Seven tips for working with Office shapes

Use these seven tips to create quick and effective impact when using shapes to enhance your Office documents.



Shapes are drawing objects—lines, circles, rectangles, and so on—that you can use to enhance Office documents. You might add a simple line to distinguish your name and address in your resume. Or you might add a bit of pizazz to a marketing document. Shapes are available in Excel, Outlook, Word, and PowerPoint. You can enhance them using colors, patterns, borders, and other special effects. In this article, I'll share some shape basics. Then, I'll show you seven ways to get the most from Office shapes.

I'm using Word 2016 on a Windows 10 64-bit system. Shapes aren't available at all in the 365 browser editions. You can work with any Office document you like; for #7, you can download the demonstration .docx or .doc file.

About shapes

Office shapes are available via the Illustrations group, which you'll find on the Insert tab. To insert a shape, click the Insert tab and then use the Shapes dropdown, shown in Figure A, to choose a shape. You can click inside your document to insert the shape. However, as you can see in Figure B, a simple click won't always produce the results you expect! With a little practice, you'll learn that a click and drag allows more control.

Figure A

Choose a shape from the dropdown gallery.

Figure B

Office inserts the shape where you indicate using your cursor.

Office will generate a shape based on several default properties—size, color, border, and so forth. Most shapes share several common properties; some shapes offer unique properties. As you can see in Figure B, a selected shape displays several graphic tools:

  • The Object Anchor (the small anchor icon) keeps an object anchored to text. The anchor works with the layout options.
  • The white circles are sizing handles. Simply drag them to resize the shape. Corner handles maintain ratio; the others don't.
  • A yellow circle lets you customize the shape a bit. Not all shapes can be altered this way.
  • The curved arrow at the top lets you rotate the shape. Simply click it and drag.
  • The Layout Options tag provides quick access to options that determine how the shape interacts with your document's content.
  • With the shape selected, the contextual Format tab offers many ways to change the shape, allowing you to customize it to your specific needs.

1: Achieve symmetry

When adding a symmetrical shape, such as a circle or square, hold down the Shift key while dragging to insert the shape. Doing so will produce a perfect shape, within the context of the shape's dimensional requirements.

2: Add text

Adding meaningful text is one of the easiest ways to enhance a shape. Simply select the shape and start typing, as shown in Figure C. Format this text as you would any other using the Font options in the Font group (on the Home tab).

Figure C

Add text to a shape.

3: Create multiples

Inserting repeats isn't intuitive, but it's easy. To add the same shape more than once, use Lock Drawing Mode as follows:

  1. In the gallery, right-click the shape you want to add and choose Lock Drawing Mode (Figure D).
  2. Click inside the document and drag to size or position the shape if necessary.
  3. Repeat step 2 as many times as required.
  4. Press Esc to exit Lock Drawing Mode.

Figure D

Enable Lock Drawing Mode.

Figure E shows three hearts inserted with three quick click and drag motions while holding down the Shift key to maintain the perfect heart shape.

Figure E

Use Lock Drawing Mode to insert several of the same shapes at the same time.

4: Add bullets and numbers

You can easily turn text into a bulleted or numbered list as follows:

  1. Right-click the selected text.
  2. Click Bullets or Numbering in the shortcut menu, as shown in Figure F.
  3. If necessary, click one of the Align tools in the Paragraph group on the Home tab.

Figure F

Format text as a bulleted or numbered list.

5: Change the default

If you find yourself tweaking the same shape each time you enter it, stop. Instead, modify one shape and then set its properties to the shape's default properties. To do so, right-click the modified shape and choose Set As Default Shape from the shortcut menu. All subsequent shapes will exhibit your custom properties instead of the out-of-the box defaults. It couldn't be simpler!

6: Use Quick Parts

If you use the same custom shape often, but you don't want to reset the defaults, save the shape to Quick Parts, as follows:

  1. Select the shape.
  2. Click the Insert tab.
  3. Click the Quick Parts dropdown (in the Text group).
  4. Choose Save Selection To Quick Part Gallery (Figure G).
  5. Name the shape and click OK.

Figure G

Choose this option to save a customized shape to Quick Parts.

To insert that shape later, simply select it the Quick Parts drop-down gallery.

7: Add a shape to a style—sort of

You can't add a shape to a style, but you can do the next best thing using the Replace feature. First, you copy the shape to the Clipboard, then you use the Replace feature to insert the shape from the Clipboard into each instance of styled text, accordingly. For instance, let's work through an example where we add a simple orange square to each Heading 1 instance.

For starters, you'll need an document that contains Heading 1 content. Our sample document has two Heading 1 instances, one Heading 2 instance, and supporting text. Your first step is to insert the shape, format it, and copy it to the Clipboard as follows:

  1. Click anywhere inside your document, and choose Square from the Shapes gallery. Remember to hold down the Shift key to insert a perfect square.
  2. Use the resizing handles to reduce its size while holding down the Shift key to maintain its perfect square shape.
  3. With the square selected, choose orange from the Shape Fill dropdown (in the Shape Styles group on the contextual Format tab).
  4. Click the shape's Layout Options tag and choose In Line With Text option as shown in Figure H. Others will work, but the default option might not. If you don't see the shape after using Replace, you might need to change the shape's layout option.
  5. With the orange square selected, press Ctrl+C to copy it to the Clipboard.

Figure H

Select an appropriate layout option.

Now you're ready to work a little magic using the Replace feature, as follows:

  1. Press Ctrl+H to launch the Replace feature or click Replace in the Editing group on the Home tab.
  2. Click inside the Find What control. (Skipping this step is where most people go wrong.)
  3. Click the Format dropdown and choose Style as shown in Figure I.
  4. In the resulting dialog, choose Heading 1 and click OK.
  5. Click inside the Replace With control and enter ^c^& as shown in Figure J.
  6. Click Replace All. If prompted, search from the beginning of the document. Close the confirmation prompt by clicking OK.

Figure I

Choose Style from the Format dropdown.

Figure J

Enter the replacement code.

As you can see in Figure K, the replace task inserted (didn't replace) a small orange square at the beginning of each instance of Heading 1-styled content. The ^c code copies content from the Clipboard, and the ^& code retains the styled content. The task skipped the Themes and Styles heading because it's Heading 2. At this point, you can select and delete the shape you copied to the Clipboard.

Figure K

It worked!

Send me your question about Office

I answer readers' questions when I can, but there's no guarantee. Don't send files unless requested; initial requests for help that arrive with attached files will be deleted unread. You can send screenshots of your data to help clarify your question. When contacting me, be as specific as possible. For example, "Please troubleshoot my workbook and fix what's wrong" probably won't get a response, but "Can you tell me why this formula isn't returning the expected results?" might. Please mention the app and version that you're using. I'm not reimbursed by TechRepublic for my time or expertise when helping readers, nor do I ask for a fee from readers I help. You can contact me at

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About Susan Harkins

Susan Sales Harkins is an IT consultant, specializing in desktop solutions. Previously, she was editor in chief for The Cobb Group, the world's largest publisher of technical journals.

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