Organizing Diagrams with Containers

As the Visio product team began planning for the Visio 2010 release, we collected a lot of customer drawings.  Even though there were many different types of diagrams represented, we found some similarities.  We noticed that as diagrams got more complex, users added special shapes to help keep things organized and understandable.  Often users drew boxes around clusters of shapes to define a logical grouping.  That got us thinking whether we could help with this kind of organization, and the Containers feature was born.

Flowchart sample

You’ve probably used something like a container in Visio already.  In the past, you would draw a rectangle around some shapes, choose Send to Back to move it behind the shapes, add a text label and position it near the rectangle edge, and finally group everything to keep the shapes together.  This works but it makes it hard to access the individual shapes, and you must ungroup and regroup every time the contents changed.

The Containers feature in Visio 2010 makes it easy to add a visual boundary around shapes, including a label.  Visio does all the work to maintain the relationship between the container and its contents.  To add a container to your diagram, first select the shapes to be contained.  Then choose the Container command from the Insert tab of the ribbon.  A gallery appears with several different container styles.  Click on a style to add the container to the diagram.


The shapes inside the container are not in a group, so you have direct access to continue working with them.  Shapes are added or removed simply by dragging them in or out of the container.  When dragging a shape, an orange highlight appears around the container to indicate that Visio will make the shape a member of the container.  The container can automatically grow or shrink as needed to fit the contents.  Moving, copying or deleting the container will move, copy or delete the contents as well.


Containers can be formatted just like regular shapes.  In particular the alignment of the heading is changed using the paragraph alignment buttons on the Home tab of the ribbon.  There is also a contextual tab that allows further customization of containers.  You can control how tightly the container bounds its contents by adjusting Margins or using the Fit to Contents command.  You can switch between different visual styles and change the position of the container heading.  It is also possible to lock the container to prevent shapes from being added or deleted.



The primary benefit of Containers is that you get both a visual grouping and a logical grouping of shapes in your diagram.  Your diagram is more readable and looks professional.  Visio does all the work to keep things together.  You just need to decide which shapes belong in the container.


In our next post, we’ll take a look at more capabilities of containers and how to create your own container shape.  Please tell us what you think about containers by using the Send a Smile feedback tool or by commenting on this post.


Comments (19)

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  1. Michael Dag says:

    very interesting! I currently have a custom visio solution that utilises the same concept and would love to play with this, but I never got a response to the request to participate in the thechnical preview…

    Can someone get me onboard??

  2. Visio Team says:

    Hi Michael,

    I’m sorry that you did not get an invitation for the Technical Preview, but we had just a handful of slots to give out.  Stay tuned for the public beta coming later this year.  Meanwhile watch the blog as we disclose more about Visio 2010 every week.

    Mark Nelson – Visio Product Team

  3. Joe VanSchuyver says:

    Very nice.  What would be really nice is if the Container worked with the Link and Display data on shapes functions.

    A category field in the data could create Containers and populate it with the shapes with the same value. You would be able to automate the creation of your Datacenter capabilities diagram and link it to dynamically updating data.

  4. McArrow says:


    IMHO, containers are one of the best ideas of developing Visio functionality… but I’ve got one question: will there be possibility of collapsing/expanding of the container? it could be very useful twhile creating a big schema.

  5. Visio Team says:

    @Joe and McArrow:

    Good feedback on the potential uses for containers.  Right now these are possible through custom code, which we have made some improvements in Visio 2010 for.  We hope to cover the API investments around Containers in a future post.

    Mark Nelson – Visio Product Team

  6. Close a Container says:

    How can I close a container so that the drawing now shows only the container (not the contents) but continues to show all the connections to objects that are inside of the container?

    This would work like UML Components, for which Microsoft already has code to open and close.

  7. Visio Team says:

    @Close a Container:

    There is no way to expand/collapse containers.

  8. Ravindra Rao says:

    Great feature. Love the fact that containers automatically expand and it also possible to close "membership" and avoid accidental inclusions.

    There is an additional level of association created by having containers in a "group" have the same color. For example all containers in red are back- office.

  9. Dan L says:

    For any given Container style used, is there a way to change the style of the Container without having to Disband the Container and then inserting another style holding the same contents? It seems the place to find such a feature would be doing a right-click on the Container and in the Container> choice there would be a "Change Container Style…".

  10. April Mae LIm says:

    very nice,so interesting i realy like it…

  11. Michele Meador says:

    I'm hoping to see this feature improve by making containers expandable/collapsible. What I'm about to say assumes the audience for my work all has Visio installed and the format is delivered electronically vs. having to print out, use Reader or convert to PDF. I would like to present complex workflows [content/knowledge management that show actor, action, stages, automatic/timed actions, etc. ] all on one sheet and as the user expands each contained section, it displays a pop-out window/page with the full detail of each section; however, I can simply display the high level workflow in one compact page when all is collapsed so my developers can expand only what's needed when they need it. Thank you.

  12. Jerry says:

    collapsing/expanding definitely is a great feature!

    and would be even more great if mix with mind map style to  collapsing/expanding tree structure.

  13. Henk Bakker says:

    How do you switch this off. Whole swimming pools get deleted when I delete one task

  14. Maryland, USA says:

    I came to this blog post after learning of it on page 425 of Microsoft Visio 2013 Step By Step. I'm enjoying Visio's power, flexibility, and aesthetic. However, it's regrettable that Visio calls this element a container.

    In the physical world, you start with a container, then you put stuff in it. Visio works the opposite way. It's counterintuitive.

    The element should have been called a wrapper. When you wrap stuff, you start with stuff, then add the wrapper. Just as we wrap a group of Visio shapes by enveloping them in a container.

    Any chance you'll change the name to wrapper in Visio 2016?

  15. Sunitha says:

    Very helpful for a beginner. thank you:)

  16. Donald Freeman says:

    I am having a hard time with this.  I read the Maryland, USA users comment below about "container" versus "wrapper." Maybe that can help me. This functionality is working against me. I have containers in containers.  Objects seem to be assigned randomly to different containers and I can't seem to move them from one to the other  I try to expand the parent container and the containers inside move in different directions.  I can't group things with the container to solve that.  This is not intuitive at all.  

  17. Orna says:

    Hi There,

    Do you know if a way to collapse the containers for a simplified view?

    Thank you


  18. Steven J. Rose says:

    Looks good.  Hoping these can be layered like a Venn diagram.

  19. gidz says:

    Containers ( ) sizes comes different. Doing such project has size specifics like the example mentioned above.

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