Visio Shape Dictionary

One thing I have been thinking about for a long time is Visio documentation for Smart Shapes. In the past new stencils were introduced with a document that out lined special “magic” that the shapes contained.

Now most novice/new Visio users just assume that Visio shapes are glorified clip art. Even some of the “official” stencils from Microsoft have little magic. Some are just regular images encapsulated in a Visio shape and have limited stretching. Some of the better ones do start life as SVGs and have the potential to be smart shapes.

So, what I would like to create is a Visio Shape Dictionary that lists the magic within the shapes that Microsoft Visio offers with a brief description of the magic and the limitations.

Since some of the magic is common to several shapes, the descriptions will refer to another document a Visio Shape Glossary that goes into detail on the magic.

Visio Shape Magic Glossary

ClipArt vs SVG

When you add a graphic image to a Visio shape, Visio wraps the image in a Visio shape so that the image can be treated like any other Visio shape. If the image is SVG, Visio will add it as collection of Visio elements and it will make a good starting point for further embellishments.

Data Graphics

Visio shapes can be embellished with Data Graphics.

Dimensions / Scale

Visio shapes can represent more than abstract ideas, they can represent physical objects that have dimensions and can be scaled.

This Pool table shape uses Shape Data to choose between the various pool table sizes and the standard cloth colours.

Foreground/Background pages

Visio has two types of pages, Foreground pages where you place your drawing and Background pages that can be attached to Foreground pages. Only Foreground pages can be printed. Background pages can have other Background page attached.


The general rule for Visio shapes is they can have only one text block, one fill colour, one line colour etc. This can be over come by creating individual shapes with the different features and grouping. When you select a number of shapes and Group them, then Visio creates a new shape (a group shape) and places all the selected shapes as sub shapes to the group shape. The new shapes will be altered so their formulas reference the groups shape. You can then add  magic to these shapes. Initially, the references in the subshapes are proportional to the group shape. You can then change the relationship of subshapes from proportional to relative. You can also add Connection, Shape Data and User Sections to the group shape and reference them from the subshapes.

The big caveat is that Ungroup is not always reversible. If you do not embellish shapes after a Group, then UnGroup is no issue. If you do, any embellishments will be lost. This is very true for shapes created by others. Be sure you know what is in a shape before Ungrouping. The best way is to use Add to Group or select sub shapes and delete.

H&F vs Background pages

Like other Office products, Visio does have Headers and Footers, but they were added for a specific case. A customer wanted to print a large format document as letter sized pages. Rather than scaling, they wanted to tile the drawing. They also wanted to mark page numbers on the individual pages.

The Visio way is to use background pages that had far more options for what and where information was printed. The background pages allowed for information from  foreground page to be printed in a consistent manner. They wanted to make a hard copy version of archival purposes.

Foreground pages can only have one background page attached to it, but a background page can have a background page attached to it. . So, you can “layer” the information by using multiple background pages.

Hidden Elements

Some shapes have hidden elements, like the Ethernet shape. If you need more Ethernet connectors, you just drag a connection point (the yellow circles) from the center section of the shape, but there is a limit. Notice the connection points are not visible until you elect the shape.

add ethernet shape.

Some shapes would magically seem to add elements. These extra elements were already there, but the geometry sections were set to NoShow. For example, you could create a star rating shape and make which stars visibility dependent on shape data.

Braille shape

This was a single shape that exposed different pips depending on the shape data for the character the shape represents.

or the laundry symbols

The same shape, but the dots or the hand appearance was dependent on shape data.

Master vs Instance

What appears in a stencil is a master. When a shape is created  on a page or a master is dragged to a page, that is an Instance.

Shapes vs Geometry Sections

This is not really magic, but it is a Chris-ism – Keep It Simple. Creating shapes with more Geometry sections is preferred over creating shapes with more subshapes. Simple shapes load faster.

Let the Fun Begin

It is all nice making these great plans, but someone needs to get the ball rolling. So, it is time for me to mine the information from the current shapes.

When these documents become more defined, I will add them to my download page and keep them updated.

I hope you find this useful.

John… Visio MVP in x-aisle

Published by johnvisiomvp

The original Visio MVP. I have worked with the Visio team since 1993