Visio is great at allowing you to create diagrams pretty quickly using its standard default stencils, but few users know that you can create your own shapes and add them to your most commonly used stencils. In this article, I’ll show you how this feature works.

Custom shapes from default stencil groupings
When I first found out that you could create your own custom shapes in Visio, I thought, “So what? What shape could I need that is not already there?” (I was really not thinking outside the proverbial ‘box’!)

It took me a while to figure out that a shape does not have to be just a single shape, like the ones in the default stencils. You can actually create a new shape “Master” out of a grouping of several shapes. Then, when you drag and drop that Master, you are actually dropping the whole group you created.

Figure A
A sample custom shape

So, if you created a new shape that contained a Process and a Decision and then dropped it on a sheet, it would look like the shape shown in Figure A above.

Now you can start to see the power of this feature. If you create drawings that often contain the same elements, you can create a Master shape to act as a sort of template that you can drag and drop onto any drawing. This can save you time when you’re creating drawings because the shapes and the connectors you need are already in place. All you do is drop them in as a group using the new custom shape.

Creating the Master
Creating a new Master is deceptively easy. First, choose the stencils you wish to include in the Master. Then, select the entire set of shapes and click Edit | Copy to place the shapes onto the clipboard.

Figure B
Setting the stencil for editing

Next, set the stencil to which you will add your new shape to “edit mode.” Right-click on the title bar of the stencil as shown in Figure B. From the menu, select Edit.

Figure C
The red “star” indicates that a stencil is in edit mode.

Figure C shows the Stencil title bar for a stencil that is in edit mode.

Figure D
New Master dialog box

Once in edit mode, you can add new Masters to the stencil. Simply right-click anywhere in the stencil and select New Master from the menu. This will bring up the New Master dialog box, shown in Figure D.

Figure E
Our New Master

The New Master dialog box lets you give the shape a name, define how big the icon in the stencil should be, and decide whether the icon should be created from the shapes you add to the Master. Enter the desired information, and click OK. You will then see a new icon at the bottom of the stencil. You may need to scroll down to see it, but it will look like the one shown in Figure E.

Figure F
The icon for your new shape will change when you save the Master.

Right-click on this shape, and select Edit Master from the menu. You will now be in a blank drawing sheet. Anything you enter on this sheet will become the Master shape. Click Edit | Paste to place the shapes you just created into the Master. Now click the X in the upper-right corner of the drawing and, when asked, choose to save. Notice in Figure F that the icon for your new shape has changed.

Figure G
A sample Master

The icon is created from the shapes that you paste into the Master. Now that you’ve created your Master, you’re ready to drag your new shape onto a drawing. Figure G shows an example of a sample Master.

Now every time you drag and drop this Master, you will have your Process already created. The cool part is that you are not stuck with the exact layout from your Master. You can still rearrange the shapes to fit the needs of the current drawing. Just click on an individual shape within the group to select it and then move it where you need it. Select shapes in this way as well to change the text or any other property within the Master.

Play around with this feature. Once you explore what is possible by creating custom shapes in Visio, I think that you’ll find that this feature makes your diagramming work much faster and easier.

What Visio tips do you have?

Are there Visio tips and tricks that you would like to share? Send them to us, and we’ll publish them in future articles.