Visio has several templates for creating block diagrams, and you can even create fairly attractive ones using just the humble Rectangle tool and a bit of formatting finesse. This section points out a few features that you might not discover on first look and points out a few graphical techniques for making your block diagrams more snazzy.
Blending Block Shapes Together
The Block Diagram template in the General template group has some nice block-and-arrow shapes for diagramming all manner of systems, architectures, flows, and anything that you can call a “block diagram.”
Whether you use the normal, flat shapes or the 3D “raised” block shapes, your diagrams will look better if you know how to blend shapes together. You can open many of the arrow and bar shapes so that they appear to blend with adjacent shapes.
Figure 1 shows a raised block arrow’s right-click menu. Choosing Open Tail removes the line from the tail, and creates a small, filled tab that obscures the outline of the adjacent shape.
Figure 1. Right-clicking block diagram arrow shapes reveals the Open Tail item, which helps blend shapes together. Make sure that you bring the arrows to the front, though.
3D Perspective Block Diagrams
The General template category contains the Block Diagram with Perspective template. The shapes in this template one-up the Blocks Raised shapes by venturing into the third dimension in a more realistic fashion. They appear to converge at infinity, which can make for some interesting diagrams.
The purple crosshairs shape with the “V.P.” text is the vanishing point. This is the virtual “point at infinity” toward which the shapes converge. You can freely move the vanishing point around to change the perspective of the whole diagram.
You need to be good at managing the Z-order of the shapes so that shapes don’t appear to be on top of each other. Be ready to send shapes to back or bring them to front at a moment’s notice (Ctrl+Shift+F and Ctrl+Shift+B for shortcut fans). If you move the vanishing point, you may need to change the z-order of your shapes because some may wrongly appear on top of others.
Figure 2 shows a sample Block Diagram with Perspective, including shapes with varying depths, and one Z-order mistake.
Figure 2. Use Shape Data to set the depth of perspective block shapes from 10% to 100%. The shapes on the left have 100% depth; those on the right have 10%. Note one box on the right that needs to be sent backward.
Corner Rounding and Other Tips for Architecture Block Diagrams
I see a lot of “system architecture drawings” that use boxes within boxes within boxes to show the components and structure of a system. Figure 3 shows an example that conceptualizes Visio’s bits and pieces.
Figure 4. Corner rounding should be large for outer shapes, but small for inner shapes so that curves appear parallel. Line weight and shading can also be used to accentuate hierarchy and structure.
You can use the Rectangle tool to create these blocks; you don’t have to use a shape from a stencil. The Line formatting dialog has several corner rounding choices, plus you can enter exact values yourself.