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Visio for Engineers

by Ralph Moore
February 8, 2022

I had a terrible time when I first started using Visio. I found it to be non-intuitive and frustrating to use. In retrospect this was probably due to my being an engineer and the creators of Visio being graphic artists. What was intuitive to them was not intuitive to me. Over time, I have learned to use Visio effectively and it has become a dependable tool that enables me to quickly turn out diagrams for blogs, papers, and manuals. I have written this blog to help other graphics-challenged engineers, like me, to use Visio effectively. Visio probably has many more features than you actually need, so it helps to have a reduced set of features that are sufficient to do what you need to do.

Getting Started

Open Visio and select Basic Diagram, U.S. Units, and Create. Select the Design ribbon and click Orientation down (arrow). I normally use portrait and select landscape only if I know the diagram is going to be wider than usual. Click the Shapes left arrow, so they won't take up so much room. Next select your defaults. It is very important to do this before you put anything in the work area, else you will be fighting Microsoft defaults for the rest of the diagram. On the View ribbon, in the Show box, select grid. The other three I don't use.

Then in the Visual Aids box click down and select: under Currently Active: Snap and Dynamic Grid; under Snap to: Grid and Shape Geometry. I find these to be adequate for almost everything I do. Sometimes you may need to select others to do special things, but I find this seldom happens. I find that most of the others make it harder to do what I need to do. To the left, in the Shapes window, Basic Shapes should be selected. I occasionally use the diamond and a few others. You just drag and drop what you want onto the work space, then you can size it, align it, and fill it, as described below. However, I find the tools discussed in the next section adequate for almost everything that I draw. More on setting defaults after we discuss tools.

Tools You Will Use

The most important tool is the zoom control - ----|---- + in the lower right corner. Normally you will find it easiest to work with your diagram zoomed in (i.e. magnified). To do this click right of the center mark. Notice that the grid will become finer. Use the scroll bars or the mouse wheel to move back and forth and up and down. From time to time, you will want to zoom out to see how you are doing &mdash click left of the center mark.

The next most important tools are in the Tools box on the Home ribbon. The upper right icon has a down arrow to allow you to select: Rectangle, Ellipse, Line, Freeform, Arc, and Pencil. I find the first three to be the most useful. The arc is seldom needed, and I find the Freeform and pencil hard to use. Naturally you must select the object type to draw before you draw it. To delete an object, also select its type, then select the object, and press the delete key.

In the lower left corner is the A Text icon. Select this to type text. To the right is the Text Block icon. Select it to move or rotate text. In the upper left corner is the Pointer Tool icon. Use this to select all or part of your diagram to copy, to modify, or to move it. With this tool you can only draw a rectangle, so sometimes it cannot select the exact part of your diagram that you want. When marking a rectangle, it is important to swing wide left and wide right, else you may find that some text did not get included. The Connector tool is probably useful for flow charts. However, I don't use it, nor the X tool.

The final set of tools is in the Shape Styles box on the Home ribbon. The top tool allows you to fill objects with colors, but not to color lines. The next tool allows you to color lines and choose line widths for lines and objects. I usually use 3 pt. for objects and 1½ or 2¼ for lines. It also allows you to choose solid, dotted, or dashed lines and arrow heads. The other tools are not enabled in my version of Visio (Standard).


As previously noted, you must select your defaults before you put a single thing in the work area. Select the A icon and select the font you want to use to label your objects. I usually work with Arial 14. For text outside of objects you usually will select different fonts from your default font. Now select your default line color and line width for objects and select the fill for objects. For line color, I usually select black. Normally, I draw all objects first, then before drawing any lines, change to a narrower line width for the connecting lines. While drawing, it is best to select no fill so you can see the grid lines inside of your objects. Now you are ready to draw!


Rectangles: Select the Rectangle icon, start at upper left rectangle corner on grid, drag the cursor to upper right rectangle corner on grid, then down to lower right rectangle corner on grid and release. To change the shape, grab a handle (small circle on a side when the rectangle is selected) and drag it in or out. To move, hover near a side. When the crosshair cursor appears (4 arrows pointing out from a point), grab and drag it to where you want. Zooming in makes sizing and locating your rectangles easier — especially locating them on the grid.

