DonnaM » Blog Archive » Visio and IA tips – set up before drawing

Visio and IA tips – set up before drawing

At the moment, I’m working on large Visio files – a big site map, a set of page description diagrams and a wireframe for each page. When working with large files that use many repeated elements, it is worth spending time preparing your files and workspace. Believe me, it will save a lot of time later.

Visio has plenty of limitations when it comes to managing big documentation sets, but these tips will help to smooth the project at least a little.


For these types of projects, backgrounds are your friend. Visio allows you to set up a number of pages as ‘background’ pages. These can be applied to any foreground page, with all elements on the background page automatically appearing on the foreground.

Backgound pages can be nested, so with a bit of thought, you can save a lot of work with a series of backgrounds. As long as you have designed before drawing, you should be able to spot places where a background would be useful.

I set up one with a header and footer containing page title block, company details and version number. This is used by all pages in the set, with additional backgrounds for different, repeated layouts.

For an example of background use for wireframes, see Victor Lombardi’s wireframe templates, available from the IA institute.


There are a number of tools I use frequently but aren’t included in one of the standard toolbars. These include the align & distribute tools, and the layers tool (the one that lets you easily assign shapes to a particular layer). It is very worthwhile having these at my fingertips rather than behind menus, so I add them to existing toolbars or a custom toolbar.

I’m getting a lot of practice customising my toolbars, as I can’t seem to retain my toolbar settings between Visio sessions. I have resorted to ‘attaching’ them to a visio file that I open first, dragging them to my toolbar and then opening my files. Clumsy but better than re-setting everything every time I open a file.

Text styles

If your drawing contains a lot of text that needs similar appearances, set up text styles for them. As in other programs, this saves you from having to remember what font and paragraph settings apply to your text. This is pretty straightforward.

Keyboard shortcuts

Get to know your keyboard shortcuts. Dan Brown’s visio mousemat looks fabulous, and I will buy it shortly, but in the meantime, here are my most commonly used shortcuts:

  • ctrl+g: group
  • ctrl+shift+u: ungroup
  • ctrl+w: show whole page
  • F2: edit text (very handy for editing inside a grouped object)
  • F8: align
  • F4: duplicate/repeat last action (easier than ctrl+y)
  • ctrl+shift+select area: zoom into selection

I’m sure there are plenty that I’m not using. I’ll update this as I find other indispensible shortcuts.

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