OneNote 2007 Drawing Tools

Awhile back I promised to write about drawing tools in OneNote 2007. I'm pleased to say that thanks to the valiant efforts of one of our interns (hiya Bill!), we've got 'em!

Obviously a big part of capturing information quickly is capturing diagrams. Whether it be lectures at school or things drawn on the whiteboard during a meeting you often have to depict information visually, and that's hard when all you can do is draw freehand. It's not too bad if you have a pen and a Tablet PC, but its really rough if you just have a mouse, track pad, or "nib" as most people are stuck with on desktops or laptops.

And it's not just note taking. A common use for OneNote is as a drafting table for ideas, and you need drawing tools for that as well. We also find a disturbing number of people trying to create "presentation quality" output in OneNote. We don’t design for that but drawing tools will help there too (at least straight lines versus quavery hand drawn ones!)

As we pondered drawing tools, we had to decide whether they would be typical Office drawing tools or something more natural for OneNote. One thing that is different for OneNote is that we support ink already (on all PC types, not just Tablets). The Office drawing tools which you see in Word, Excel, etc. have a lot of functionality but also live in a different "layer" which OneNote wouldn't get to interact with much. That would mean for example that ink you draw on a page would not be able to interact with the drawing objects. Ink tools such as the eraser and lasso would not affect the drawing tools. Also these objects would not have awareness of other things on a OneNote page such as text that you might want to type on them. It's hard to explain the subtleties of the issues here but suffice it to say in the end we decided that having native drawing tools would be a better experience for our users.

We also had to decide what tools to provide. As I've talked about before, we don’t get to just have everything we can imagine, so we did some analysis of the types of diagrams people try to put into OneNote. We came up with a basic shape set that seemed to allow the creation of most basic diagrams.

First off, OneNote 2007 has a drawing tools toolbar that looks like this:

On the left you see familiar pen tools such as selection/typing mode, lasso, eraser, delete, add more space and pen. Then the drawing tools start:

  • straight line
  • line with arrow
  • line with two arrows
  • elbow line (which tries to draw the best line between two points without using any diagonals). Elbow line includes some variants with arrows:

Next come the shapes:

  • Rectangle/square
  • Ellipse/circle
  • Parallelogram
  • Triangle
  • Rhombus/Diamond

Next is a fun one. We felt that graphs were a common thing people needed in OneNote, so we have a tool that lets you draw axes in one swoop, including in three dimensions:

After that come pen color and thickness. Then a useful button called duplicate shape, which makes the buttons sticky so you can draw repeat shapes of the same type over and over again.

Here are some examples of the basic shapes in various colors, pen widths, and sizes:


The last control is Rotate, which lets you rotate or flip whatever you have selected to make symmetric or other similar shape clusters.

Here's a little flower I made using the rotate and flip commands (aww…)

These drawing tools actually have some nice little smarts built in to them. If you use them quickly, they snap to the grid on the page and it is easy to line up the edges of the shapes. If you start hovering slowly while finalizing the location of the end point they will slip into "exact" mode and let you drop the shape edge exactly where you want it. Modifier keys like Ctrl and Shift do the typical constrain and unconstrain thing. Some shapes like circle can be created either with the circle edge intersecting where you first clicked the pen or you can have that point be the corner of the bounding rectangle for the shape. Think about that a bit - it's important when you're trying to actually make a diagram and want the edges of circles to line up with arrows and so on.

Of course we didn't get everything some people will expect. There are no fills or gradients. You can't "connect" shapes so that when you move one the other will distort so that it continues to link that shape to another (typical of arrow lines). You can't attach text to the shapes, although you can click on them and put text labels on top. We don't try to auto-recognize hand drawn shapes and turn them into regularized shapes. Of course the list of things we didn't do can fill a book so I won’t go on (oh, we didn't do animated pac-men either, sorry Federico). We think we've got the basic set in and hope you’re all happy. If it hadn’t been for our intern we wouldn’t have had these at all, so it's all bonus!

Finally I'll leave you with a message Bill the intern provided on his last day with us:

Comments (30)

  1. Ralf Uem says:

    Glad to see we finally have drawing tools! It would be nice to have some stamps working the same way on photoshop; ie: just like you did your flower, we can save it as a template, so everytime you want another flower just go to my templates and insert it instantly.

  2. cuekwe says:

    OneNote is truly a killer app. and I’ve been a power user for some time. However, IMO, OneNote 2007 *MUST* include: "insert symbol keyboard shortcuts (and more symbol choices)," "setting to allow custom stationary as default for any new page (not just in current section)," "MORE COLOR CHOICES for note flag highlights, and GLOBAL update of note flag changes," "Support application of note flags to selected text (not just current paragraph)," "I would like full control over input panel positioning as allowed in V.1.0," "I routinely experience my cursor automatically jumping to either the top and bottom of sections – what’s up with that?," "Option for linked content to be visible where the link is placed." Bottom line: Great Job Microsoft on a beautiful tool!

