Finding Visio Shapes

Visio has thousands of shapes available for you to use.  Why reinvent the wheel when you can just pop open a stencil and use what it has?  But which stencil?  Which shape?  Finding the shape you want can be quite a challenge – until of course, you read this column!

Where are we going today?

By the end of this column, you will be able to find the shape you want in a Visio stencil or on the Internet.

Let’s go to work

Closing and Opening Stencils – You Know What You Want and Where It Is

Normally you’ll start a Visio diagram (VSD extension) from a template (VST extension).  The template includes stencil files (VSS extension) the designers felt would be appropriate for use in that type of diagram.  The stencils are normally displayed on the left-hand side of the screen, and you can close them by clicking their control icon and choosing Close.

As soon as you have more than one stencil open, Visio 2002 makes a slight change in the appearance of the stack.  A new title bar, called Shapes, comes into existence, and it’s equipped with its own little X to close off all the stencils with one click.

Opening other stencils is accomplished most efficiently by clicking the Open Stencil button’s little drop-down arrow, clicking the folder name, then clicking the desired stencil.

Repeat the action as necessary to open another stencil.

Power User Tip: To open multiple stencils at once, click the main part of the Open Stencil button to access the Stencil Open dialog.  Select all the stencils you want (using SHIFT- or CTRL-click) then click Open.

Finding the Shape You Want

The first thing you have to come to terms with is that the shape you want may not exist in your library, and that you may have to draw it yourself.  That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist though – the shape could be available in another version of Visio, or even online through Microsoft or other parties who make stencils commercially.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s find some shapes!  (Note: the steps and screen captures are from Visio 2002.  Older versions of Visio, such as 5, have a different interface, which I’ll briefly discuss below.)

The Find Shape feature enables you to search your hard drive for Visio stencils and index the shapes found within each one.  If you have an active Internet connection, then Visio can automatically search for new and updated shapes provided online by Microsoft.  (Note: If the Find Shape feature is not available, it was not installed.  You’ll need to go back to your installation CD to get it.)

To find a shape, either

1. Click


2. Choose File, Find Shape…

(For you experienced Visio users – it’s no longer under Tools -> Macros -> Visio Extras, so don’t bother looking.)

The Find Shape pane opens up underneath any open stencils.

Now type the search term(s) that loosely (or exactly) describe what you’re looking for.  Like any search engine, more terms mean a narrower field of results, but risk excluding an item of interest by being too specific.

Power User Tip: The drop-down menu holds previous search terms for easy re-use.

Power User Tip: You cannot use wildcards (* or ?) to broaden your search.  There is no “related terms” logic; typing “circuit” will not return “circuits”.  It does not understand synonyms, only exact keyword matches.

Choose whether to require any of the words (default, OR search) or all of the words (AND search).  Click Go.  Searching doesn’t get any more complicated than that.

When the search is complete (it might take some time, so be patient), a list of shapes that meet your criteria are presented, grouped by their containing stencil.

Use the newly found shape like any other, by simply dragging it onto the page.

Now that you’ve found the shape…

The search results aren’t just a static display.  For example, you can right-click the name of the stencil (e.g. Audit Diagram Shapes) to open the stencil, group/ungroup the shapes by stencil name, or change the layout of the view.

You can right-click the shape itself to save the shape to your own custom stencil, or again, change the grouping or the view.

If you do save a shape into its own stencil, continue adding other shapes to that stencil, building your perfect set of shapes!  It’s a good idea to save the stencil somewhere along your stencil path, so that Visio can find your shapes in the future.

Power User Tip: Your stencil path, and other file paths, are specified under Tools -> Options -> File Paths.  The default paths are all under C:\Program Files\Microsoft Office\Visio10.  All the rest of the items are in a subfolder named after your language code (e.g. US/Canadian English is 1033).

Power User Tip: Saving your stencils inside the Solutions folder means they’ll be available to you through the normal Visio interface.

When Visio saves your stencil, it restores the drawing windows to their normal size.  You might want to maximize them again.  You can open your stencil at any time, by clicking the middle of the Open Stencil button and navigating to the file location.

If a shape has a shortcut arrow as part of its icon, then that shape is located either only on the Web, or is an updated version of a shape on your local hard drive.  If you’re going to use it frequently, then save the shape to a stencil as discussed above.

If you find the grouped-by-stencil approach takes up too much room, try ungrouping the shapes by right-clicking either the stencil title or any shape and clicking Group to toggle the appearance.

Search Options

Refine the search behaviour using the Options link at the bottom of the search pane.

From here you can control where Visio looks for shapes, how to display the search results, manage your search temp files, and update the shape search index.

Power User Tip: Speed up your search by unchecking The Internet from your search path if you don’t have an always-on connection, so that Visio doesn’t waste time looking out there.

In Earlier Versions of Visio…

Find Shapes was known as the Shape Explorer, a Visio Extra that was not installed by default.  What a shame.  You could get it by going to Tools -> Macros -> Visio Extras -> Shape Explorer.  The interface was different (e.g. it opens in a separate window, the shape name but not picture is not displayed, etc.) but the same tasks could be accomplished.  If you don’t see it, ask your system administrator.  It’s an excellent tool.

Congratulations – you’re a search genius!  Next column we’ll talk about Visio drawing aids, such as Shape Extensions and Snap To.  See you then!

Author: Neman Syed

Industrial Strength provides training, consulting, and development for Visio and other products. Please browse through our site to see a sampling of the services we offer and contact us to learn how we can help you become more productive with Microsoft and Crystal Decisions tools.