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!

Visio Glue and Connector Exercise

Last column we learned about glue and glue types.  Today’s column is nice and short – we just work!  To refresh your minds, you may want to take a quick peek at the last column and remind yourself as to how to apply the glue types.

Where are we going today?

Two examples – a network diagram, where you’re stepped through the creation and glue types, and a challenge involving a flowchart and determining how to draw it.

Let’s go to work

We will create the diagram shown below by the end of this assignment:


1. Create a new blank diagram based on the Basic Network Shapes template.  (If presented with the option, it doesn’t matter which units you use.)

2. Reveal the Basic Network Shapes 3D stencil by clicking its title bar.  (It’s much cooler than the others.)

3. Drag the shapes in the above diagram onto the page, more or less in place.  Don’t worry about lining them up precisely.  (Personal computer, Printer, Router, Server, Firewall, WAN, Comm-link, Satellite)


4. Select the WAN cloud and type “Internet”.  Press ESC when done.

5. Select the Comm-link.  This is an example of a connector that cannot be dynamically glued.  Drag its endpoints to meet the blue connection points on the Satellite and the Firewall.  Remember – it’s not connected until you see the endpoint turn red.


6. Select the Satellite.  Its text is being blocked by the Comm-link, but can be moved by dragging the small yellow diamond.  Move the text above the Satellite.


7. Switch to the Dynamic Connector tool

8. You must now connect the computers and printer to the router.  Let’s assume the actual point of connection doesn’t matter on the computers and the printer, but we want all connections on the router to stick to the point on the top centre.  Therefore we use dynamic glue on the computers and printer end of the connector and static glue on the router end.

Hold the CTRL key down while hovering the mouse over the computer.  Click and drag towards the router.  Let go of the CTRL key before dragging the end point to the connection point on the router.

Note that the direction you’re dragging the line is meaningful; Visio remembers which was the beginning and which was the end point for purposes such as assigning arrowheads to lines.


9.  Repeat step 8 for each of the computers and the printer.  Important – don’t let go of the mouse until you’ve actually reached the connection point on the router.  If you do, your line isn’t connected.  (Remember, unconnected endpoints are green, connected are red.)  To correct this, just grab the green endpoint and drag it into place, in the same way you connected the endpoints of the Comm-link.  Because of the nature of the Dynamic Connector, and the fact you’re connecting to the same point, your lines will automatically align themselves.


10. Finally, use dynamic glue to connect the Router to the Server, the Server to the Firewall, and the Firewall to the Internet.  (Remember to hold the CTRL key down when connecting both ends of the line.)


You’re done!  Congratulations!

Now that you’ve mastered the art of gluing, see what happens if you move the router down, or the firewall up.  Visio does what it can to keep the lines flowing in a meaningful fashion.  Yes, you can mess up the drawing if you go beyond what it considers appropriate limits.  We’ll cover line routing in a future column.  In the meantime, carefully planning and managing your drawing allows you to sidestep that particular heartache.


Good with glue?  Know your flowcharting rules?  Figure out the correct way to glue the connectors in this diagram based on the Basic Flowchart template.  The answer is below, but try to think your way through it first.


Good luck, and see you soon!


Answer to Challenge


Dark red = static glue.  Bright red = dynamic glue.  The glue types of the endpoints are visible all at the same time because each of the line objects was selected using SHIFT-click.

Visio Static and Dynamic Glue

Last time we discussed choosing templates and shapes out of stencils. The stencils were opened by the templates, so we saw that Visio tries to do what it can to reduce your work.  The shapes we placed on the page were resized and restacked (front to back order), as well as duplicated.  Text was entered into some of the shapes, and Visio zoomed in or out if necessary to allow you to read the text as you type it.

This column explorers the use of Glue, a critical Visio concept used to, well, keep it all together.  Just like real-life glue, Visio’s glue comes in different types for different purposes, and its strength can vary.  Unlike real-life glue, you can change existing glue types on the fly and even what you can glue to and what you can’t.  Glue allows you to create a meaningful drawing with a direction of flow, instead of a random bunch of shapes on the page.

Theory, theory, theory

Sticky Figures

There are three glue types – Static, Dynamic, and an unnamed glue that exists between connection points (the blue x).  The help says there are only two types, static and dynamic, and we’re only going to look at them today.  (Note: Those of you who are advanced users should go and read the Help topic “about connection points”.  I’m stating this not to confuse you, but to make you realize that a very powerful technique exists that’s often overlooked; gluing a shape directly to another shape without a connector.)

We’re going to glue connectors (lines) to shapes.  After gluing, if you move the shape the line moves with it, no matter where you move the shape.  This has obvious benefits for diagrams where some sort of flow direction is required.

What you need: a blank Visio diagram based on the Basic Network Shapes template.  Click the Basic Network Shapes 3D stencil title to access its shapes and drag the Personal Computer shape onto the page four times as shown here (I’ve zoomed in for convenience).

