Great Shapes for Conceptual Architecture Diagrams in Visio (Part 1)

I’ve gotten multiple requests from blog readers to show how to get the same visual quality as seen in architectural diagrams posted on MSDN articles. Typically the Microsoft authors of MSDN articles use Visio to create the diagram. The diagram is then touched up for color or effects by a designer before posting on MSDN. You can achieve almost the same effect in Visio without a designer. I’m going to spend the next couple of blogs deconstructing the diagrams that readers have asked for help with reproducing in Visio.


Let’s take the example below, taken by one reader from this MSDN article.


The visually interesting elements of this diagram are the following shapes: the PC computer, the server, the user, the folder, and the document. The layered rectangles, numbered circles, and dotted arrow are custom shapes, and I’ll talk about how I was able to rebuild them in Visio.


Let’s start with the computer shapes. The PC Computer and the LCD monitor are shapes on the Computer and Monitors stencil. To find these shapes, open the File menu, click Shapes, select Network, and then choose Computer and Monitors from the list. These aren’t exactly the same shapes as in the MSDN article example but they’re pretty close. I wouldn't see any need to modify them for the architectural diagram.


The Server shape is taken from the Servers stencil (open the File menu, click Shapes, select Network, and then choose Servers from the list). No modification necessary, it’s the shape in the MSDN diagram. The person shape is the User shape from the Network and Peripherals stencil (open the File menu, click Shapes, select Network, and then choose Network and Peripherals from the list). As I talked about in my Person shape blog, it’s easy to change the color of this shape. I’ve changed the fill color to RGB value 237, 199, 83. Again, not exactly the same as the article, but as you can see, pretty close. Here's the server shape and the modified User shape.



Rather than going through each stencil to locate the shapes for document and folder, I used Find Shape. In Visio 2003, Find Shapes is located at the top of the stencil pane. If you can’t find it in your Visio user interface, check the Help file. (Find Shape first shipped in Visio 2002.) I typed “document” for one search and “folder” for the next. Out of the results, I was able to find two shapes that aren’t exactly the ones seen in the MSDN article but work nicely.


As for the other shapes in the drawing, here’s how I would recreate them:

1.       To get the numbers in circles, I would use the text tool to type a number and then drop a circle shape from the Basic Shapes stencil or draw a circle using the Drawing Tools toolbar. I would need to use the right-click menu on the number shape to bring it to the front of the circle shape. Once I positioned and formatted the number, I would group the shapes and then cut-and-paste the new grouped shape wherever I needed, typing over the number in the text box.

2.       For the Downloader component, I would draw a thin rectangle with the Visio drawing tool and then attach the Interface shape (open the File menu, click Shapes, select Software, and then choose COM and OLE from the list). Then I would group the rectangle and the interface lollipop together and then copy-and-paste the grouped shape on top of the original, offset just enough to see the shape behind it.

3.       For the dotted line for polling, I would select the thick rectangle arrow shape that I was using elsewhere in the diagram and change the line type. To do this, right-click the arrow shape, select Format, and then Line. Change the pattern to 17, which are widely-spaced dots, and change the weight to 17, which is quite thick. You’ll get the same effect of the dotted line but I think a little nicer-looking. J


There you have it – all the shapes and tools you need to recreate that drawing or create a new diagram with similar elements. If you like the shapes that I talked about here, put them on your own custom stencil so they are easy to find later. I talk about how to do this in an earlier blog about storing and reusing favorite shapes.


So I probably don't have to say this, but I will just in case -- these shapes are conceptual for architectural diagrams and do not have any semantical understanding of UML.


-- Mai-lan


This posting is provided "AS IS" with no warranties, and confers no rights

Comments (15)
  1. Matej says:

    What version of Visio does include those shapes. I am using Microsoft Visio for Enterprise Architects SP-2 (10.0.5110), but was unable to find them?

    Can I download the stencil from the Web?



  2. That’s the same question that I asked a week or so ago on your "Person shape blog" entry.

  3. All this shapes from Microsoft Office Visio 2003 (11.3216.5606 or higher).

  4. Right. So, is there any way to have them available in Visio E. nterprise for Architects (v 10.0.2705) ??

  5. "that aren’t exactly the ones seen in the MSDN article but work nicely."

    Excuse me? The others aren’t exactly the ones seen in the article, the folder and file icons look nothing alike! The file is flat and the folder is facing the other way.

    Why doesn’t Microsoft provide the icons? It’s superb marketing for them, as everyone will notice them as those MS icons!

  6. Ever seen how many shapes are included in Visio? And most of them can be modified however you want. Tho, there are some times that I wish I could split up a shape into its component parts, but I’m blocked due to protections on the shape…

  7. Jeff Donnici says:

    When I use the Shape Search for "document" or "folder", I don’t get either of those shapes. I get the standard black/white line images and some specialized flowchart shapes. Mai-lan, do you know where your search is returning them from (locally versus the internet search). Thanks for this posting… I’m looking forward to Part 2 (and beyond!).


  8. Chris Roth says:


    A tip for your team – the shadows on the network shapes should be a transparent black, not a solid gray.

    I’ve seen people using the pretty backgrounds with the net shapes. Depending on the color, the gray shadow can actually end up appearing bright!

    On the other side, the transparency stuff doesn’t seem to print as nicely on all printers…


  9. Mai-lan says:

    Lots of questions from this post so I created a separate blog entry to address them at



  10. Blogging on Visio says:
  11. sandy says:

    Do you know if I can get my "favorite" shapes file to open automatically in a Visio template?

  12. sandy says:

    …what I want to do is share my favorite shapes with others on my team !

  13. Andy says:

    I’ve found an easy way to get proper ‘folder’ shapes (like those used in the diagram above) in Visio 2003 – just search for the ‘file server’ shape, dd one to your document, then ungroup it and steal the folder part of the whole shape – voila, a decent folder icon. You can then ungroup the folder shape too if you like and set the line widths, colours etc to what you want.

    This will work for the other server shapes too, eg. certificate server, ftp server, web server.

    This may also work for previous versions of Visio, I’m not sure.

    If anyone knows how to get the ‘file’ shape in a similiar way, please let us know.


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