Quite often I find myself in a situation where I need to explain hardware or software GIS infrastructure to people with no or limited knowledge of GIS. Or give an overview of geoprocessing tasks involved in an analysis.

In such cases picture can be trully worth thousand words. Doing last minute preparations I usually relied on quick and dirty PowerPoint slide with random assortment of free icons and images from around the web but I would be more happy to invest little bit more time into something that will look better.

I'm thinking about schemas resembling for instance images like this:

enter image description here

Or this:

enter image description here

What kind of software (preferably free) would be best suited to create such images?

Is there any place where you could get (preferably for free) 'GIS-specific' icons used in such diagrams?

  • I wasn't sure what kinf of tag would fit this question so feel free suggest/edit.
    – user173
    Commented Oct 12, 2011 at 9:27

4 Answers 4


yEd is another great free diagram editor you can use. It is similar to Visio, and quite easy to use.

  • 1
    +1 - a great diagramming tool. Plus the default computer icons look like they are from this millennium.. Commented Oct 12, 2011 at 17:55

I'd have to guess that the bottom one was done in some form of Microsoft Visio - which of course is not free. Here are some of those shapes from Visio 2010 that I just found on my install, and they look very similar to the graphic you show:

enter image description here

I have used InkScape for making all sorts of technical diagrams, posters, and flyers. It's completely FOSS, and if you have any experience with Adobe Illustrator, the learning curve isn't too bad. I often will Google for images I want to place into my diagram or there are tons of sites out there with SVG graphics you can use.

Another option, which I haven't tried, could be OpenOffice Draw. It is also FOSS and appears to have connectors like Visio and you can import common graphics formats.

As far as graphics you can find, Smashing Magazine has awesome posts on free icons sets that are out there (search the site for "icons" for more). I have found some real gems there, such as nice globes, computers, etc. Some of the icon sets even provide the vector formats of the icons, which is nice. These icons work great in pieces like what you are wanting to create.

I guess what I'm getting at is that, with a little creativity and Googling, you can easily make professional-looking diagrams with open-source drawing programs.

  • 1
    Open Clipart Library has pretty nice collection of images under CC0 Public Domain Dedication. Might be helpful since Google Image search might potentially give you results that won't be free to use.
    – user173
    Commented Oct 31, 2011 at 13:41
  • Visio is nice, but I've found it near to useless for documenting geoprocessing scripts. One reason is that it is lacking a useful default shape collection for that a purpose, so you'd first have to create a reasonable set of shapes (which doesn't seem like an easy task).
    – stakx
    Commented Feb 21, 2012 at 22:26

Take a look at the open-source project called Dia. Some older articles here and here describe its functionality and give it pretty good review as an alternative to Visio.

I have also used the Pencil Project software, in which you can quickly prototype GUI's or workflow diagrams in a "sketch" fashion (as if you were drawing on the back of a napkin, clearly meant to be a rough sketch, not a finalized design).

Some quick googling found some compiled lists (below) which compare many alternatives and give a quick introduction to each:


I use OmniGraffle, a commercial software for Mac (but not very expensive), and i'm very happy with it. It's specifically designed to help producing such schemas, with many helpful functions (align, distance, etc.)

For geo / GIS symbols i use :


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