Now click the Dynamic Connector tool button, or press CTRL-3.  When you move your mouse onto the drawing page, it now has a small tail, indicating the tool type in use.

Static Glue

Static glue is the default.  When you drag a connector over top of the little blue on a shape, a small red box appears.  When you let go, the end of the line is now stuck to the shape and now has a dark red colour.  (An unglued end is green.)  The line end always sticks to that exact point, hence the name Static glue.  Use static glue when you want to guarantee the connector always sticks to the shape at the same point regardless of what happens to the shape.

1. Click and drag from a connection point on the left shape in the top row to the right shape in the top row

2. Switch back to the Pointer Tool by clicking the button or by pressing CTRL-1.

3. Swap the shapes so that the original left shape is now the right shape (stop a few times along the way to see what happens).  Notice the line doesn’t let go of its original glue point, even though the path may become convoluted.

4. Click the line to check the appearance of statically glued ends.  The end points are small, red, and dark.

Now switch back to the Dynamic Connector tool for the next exercise.

Dynamic Glue

Dynamic glue requires one extra step.  When you hover over a shape with a line end, hold the CTRL key down.  You’ll see a red box around the shape (instead of around a connection point).  Let go of the mouse first.  You’ve now stuck the connector to the shape with dynamic glue.  The endpoint is bright red, and is larger than the statically glued endpoint from earlier.  The line end sticks to that shape and not to a point.  If you move the shape, the line is allowed to find its own path into it.  Use dynamic glue when you don’t care about the path of the line or where it connects on the shape.

Important: Not all connectors can be dynamically glued to shapes.  You’ll see when you use them.

1. Hold the CTRL key down and hover the mouse over the shape.  The entire shape will have a red box around it.

2. While holding the CTRL key, drag from the left shape in the bottom row to the right shape in the bottom row until you see the same red box surrounding the right shape.  Let go of the mouse first.

3. Switch back to the Pointer Tool by clicking the button or by pressing CTRL-1.

4. Swap the shapes so that the original left shape is now the right shape (stop a few times along the way to see what happens).  Notice Visio decides where the line connects to the shape, and it’s often the most efficient path.

5. Click the line to check the appearance of dynamically glued ends.  The end points are large, red, and bright.

So what are real-life examples of using static vs. dynamic glue?  Imagine you’re diagramming a network.  If the goal is simply to get a high-level understanding of the parts, then the location of the actual connection of a line to a shape really doesn’t matter, so you can use dynamic glue.  That way, if you move it around the lines still take reasonable paths from one shape to another.  But if you’re drawing the detailed floor plan for the room the network will be housed in, the location of the electrical, telephone, and network outlets is quite meaningful.  You can’t let Visio decide where on the wall to connect the cables, so you use static glue to keep things in their desired place.

By the way, you can use both types of glue on the same line.  It’s entirely reasonable to require one end is fixed to a connection point on a shape and the other end is free to choose its connection.  Think of a series of PCs connected to a router.  The point of connection on the router is meaningful, but the point of connection on the PC might not matter at all, if your diagram is focused on the router.

Next column, we take all this theory and put it to practice.  It’ll be short, but entirely practical.  See you then!

Introduction to Diagramming with Microsoft Visio

Hello, and welcome to the new Learn Visio column on! I’m Neman Syed, Commander-in-Chief of Industrial Strength Training, Consulting, and Development.

First and foremost, I’d like to thank Dan DiNicolo for approaching me to write this column and providing such an excellent forum in which to present it. I hope that what we as a community do with this forum proves to be highly beneficial for all involved. I’ve been using Visio since 1998 (version 4.5) and have since become a huge fan of this immensely powerful and fun to use program. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to work with major corporations throughout Canada and the USA, adding significant business value to their diagrams and assisting them in creating effective visual communication tools. In addition to Visio, I work with Crystal Reports, Access, Excel, VBA, and many other products.

Let’s get something clear right away. I’m not an artist, nor do I play one on TV. Truth be told, I can’t draw a straight line with a ruler. Moral of the story? Using the tools in Visio enables me to get across what I need to with clarity, precision, and minimum emotional trauma.

Where are we going today?

The first few columns are going to be about Visio basics. In this column I’ll make some suggestions for installation, then we’ll leap into creating a block diagram to describe interactions between groups. Column two will discuss the important concept of glue, which is what keeps it all together. We’ll use glue to help assemble two network diagrams, one high-level and one detail-level. In column three, we’ll explore page manipulation, including drawing on pages larger than your printer can support, so that a large cross-functional flowchart can be test-printed on your trusty HP before being sent to the colour plotter for an expensive final copy. By then, I expect there will be enough feedback to determine the direction and level of information the 2000Trainers community wants.