Lines: Select Line icon. I use lines for all connections rather than the Connector tool, because lines give me better control. I find it best to draw and position all objects first before connecting them with lines. This is because it often happens that it is necessary to move objects, in which case any connecting lines need to be deleted and redrawn. Also it saves changing line width back and forth. Normally you want to connect a line from a grid point on one object to a grid point on another object and have the resulting line on a grid line. Zooming in makes this easier. Sometimes I want to connect the center of the side of one object to the center of the side of another, but there is no grid line in the centers of the objects. Usually zooming in further will fix this. Sometimes, it is necessary to make the object one grid line larger or smaller. It is very difficult to draw a straight line off grid.

If you make a mistake, delete the line and start over — you cannot fix lines! Sometimes it is hard to make the line attach precisely to the object — it may undershoot or overshoot — and sometimes it is hard to make the line stay on grid when you draw it. This takes a little practice and a steady hand. If you are still having trouble, make sure that snap to grid and snap to shape geometry are enabled in the View, Visual Aids box.

If you need a line to go up, to the right, then down, drag it up on grid to the grid point you want and release it; then drag it right on grid to the grid point you want and release it; finally drag it down on grid to the grid point you want and release it. When your line is in place, you can change the width, add arrow heads, make it dotted or dashed and change its color.

Ellipses: Select the Ellipse icon. Ellipses are enclosed in rectangles, while drawing them, so you draw an ellipse exactly like a rectangle. I probably do not need to point it out, but a circle is an ellipse enclosed in a square! You don't need the template circle. You can alter the shape of the ellipse and move it around just like a rectangle. At the ellipse extremes, connecting a line works just like a rectangle. In between, it can be a little tricky. Once again, zooming in helps because when you zoom out small imperfections are not apparent.

Template Shapes: Visio provides a plethora of templates and template shapes. As I pointed out before, I use very few of these. But when you need a special shape such as a diamond or a triangle, it is easiest to drag the shape from a template. Alternatively, you can select the line tool and draw any shape with a line if you draw all sides, releasing at each vertex, and closing the shape at the end. If you then select the rectangle type and select your new shape, it will behave like an object — you can fill it, move it, rotate it, resize it, etc. This is useful if you cannot find the shape you need in a template.

Adding and Moving Text

Select the A Text icon. If you click inside an object, a text block will appear and you can type into it. Enter causes a new line in the text block, so to exit the text block, click outside of the object. Normally the text will be centered in the object. If you click outside of all objects and A is selected, a text block will appear and you can type into it. Usually outside text does not end up exactly where you want it. Also, for ellipses and diamonds, the text is not always centered and thus must be moved.

To move text, click on the Text Block icon to the right of A Text, then click on the text. A text block with handles will appear surrounding the text. Hover inside the box and a crosshair icon will appear. Use this to move the text. Zooming in greatly helps this process. However, the crosshair icon movement is a bit coarse. For a finer move, use a text block handle to pull the the text in the direction you want. Another problem is that Visio may make your outside text two lines when you intended it to be one. To fix this, drag the left and right handles of the text block out until you get a single line.

To change or delete text, select the A icon, then click on the text. A bare text block should appear. Position the cursor and make the change that you want. To delete part or all text, select it then press delete.

Making a Table

It took me awhile to figure this one out. I tried drawing an outer rectangle, then inner lines. However, then it was hard to enter text and color into the table slots. The secret is to first draw the table slots as rectangles of narrow line width. Draw two, then select them with the pointer tool, cut and paste, move together to form 4 slots using the crosshair icon. Zooming in greatly helps with alignment. Repeat and you have an 8-slot table. Now draw a rectangle of heavy line width on top of the outer lines of the slots and voila! you have an 8-slot table. Be sure your outer rectangle has no fill, else your slots will disappear. Now you can enter text and different fills into the table slots.


