriented visual elements: an org-charting program, a drawing package to create illustrations, a presentation app and even a CAD package for detailed work.

Recognizing the demand for diverse kinds of graphics, Visio Corp. introduced the first multifunction graphics package. Visio employs template libraries--collections of predefined shapes (called SmartShapes) with built-in intelligence. You can dag and drop SmartShapes onto the drawing surface. This feature has clearly filled a need: Visio has a 59 percent share of the business diagramming market, and is being primed to become the core illustration engine for third-party application developers as well.

There are innumerable uses for this type of application. Imagine a set of standard background drawings that illustrate intersections. Now add a template with appropriate objects: cars, minivans, trucks, buses and pedestrians. With these tools, it's easy to create an accurate illustration for almost any scenario.

Visio hopes to change the concept of business graphics from simple single-user drawings to collaborative projects. The company touts Visio's compatibility with Microsoft Office, implying a short learning curve for current users. Familiarity with the product means that more team members can manipulate drawings.

Visio's ambitious plans have involved creating files in which graphic illustration and database information interact. Consider space planning. With a combination of OLE automation and Visio functionality, you can add an employee to your database, and Visio will add a new desk to your office layout. It works both ways: Delete a desk from the drawing, and you can delete an employee's record from your database.

Last year, the company entered the computer-aided design (CAD) market with Visio Technical. This program couples Visio's easy interface with the ability to create two-dimensional technical drawings.

Vertical and Horizontal Controls

Now that mainstream companies have expressed interest in CAD, that arena is also heating up. 3D/EYE is exploring the third dimension with its new TriSpectives package. It offers an array of sophisticated 3-D design tools that let you create outstanding visual effects. 3D/EYE uses IntelliShapes, smart objects you can drag and drop. These objects inherently know how to place themselves. They can rotate and tilt in all directions, and they recognize tangent points and edges when snapped together.

If terms like reflection (the act of rendering an object opaque to a light source) and refraction (allowing an object to be translucent) are foreign to you, they won't be for long. Besides making 3-D more user-friendly, many packages are now easier on the pocketbook. The TriSpectives Professional version, for example, costs under $500.

The Simpler, the Better

Until recently, graphics standards were constantly changing. Varying file formats wreaked havoc with graphics programs. Anyone who worked with these files had a utility that did nothing but convert graphics from one format to another.

New formats have now slowed to a trickle, allowing software developers to turn to more pressing matters: simplifying the processes by which we can create or manipulate graphics. An easy-to-use front end is common among the latest crop of graphics programs. Adobe's PhotoDeluxe is a useful tool for editing bitmapped graphic images. (See the PhotoDeluxe 1.0 review in this issue.)

Don't be surprised if graphics programs soon employ wizards to make things even easier, with wizards that walk you through the steps to customize templates similar to the way that Windows 95 walks you through the addition of components or hardware.

Moving on Up

The World Wide Web changed the way we look at images. Two formats--GIF and JPEG--are standards for displaying graphics on the Web. Products like JASC's Paint Shop Pro have included features--such as transparent backgrounds--that are now in great demand. Web designers want images that appear to blend in with a page's background, "floating" on the backdrop.

Most graphics on the Web are static. There are fancy bullets and buttons, but for the most part graphics are used solely for illustration. Micrografx believes graphics should do more than look pretty. Its newest technology, ABC QuickSilver Pack ($9.95), is a Netscape and Internet Explorer plug-in to make browsing a more interactive process.

Pages containing ABC QuickSilver-enriched graphics can take action as the mouse moves over different parts of the graphic. Imagine viewing a map of the U.S. on your Web page. As you move your mouse to a specific state on the map, text in the upper right corner of the map displays the state's population and other interesting details. Move the mouse to another state and the population figure and details change automatically.

ABC QuickSilver, used in tandem with Micrografx's ABC Graphics Suite, can also build layers of active graphics, allowing you, for example, to create an image that looks like a tabbed dialog box. As you click on a different tab, a new image attached to the tab appears on the screen in the same way we've seen in applications. With QuickSilver, objects can display a status line, change the cursor's shape, flash, spin or act as a jump.

The dialog box here is a single graphic that is downloaded once. When you move between tabs, no new graphic has to be downloaded. Instead, a new graphic layer is displayed. This gives you a much more interactive experience--and imagine how fast the page will download!

Like Micrografx, ProModel Corp. isn't content to let graphics sit still--its ProcessModel app belongs to a new class of programs that uses graphics with an animation engine to show how processes work in detail. (See ProcessModel 2.0 in the June issue.)

ProcessModel uses small images as a metaphor for developing a process that walks you through a procedure step by step. Once the various steps are delineated, the image moves along the flowchart graphic and reaches the proper department, all based on sophisticated processing decisions at each workstation along the way.

The new business graphics packages provide easier-to-use front ends in combination with slick-looking images and extended capabilities. Both the artistically challenged and the graphically proficient can use these tools to create impressive business images.

Joel T. Patz, a frequent contributor to WINDOWS Magazine, is a Pacific Northwest freelance writer with a wide variety of interests in electronic media.

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