Sunday, 7 December 2014

Hand-drawn Process Flows - Part 1 - Introduction

A Free Document Productivity Tool for Visio

This post introduces a set of process flow shapes in a "hand-drawn" style. 

Producing process models using these shapes helps convey a “work-in-progress” feel that signals informality and encourages discussion. 

The are suitable for simple flows aimed at a business audience, who should be able to follow them with minimal understanding. I often use them to confirm conversations and draft processes before recording them formally once I have got agreement.

You can use them to prepare standard flowcharts, but they are ideally suited to swim-lane diagrams using the standard Visio template.  See the following example:

The main shapes are a task, start and end circles, and a decision or gateway diamond.  They have a wavy appearance around the edges as if drawn by hand. 

The shapes are actually a subset of the full BPMN suite. Limiting the BPMN
palette reinforces the the “simplicity” intent, but if you right click on many of the shapes you'll see additional display options which provide more BPMN-like models.  In the example above you can see the collapsed and loop icons, and the timer.

Each shape is subtly different from the others of its type. I have optimised the "wavy-ness" of each shape for scale and line thickness, but sometimes the shape may look too extreme. If you right click on the shape you will see the option "Redraw Shape". When this is click,ed a new randomised outline is generated.

Here is a sample of each of the shapes


I liked the idea of hand drawn shapes, several of the major process modelling
tools have an such an option. I really wanted a version for Visio, so set about developing my own. Getting there has taught me a great deal about managing shapes in Visio.

I got the idea for the hand-drawn technique from the Visio Guy, a site I often refer to for ideas.  I've given an 'Inspired by' credit in each shape.  You can see all the credits via the "Show credits" option when you right click the shape.

If you read the original article, you'll see a reference to Indexed, a site that uses hand-draw shapes in a fun way.

Notes on the hand-drawn  appearance 

There is no great secret to hand-drawn look, each rectangular side is divided into three sections. The location of the intermediate points in the side is slightly to the left or right of a straight line. These slight variations are based on randomised distribution, which is unique for each shape instance.  The net effect is slightly irregular lines, which meet at slightly irregular corner positions. 

Similarly, the circle shapes are actually slightly irregular octagons which use the corner rounding functions to smooth the outline into a circle.

When the shape is dropped onto the page, the system generates new random numbers which control the distribution of the slight variations.  The redraw shape function simply generates a new set of random numbers and you get a slightly different look each time.

Notes on the ShapeSheet

The ShapeSheet shows the underlying data about each sheet. You can access it you'll need to swtich on the developer tab and then right click on any shape.

All of the formatting attributes are there and as well as the instructions Visio uses to draw the shape (its geometry). If you are new to the ShapeSheet, there are links to some good explanations of how to view and use it at the end of the section.

If you open the ShapeSheet, you will see a user field called Sensitivity Factor(sf) which controls the degree of "wavy-ness" for a shape. To change it, alter the constant value in the field, values less that 2 are hardly wavy, while values over 4 are fairly extreme. If you change the size of the shapes or select different line weights, you may need to adjust this sensitivity.

If you look at the ShapeSheet you will also see the five random numbers that are used successively to alter the location of the corners and intermediate positions. The geometry sections show how each shape is laid out (and how much work went into them!).

The ShapeSheet also shows how to manage clickable options that can be found when you right click a shape, and how to manage the text control icon that lets you move the text box around.

ShapeSheet links:

Hopefully these articles will inspire you to dig deeper into Visio.

Downloading the shapes

You can download the shape stencil here.

Then next post describes the main shapes and some interesting design concepts.


  1. Thanks! but where is the download link?

  2. Sorry Al - I had a problem getting file loaded. There is now a link at the bottom of the post to the Visio Downloads page where you can download the stencil. I have Part 2 of the shapes coming in the next week or so, so come back then for a full release. Let me know you get on, especially if you still cannot get the stencil. Cheers. Martin

  3. Brilliant! It's amazing how you made every instance draw differently. Well done. I'm just curious whether we can switch the model with a click of a button to a formal notation once the required feedback is incorporated. That'd be superb as opposed to having to redraw the diagram again.

  4. Hi Martin,

    Nice work! I did something similar last week, inspired by a recent article by Kim Quirke on - and published it on my own blog at My Visio stencil doesn't have the randomized aspect to it - so every instance of each shape is exactly the same - but it probably has a wider variety of shapes (not just standard BPMN shapes). I wish I had found your article first - it would have saved me some time :). I'll add a reference to this page to my article so people can see both options.

  5. Thanks for the feedback Tony - I'll load a similar cross reference too.


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