Coloring your diagram is best left to last. This is done with the Fill tool in Shape Styles box. First select the object type and click on the object. Or, you can select multiple objects with the Pointer Tool. Then click Fill down. I find that the “Standard Colors” work well. There is something pleasing about them and they seem to be compatible with each other. The colors overlay the text in an object. If you choose a dark color, the text may be hard to read. To fix this select A then the text. Then click A down in the Font box and choose white or a light color. Now you can read the text.

Creating a Workbook

I put all diagrams for a document into a single Visio workbook, each diagram on a separate page, and I give the workbook the same name as the document. To add a page, click +. Then right click the page tab and select Rename. I type the figure number (e.g. 1.2) there so the page tabs correspond to figures in the document. If a figure is renumbered and moved in the manual, grab the page tab and move it to where it should be, and then renumber it.

To find a figure, if you have a large number of figures in a workbook, click All up to get a list of figures, then click on the one you want.

Moving Your Diagrams to Word

This is probably the whole reason you are doing diagrams. To copy a diagram to a Word document, use the Pointer Tool to draw a rectangle around the diagram. As previously mentioned go wide left and wide right, else some text may be left behind. Then Ctrl-C to copy it. In the Word document create 3 blank lines. Center the cursor in the middle line. Then Ctrl-V to paste it and your diagram will appear. To resize it, grab the lower right corner and drag it up-left diagonally or down-right diagonally. Do not use the side handles because dragging them will distort the diagram.

Word allows you to modify a diagram in situ. However, I think that is a bad idea because I want the figures in the workbook to be exactly the same as in the document. So, even if it is as little as a single character change, I do it in the Visio diagram, then repaste the diagram into the document. I find, as I polish the text surrounding the diagram, that I end up modifying the diagram and re-pasting it many times. Perhaps better planning would help me!

For Word, it is best to type the captions in as a caption style and to not put the captions in the diagrams, themselves. This way you can automatically create a Table of Figures by using the Table of Figures tool in the Captions box on the Word References ribbon.

Creating Similar Diagrams

It frequently happens that you have two or more similar diagrams. To avoid unnecessary work, when starting the second diagram use the pointer tool to select as much as you need from the first diagram, then Ctrl-C, and on the new blank page Ctrl-V. As usual, make sure all text has come over. Normally the pasted diagram will be exactly the same size, but not on grid. To fix this, hover near an object inside the pointer rectangle. The crosshair cursor will appear and you can move that object so it is exactly on grid. Zooming way in helps with this. Now simply delete objects not needed in the new diagram and draw new objects that are needed.

It often happens that you have similar diagrams in different documents. I copy the diagram from the first workbook to the second workbook, then modify it, even if the change is minor. This helps to maintain order.


What really bothered me were remnants (dots, tiny lines, etc.) that I accidentally put into the work area due to spastic mouse actions. To delete one of these, you must first figure out what type it is, select that type, then press delete. Easy when you know how, but frustrating when you don't.

Another thing that bothered me was extra pages added by Visio as I added objects to the diagram. I struggled to keep each diagram in a single page. First of all, these do not matter if you are going to cut and paste your diagram into a document. Second if your diagram is not actually outside of a page, the problem is due to text blocks which do not show unless you select the text in them or to remnants. Bottom line: don't worry about added pages.


I hope these pointers will enable you to get off to a productive start with Visio. Feel free to contact me if you have a problem. I may not know the answer, but perhaps someone else will. Happy diagrams!

Ralph Moore is a graduate of Caltech. He and a partner started Micro Digital Inc. in 1975 as one of the first microprocessor design services. Now Ralph is primarily the Company RTOS innovator. He does all functions including product definition, architecture, design, coding, debugging, documenting, and assisting customers. Ralph's current focus is to improve the security of IoT and embedded devices through firmware partitioning. He believes that it is the most practical approach to achieving acceptable security for devices connected to networks and to the Cloud.

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