  3. cuekwe says:

    Oh, one more thing (sorry to be a pest): I find that I must constantly re-apply list formatting to maintain proper spacing of my notes. This is a *HUGE* pain. That is, I want the ability to create a new page with pre-specified formatting (perhaps saved along with my customary stationary — nudge nudge). Also, more paragraph options (e.g., spacing, bullets and numbering, paragraph tags, and the like) as in MS-Word would be ideal! Thanks again folks.

  4. JWFisher says:

    This product – and this team – is GREAT!!!

  5. Ralf: nice idea. We don’t have a feature for that but of course you could create a page full of such grouped shapes and then copy/paste from it.

    cuekwe: you can insert many common symbols using shortcuts, such a  Ctrl+’ followed by “e” to get a e with an acute accent (é). You can use similar shortcuts to get characters such as (Áéíóúàèìòùäëïöüâêîôûçãñõ). The insert symbol dialog also teaches you the numeric shortcuts for any character followed by Alt-x. Of course you can also set up AutoCorrect to insert symbols, suhc as the everpopualr “ss” gets replaced by (§). I am not clear what you mean by “more symbol choices” – you can insert any symbol in any font on your machine through the Insert Symbol dialog. For the cursor jumping issue and the need to reapply list formatting I’d love more details especially repro steps.

    JWFisher: thanks!!!

  6. An excellent post on the drawing tools in the upcoming OneNote 2007.

    Obviously a big part of capturing…

  7. An excellent post on the drawing tools in the upcoming OneNote 2007.

    Obviously a big part of capturing…

  8. An excellent post on the drawing tools in the upcoming OneNote 2007.

    Obviously a big part of capturing…

  9. Beta 1 of "OneNote 12" (and "Office12") is now available for download for those people who are signed…

  10. Nguyễn Đăng Quang says:

    A very nice feature. I’ve tried some but never owned a TabletPC yet (but that will be my next choice).

  11. cuekwe says:

    Chris – thanks much for the reply. Regarding symbols, I know the tricks for language characters. Rather, as a student, I have routine need for symbols like the "backwards E" and "upside down A" (e.g., as used in the predicate calculus). These and other symbols (which are important to me, yet unavailable in OneNote) are readily available in MS-Word. Also, in MS-Word, I can create custom keyboard shortcuts to quickly insert such symbols (a very slick feature). Anyway, this functionality would be, I think, a wonderful addition for students of math and the sciences. And handwriting recognition of such symbols would be a dream come true!

  12. cuekwe: Of course all these symbols are available in OneNote via Insert/Symbol (if you can find a font that supports them – the insert symbol dialog box shows only the symbols in the font you current have selected in the upper right). I know it is not as nice as a single key combo, but you can use AutoCorrect for both of these. e.g set up autocorrect to replace "xe" with the backward e, (∃) and "xa" with inverted a (∀). Just copy/paste the character into the "with" box in autocorrect to get started. This will also then work in Word. Alternatively, use the Unicode shortcut of 2200 (2203 for the E) followed by Alt-x. Although that is a little more cumbersome it ill always pick a font that has the required glyph in it.

    Handwriting reco – the tablet guys own that.

  13. caunt says:

    Great!   It’s not a "drawing" tool. but one thing  I’ve been wishing for has to do with lists: (something One note is great for)  : It sure would be nice to be able to do some  simple column stuff like calculate the total from a column or row

  14. Eric Schatzschneider says:

    That is very cool.

    What I would like to see is a import from OneNote drawing to Visio. Then you could scetch your ideas in a meeting or where ever and then later import them into Visio and fix them up to make a professional looking Visio diagram.

  15. Peter says:

    This is just another example of over-designing a tool to be all things to everyone.  You even state, "We also find a disturbing number of people trying to create ‘presentation quality’ output in OneNote."

    Then why are you giving them more tools to do so?  I guess it must not disturb you that much.  

    OneNote does a fabulous job at its primary function and I can’t image anyone taking the time to produce a well drawn out diagram during a meeting or class.  Why not concentrate on the note taking and then allow the user to move the data to another application that does a much better job of handling drawing?

  16. Peter: I’m a little confused by your comment. We chose *not* to do fancy drawing tools and instead focus on basic tools for note taking. People taking notes with a laptop have told us over and over that free-hand drawing with a mouse is not good enough and they need a way to capture diagrams on the fly, so here it is. For example, if a professor draws a Venn diagram with three regions, the drawing tools make that a snap – you can recreate the diagram in 20sec. We even included the graph axes because those are common in note taking so people can draw diagrams in real-time.

