Visio® Overview

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What is Visio?

Visio is a Microsoft Windows based diagramming software that includes templates and symbols allowing users to create flowcharts, organizational charts, floor plans, network diagrams, mind maps, infographics and more. Visio is part of the Microsoft Office software suite, although it is sold as a stand-alone program.

Visio was first released by the Visio Corporation (known then as the Shapeware Corp.) in 1992 and acquired by Microsoft in 2000. Visio is primarily sold as downloadable software, but released an online version in 2017. There are no native Mac OS versions of Visio.

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Visio example
Visio historical screenshot

History of Visio

Visio version 1.0 was released in 1992 by the Shapeware Corporation. Visio was the first product shipped by Shapeware, as the company had only incorporated 3 years earlier in 1989. As Visio software grew in popularity and recognition, Shapeware changed their name in 1995 to the Visio Corporation to match their burgeoning diagramming software.

In 2000, Microsoft acquired Visio (the company and the software) in a stock swap, with the deal estimated to be worth $1.5 billion at the time, making it Microsoft's largest acquisition of the time. There have been approximately 16 versions of Visio released since its inception. Interestingly enough, Visio released versions 12 and 14, but never a version 13 due to superstitious fears surrounding the number 13.

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Visio Diagram Types

There are several different types of diagrams you can make using Microsoft Visio. Below are some of the more popular uses for Visio.


Flowcharts show a visual sequence of steps and decisions for a process, generally using shapes to show the steps and arrows to show the progression from one step to another. Flowchart is a generic term, and can also include process flows, process maps, work flows and flow diagrams.

Visio flowchart
Organizational Charts

Organizational charts, or org charts, show the reporting relationships and hierarchies within an organization. They can show who reports to who, as well as the overall hierarchy from top to bottom to help with planning and management. Organizational charts are also known as hierarchy charts, structure charts and organograms.

Visio org chart
Floor Plans

Floor plans are scaled drawings that show the footprint or cross section of a building or other structure. They are used to ensure proper sizing as well as the location of rooms and other items, like furniture, relative to one another. Floor plans are also called house plans, blueprints, architectural plans, building plans and schematics.

Visio floor plan
Mind Maps

Mind maps are diagrams that show the connection between ideas by grouping and connecting related ideas to the overall topic(s) at hand. Mind maps make for effective planning and brainstorming tools. Mind maps are also known as concept maps.

Visio mind map
Charts & Graphs

A staple of Excel, but also included in Visio, charts and graphs are seen in almost every business presentation. They are used to represent data visually in a way that makes the information being presented easier to understand. Common examples include bar charts, line charts and pie charts.

Visio chart
Gantt Charts

A common diagram in project management and planning is a Gantt chart. Gantt charts show individual tasks in a project, their start and end dates, the people assigned to the tasks as well as other information relevant to the project. While Microsoft also develops Project, a dedicated project planning software, Visio still includes rudimentary project planning templates as well.

Visio gantt chart
Network Diagrams

Network diagrams use symbols and lines to show the structure, nodes and connections for a location's computer network. Network diagrams are useful for understanding which nodes are a part of which network, but can also be useful in understanding how computer data flows through an organization.

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Visio network diagram
Visio shape data

Visio Shape Data & Open API

Shape Data

Visio shape data is a powerful tool that allows you to add data to shapes in a diagram to provide more information about that shape without cluttering the shape with a bunch of added text. For example, you can add data to a shape within an org chart providing more information about that position's title, salary, department number or contact info. Specific data about IP addresses and hardware info can be added to shapes in a network diagram; for a floor plan, data can be added to specify the types of materials to be used. All of this added data is accessed by right clicking on a shape in your Visio diagram and choosing "Shape" from the drop down menu.

Shape data is a feature that few diagramming softwares offer and is critical for adding additional information to diagrams.

SmartDraw is another option that includes shape data. With SmartDraw, data can be manually added to a shape, or automatically via an import. SmartDraw offers the ability for intelligent shape data, allowing shapes to change their appearance depending on the data they contain. For example, an overutilized server shape in a network diagram could be automatically colored red, or have a flag icon added to it. Added data can be exported as a manifest, showing, for example, the number and types of computers in a given office, their location, as well as asset tags or any other relevant information. SmartDraw can export a manifest with a single click, while Visio requires a custom made, third-party integration. Learn more about shape data in SmartDraw.

Visio API
Visio API & Object Model

Visio includes an application programming interface (API) that employs object models that allow users to create scripts that automate certain features of Visio, such as opening a new diagram, altering shape behavior, customizing the user interface (UI), or adding shapes to an existing diagram. With the right code, a user can have a diagram created automatically by inputting data or linking to an external data source (like Excel), rather than needing to create the diagram manually by dragging in and/or drawing each portion of the diagram.

For this to work, users will need to be familiar with programming languages such as Microsoft Visual Basic for Applications (VBA), C#, or .NET, will need a copy of Visio, and will need to take the time to properly set up each script and define most object properties. To automatically add shapes to a diagram, the coordinates and size of each shape and line in the diagram need to be explicitly specified by the programmer. This makes creating a properly formatted diagram from varying data a difficult task. However, once understood, automated diagramming using scripts provides a huge benefit to end users, and will make diagramming and creating visuals much less tedious and time consuming.

Much like shape data discussed above, any good diagramming software should provide an open API to automate much of the diagramming process, and to allow users to customize the program to provide the results most relevant to them.

SmartDraw also has an Open API to let users build diagrams from data automatically.

SmartDraw created the VisualScript SDK to take automation to the next level. The SDK is the foundation of SmartDraw's Open API. It's easy to use because it leverages SmartDraw's intelligent formatting to make specifying a tree or a flow as simple as specifying the parents and children. No positioning information is needed because the intelligent formatting engine knows how to lay them out perfectly on the page. Click here to learn more about SmartDraw's Open API.

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SmartDraw as a Visio Alternative

SmartDraw is a perfect Visio alternative. SmartDraw offers so much more in terms of breadth of content and ease of use, all for a lower cost. SmartDraw includes a full Visio import and export, and the ability to import and save Visio stencils. See why individual users and Fortune 500 enterprises alike are switching to SmartDraw.

Browse SmartDraw's entire collection of templates and examples or learn more by clicking any of the links below.

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SmartDraw is the best Visio Alternative
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