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Microsoft Visio 2010 : Organizing and Annotating Diagrams - Layers

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11/26/2012 4:15:48 PM
You can add organization to your Visio documents by using layers to categorize shapes. A layer is a named category to which any number of shapes can be assigned.

Layers help you do things to entire categories of shapes at the click of a button. For example, you can

  • Hide and show shapes

  • Lock shapes from being moved, edited, and selected

  • Temporarily color shapes to emphasize (and find) them

  • Set shapes so that they print or not

  • Quickly select all shapes belonging to a particular layer

The neat thing about layers is that unlike callouts and containers, they don’t have to visually impact your diagram at all. You can assign shapes to layers, use layer operations when you need them, and then return things to their original state.

Basic Layer Skills

As with most things Visio, it is easier to describe layers after you’ve created and manipulated a few yourself. So let’s start by creating some layers and assigning shapes to them.

Creating Layers
Start with a new, blank drawing.

Using the Rectangle tool, draw several rectangles; then use the Ellipse tool to draw several circles.

Apply a theme to the drawing to make it more interesting. In the Design tab, click the second theme in the theme gallery (Basic Colors, Basic Shadow Effects). Your shapes should now have a slight gray gradient fill.

Switch back to the Pointer tool and then select all the rectangles.

Go to the Layers drop-down in the Editing group on the Home tab.

Click Assign to Layer in the drop-down list. Next, you will assign the rectangles to a new layer.

In the Layer dialog, the New Layer should pop up automatically because you have no layers in this drawing.

Enter the name Rectangular things and then click OK. In the Layer dialog, Rectangular things should now be checked, indicating the shapes will be assigned to that layer. Click OK again to exit.

Now select just the circle shapes.

Click the Assign to Layer button again. The Layer dialog pops up.

Click the New button to define a new layer; then enter Circular things in the text field. Click OK twice to get back to your drawing.

There is a trick that lets you quickly add multiple layers at once, which is handy if you use layers often and need to create many of layers at a time. When you click the New button in either the Assign to Layer or Layer Properties dialogs, you can type in a list of layers, separated by a semicolon. For example, entering Walls;Furniture;Equipment in the Layer Name field creates three layers in one fell swoop.

You should now have a bunch of shapes assigned to one of two layers: Rectangular things or Circular things. Hold on to this document; we’ll take the layers for a spin in the next exercise.

Manipulating Layers
Open the Layer Properties dialog by choosing Home, Editing, Layers, Layer Properties. You should see the dialog shown in Figure 3.18, which lets you control all the layers for a page.

Note the two layers you created earlier and the different columns. The # column shows the number of shapes assigned to each layer.

Uncheck Visible for one of the layers; then click Apply. The shapes on that layer should disappear. Apply lets you test settings without leaving the dialog, whereas OK makes the changes and then exits the dialog. Recheck Visible to bring them back.

Check Color for one of the layers; then select a color from the Layer Color drop-down list in the lower-right of the form. Click Apply, and the shapes on the corresponding layer should now be colored.

Figure 1
shows what happens when layers are colored. This coloring is actually overlaid on your shapes. The formatting of the shapes themselves has not actually changed. When you uncheck the color boxes, your original formatting returns.

Figure 1. The Layer Properties dialog. Note the shape counts for each layer in the # column. Also, each layer has been assigned a color, which can be seen on the drawing page in the background.

Check Lock for both layers; then click OK. The Layer Properties dialog disappears, and you return to the drawing. Note that you can’t move any of the shapes on the page, because you locked the layers to which they are assigned.

Return to the Layer Properties dialog, remove all coloring, unlock all the layers, and return all layers to the visible state. Your shapes return to their natural state, unfettered by layer settings.

You can easily select all members of a particular layer. To do this, choose Home, Editing, Select, Select by Type.

In the dialog, click the Layer radio button and then check Rectangular Things. When you click OK, all the shapes on the Rectangular things layer should be selected. This is a really handy feature for complex drawings and just by itself is a good reason to assign shapes to layers!

The name Layers might make you imagine transparent sheets that can be stacked, each level showing through to the next. This is the way layers work in many CAD and graphics illustration programs.

In Visio, layers have nothing to do with Z-order (the order of shapes from back to front). You can’t move one layer of shapes on top of another, because layers do not organize shapes at discreet levels. A shape can be assigned to any layer and be at any position, front-to-back-wise.

Visio shapes can belong to more than one layer, as you might have noticed from the Assign to Layer dialog. This capability makes it impossible to organize layers by Z-order.

