Taking control of shapes in Word

The main Microsoft Office applications, including Word, PowerPoint and Excel, offer the ability to place geometrical shapes and lines in your documents.

Taking control of shapes in Word

The shapes supported include basic rectangles, rounded rectangles, triangles, circles, stars, arrows, banners, braces, speech and thought bubbles, as well as the most commonly recognised flowchart symbols such as decision diamonds, subprocess boxes and database cylinders.

Inserted lines may be straight, right-angled or curved, and can be terminated by arrows at one or both ends. Introducing such shapes can be enormously useful for illustrating significant points, concepts and processes within your documents.

You can format them using different border and fill colours, 3D effects such as bevelling, perspective, reflection or glow, and most can have text placed inside them to act as labels.

Disappointing in Word

Useful as these shapes are, though, users are disappointed when they try to apply them in Word and discover that the connecting lines won’t stick to the shapes: you spend a fair amount of time arranging all lines and shapes until everything looks fine, only to find you need to put in another shape that you’d forgotten.

Word shapes

Inserting this additional shape means you have to move one or more of the existing shapes, but then you have to move all the lines separately because they no longer point to their corresponding shape.

Wouldn’t it be easier if the lines stuck to the shapes they’re assigned to and so moved in concert with them? And hang on, if you drew exactly the same diagram in PowerPoint or Excel, isn’t that what would happen?

Indeed, it is. In PowerPoint and Excel, when you drag the end of a newly-drawn line over a shape it will display a set of red connection points: drag the line’s end to one of these connection points and the two will stick together.

Now moving the shape simply stretches and moves the attached line, in such a way that the two remain connected. So why doesn’t this happen in Word too?

Text wrapping

Well, the difference is that Word, unlike PowerPoint and Excel, has to attempt to wrap document text around shapes, and while it can wrap text quite well around an individual shape, it can’t do it around an arbitrary set of connected shapes, as it finds the calculations involved too complicated. Hence, connected shapes aren’t allowed by default.

PowerPoint and Excel don’t even attempt to wrap text around shapes – the text elsewhere on an Excel sheet or PowerPoint slide simply lies in front of or behind the shape, depending on the relative “z-order” of the text and the shape (you can change the z-order by using the Send to Back, Send Backwards, Bring Forwards and Bring to Front commands on the selected objects).

What you perhaps didn’t know, though, is that Word can connect shapes together, just like PowerPoint and Excel, but has its vital “drawing canvas” (picture below) turned off by default, so its shapes lack those red connection points.

Word shapes

Microsoft introduced the drawing canvas in Word 2002 (Office XP) as a way of combining multiple shapes into a single “drawing object” that could be resized, scaled or positioned, and around which Word could wrap text more easily.

Word 2002 would automatically create a new drawing canvas whenever you went to insert a new shape, but this behaviour was turned off in subsequent versions of Word in response to negative user feedback.

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