    As I mentioned (and maybe this is where the confusion is), no matter what we do people will try to use these tools (and in fact the whole product) however they want, even if we did not design it for those uses. The designer of a screwdriver cannot prevent users from trying to use it like a chisel if they so choose. So while we did not support fancy output features like gradients because we were focused on diagrams people would make while note taking, I am sure we will get asked for them, just as screwdriver users might wish the handle end was flatter so they could hit it with a hammer better (yikes!). The fact that with even these really basic note taking oriented drawing tools you can take time and make something half decent looking is a side effect, not a design goal.

  17. Simon Fern says:

    the ability to move shapes forward, backwards, etc.  would be wonderful!

  18. Kevin Holmes says:

    Chris & Peter, I use OneNote at work and at home, and together with Outlook the applications make up my main business and social tools. At work I use OneNote to develop concepts with my business team and to take the concepts into a more thought out design process. OneNotes ability to deliver both hand drawn sketches and now in 2007 more technically styled forms excites me no end. At home I use it to plan house projects and as a note book for research which includes mathematical models and image capture from the internet (kind of a scrap book of ideas). The development of the new tool set is not bloatware it’s an evolution of how users are adapting the application to their personal needs.

  19. Simon: You got it! We now have z-order (move to back, front, etc.)

    Kevin: Thanks for seeing it our way 🙂

  20. Tom_Tufts says:

    Firstly I’d like to say how much of a difference OneNote has made for me, I use it regularly in School now (Rochester Institute of Technology) and it has noticibly raised my organization and grades (bad organization=bad notes and vica versa)

    I would like to second a previous motion, and also suggest another.

    – Someone had mentioned that more colors for note flags would be good, I completely agree, its pointless to colorcode your notes when you only get 2 colors to work with.

    – I would love to see a combination of drawing and notetaking. My specific idea being, if you could put a little arrow on the corner of the text boxes that OneNote already uses, and have that point be the anchor of an Arrow. Basically, lets say I want to connect one paragraph, to another, I click on the corner of that paragraph, (a little arrow or box button) and drag to the other one, and it draws an elbow arrow to the other paragraph.

    I think that is described well enough.

    -Tom Tufts

    P.S. The arrow idea came to me when a friend of mine (mac lover) said that taking notes on paper is much better than computers, the argument that ensued ended with him winning, because you can’t link notes with arrows…

  21. Dino Mariano says:

    It s cool

  22. ellen says:

    I’d like to see onenote develop a student’s version that would work ONLY thru a website.  I’m an instructor, and using onenote for tutoring math – would be amazing – in realtime.  

  23. Luc Nocente says:

    I installed onenote 2007 with outlook 2003 but the one note transfer icon does not come up in outlook. Any ideas?

  24. Chip Evans says:

    Anything for MAC coming with their version of Office?

  25. Where can I find "More cool features" of OneNote 2007?

  26. Jake Matazon says:

    Yes, Onenote has a lot of new goodies and colors, and doo dads, but just in typical Microsoft style, it gives you a lot of what is secondary in importance and leaves what is really, really important hanging in the wind.

    I mean, the most important function for applications such as Onenote is SEARCHING.

    Despite, what microsoft claims, it has instituted a

    very weak and meager effort into the searching capability of this application.

    I mean, I have a lot of notes with the word "Jake" in Onenote already. Guess what, the search engine can not find this word burried in the text of a note. This is just one simple example. I will clap when I see a serious effort here. jm

  27. jake matazon says:

    Oh, talk about capturing information: Can OneNote or will OneNote ever be able to capture a web page as easily as let’s say Kinook’s "Ultra Recall."

    Try to capture a webpage by clicking that OneNote icon on IE and then go back to check it in OneNote.

    See, what I mean. Microsoft just does not have the will to go all the way on instituting solid features into its applications. Oh well, I wish I can say that I am getting tired of this software design philosophy and am going somewhere else. jm

  28. Joerg: if you mean the sample section that describes the new features, this is in the "guide" notebook that should have been part of your list of notebooks when you installed the beta. If you installed the German beta I am not sure what it is called, or even if it got fully localized ( I think it did)

    Jake: if you are talkig about Onenote 2007 beta 2, search has several problems in beta 2 that are resolved in beta 2 refresh (a big common one being that for many people it doesn’t find anything at all!). For your web pages issue, if you only want to capture web pages and not annotate them or do any of them many other things OneNote does I think it is easy to find a better program than OneNote – many such simple web page capture programs are even free. It really comes down to making choices for what provides the functionality you need. OneNote 2007 is much better than 2003 at keeping layout fidelity of web pages, especially those using tables, but because OneNote is not a browser it isn’t going to be perfect or in some cases very good at all. You can always print or screen clip the page into OneNote if you want visual fidelity.

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