For this reason, I like to say that Visio layers are “class, not glass.” They are for classifying shapes into meaningful groups, but not for organizing them by level on metaphorical sheets of invisible glass.

To mimic the way layers work in other applications, you can create a system of background pages, since you can create chains of backgrounds with backgrounds with backgrounds. But managing and moving these can be a real pain, so I wouldn’t recommend it beyond very simple cases.

Practical Application of Layers

You can see that layers offer an easy and flexible way to perform category-specific operations on shapes.

Locking shapes is a great way to protect parts of a drawing from accidentally being edited while you are working on other details. A great example of this is locking down the walls, windows, and doors of an office plan while you’re working on furniture arrangements. Just as in real-life, these features are mostly immobile, whereas furniture can be rearranged more easily!

I like to use imported images in my drawings—often as backgrounds. Assigning the image to a layer and then locking it makes it much easier to work without continually selecting the image by accident. 

As diagrams get more complex, making certain layers invisible can make your work a lot easier. If you are laying out furniture for an office or home plan, hiding layers for, say, switches, electrical outlets, and cabling removes a lot of clutter while you work. Visio will also be more responsive, since it has less to redraw every time you pan or zoom.

The ability to hide and show layers is also helpful if your drawing has many different audiences. The plumber, electrician, and facilities manager can all use the same drawing but you can print out different sets of layers for each of them.

With layer-coloring and select-by-layer, calling attention to and finding specific types of shapes are easy tasks. For large, complex drawings, these tools are invaluable.

If you’ve made a bunch of notes to yourself that you don’t want to share with contractors or other consumers of the diagram, you can assign your callouts and other annotations to a nonprinting layer. They are visible while you’re editing (so you don’t forget about them), but they don’t appear in the printed copies you send out into the field.

Visio Layers for Power Users

If you are excited about layers and see them as a key feature that you will be using a lot, you might be interested in a few fine points, some of which can be a bit confusing:

  • Layer sets are per-page, not per-document. If you add pages to a document, you have to re-create layers on each page.

  • When you copy a shape, the new copy retains its layer membership.

  • If a shape is assigned to a layer and is dropped on a page that doesn’t contain that layer, the layer is added to the page. You can create “layer set” shapes to make it easy to add a standard set of layers to new pages. Just create a rectangle, assign it to every layer that you need, and then drop it onto a new page. All layers are created instantly.

  • The Layer Properties dialog has an Active Layer column. If you check any active layer boxes, new shapes added to the drawing page are automatically assigned to active layers—if they don’t already belong to layers. Shapes that are already assigned to layers keep their settings.

  • Shapes can belong to multiple layers; this affects behavior when you check and uncheck items in the Layer Properties dialog. Generally, it operates on a “positive logic” principle: if something is checked for any of a shape’s layers, that attribute takes hold. So if a shape belongs to two layers, and one of them is locked, the shape is locked. To hide the shape, you have to uncheck both layers’ visibility because a positive value for either layer will result in a visible shape. I generally find it easier and less confusing to limit my shapes to one layer as much as possible.

  • The exception to the previous point is layer coloring. If a shape belongs to multiple layers and you want to color it via layers, all layer boxes need to be colored and assigned the same color. For this reason, I find that multiple layers and layer coloring do not mix well.

  • If a shape is on a nonvisible layer, but the layer is set to print, the shape will print, even though it is invisible in Visio. This can sometimes come as a surprise. If you are a heavy layers user, get in the habit of checking Print Preview before you print.

  • Many of the shapes associated with the Office Layout template are assigned to multiple layers. For instance, the Door shape is assigned to “Building Envelope” and “Door,” the Wall shape is assigned to “Building Envelope” and “Wall,” and the Oblong dining table is assigned to “Movable Furnishings” and “Furniture.”

    This is great if you want to select shapes by varying degrees of specificity. You can select all doors and walls by selecting shapes on the “Building Envelope” layer, or just get the doors by selecting shapes on the “Door” layer. Cool!

    However, if you want to hide shapes on these layers, you have to uncheck Visible for two layers in each case. Assigning shapes to multiple layers has its pluses and minuses.

Getting to the layer dialogs via the Ribbon can become tedious if you do it frequently. To make it easier, customize the Ribbon or Quick Access Toolbar by adding a control called “Layer,” which you’ll see if you show All Commands in the customization dialogs. The Layer control presents a drop-down list of existing layers and lets you assign layers to selected shapes much more quickly.

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