Clarify the structure of diagrams by using containers and lists

Complex diagrams in Visio usually benefit from having related shapes identified and labeled. Visible grouping makes it easier to understand the structure of a diagram quickly.


Containers are collections of shapes surrounded by a visible border.

Add containers

  1. Select the shapes you want to contain.

  2. On the Insert tab, in the Diagram Parts group, click Container.

  3. Hold the pointer over the container styles to see a preview of the container on the page.

  4. Click to insert the container.

  5. With the container selected, type the heading for the group of shapes.

If no shapes are selected when you insert a container, the container is added at the middle of the current view. It does not actually contain any shapes, even if it looks like shapes are inside it. Those shapes are just in the same place, but the container doesn’t contain them.

Behavior of contained shapes

Contained shapes have a specific relationship with the container, and are affected by actions that are performed on the container:

  • Moving a container moves the contained shapes with it.

  • Copying a container copies the contained shapes also.

  • Deleting a container deletes the contained shapes.

Add shapes to a container

You add shapes to a container by dropping them inside the container. You can tell a shape is contained by selecting it – the container glows with a slight highlight while contained shapes are selected.

If the container is not highlighted when a shape inside it is selected, move the shape a little inside the container; this has the same effect as dropping the shape on. You can also right-click the shape, point to Container, and then click Add to Underlying Container.

You can also attach shapes to the edges of containers. When you hold a shape over the edge, the highlight appears on just that edge. After you drop the shape, it stays on the edge while you move or resize the container.

Format a container

While the container is selected, a Container Tools tab named Format is available on the ribbon. This tab contains commands to customize the look and behavior of the container.

  • Set margins and automatic resizing.

  • Enhance the style.

  • Specify membership commands.

    • Lock Container     makes it so shapes cannot be added to the selected container or deleted from it. However, shapes can still be moved around inside the container. Also, shapes can be dropped onto the container, but they do not become contained.

    • Select Contents     simply selects all the contained shapes.

    • Disband Container     deletes the selected container but leaves the shapes that it contained. (If you select a container and press DELETE, the contained shapes are deleted too.)

In addition, you can use the formatting commands on the Home tab. For example, you can control the position of the container heading text by using the paragraph alignment commands.


Lists are special kinds of containers – any item you add to a list is automatically arranged in a sequence.

Unlike containers, there are no general-purpose lists that you can add to a diagram. Instead, some shapes have list behavior for special uses. Examples include swimlane shapes in cross-functional flowcharts, legend shapes for data graphics, and control shapes such as list box in the wireframe template.

You can reorder items in lists by dragging them to new positions, and add items by clicking the list insertion arrow.

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