Database Notations tap the full power of Visio

Database templates have a fresh, modern look in the new Visio. In our new approach, templates focus on the on-canvas experience, which makes them great for brainstorming, free-form diagramming and collaborating on ideas.

There are  four database templates:  Chen’s, Crow’s Foot, IDEF1X and UML. Each template can be used to model a database system in a different notation. We’ll describe the components of a database diagram and then cover each of the notations.

Entity Relationship Diagrams

Visio’s database templates allow you to model an entity relationship diagram. The key components are:

  • Entity: The entity shape is a data object. In a database, an entity is normally represented by a table. Each row in the table represents an instance of the entity.
  • Attribute: An attribute shape is a property of an entity. Attributes can be used to identify an instance of an entity (called a primary key). Attributes can also be part of a related table where the shared attribute is used to join the data.
  • Relationship: These shapes are used together to show the structure of a database and the relationship between tables. Database diagrams can be used to design database systems or show how to query the database.


Chen’s notation is brand new to Visio. This notation is commonly taught in database modeling introductory courses and appears in most textbooks. Chen’s is useful for modeling the basics of entities and relationships, because it presents an abstract view of the associations. These diagrams are a good entry step to understanding the database structure, especially for basic databases or examples. This notation is also well suited for brainstorming and quick diagraming.

Entities are represented by rectangles. Attributes are circular callouts to the entities. Relationships connect the entities with a diamond shape.

Visio Chen's database notation

Crow’s Foot

Crow’s Foot is the most commonly used notation. It’s good for a clean look when there are many attributes, such as a model of a complex database system. Attributes are encapsulated within the entity shapes.

Visio Crow's Foot database notation

Relationship connectors are used to show an association between entities. Arrowheads are used to describe the cardinality of the relationship. The cardinality can be set by right-clicking on the relationship and setting the Begin and End Symbols. You can also specify the multiplicity manually for further detail. Relationships can be attached to the entire entity or to a specific attribute (for example when specifying how a join would work with a foreign key). Primary Key and Foreign Key symbols can be shown for each attribute by using the right-click menu.

Tip: You can show the attribute type in Crow’s Foot and IDEF1X notation by selecting “Show Type” in the right-click menu of the entity shape.

Showing Attributes in right click menu on Visio database notation

Crow’s Foot uses the Visio list shapes to organize attributes within an entity. This method is also used in IDEF1X and UML database diagrams. For tips on how to use these shapes, check out the class diagram section of our article on professional, flexible and beautiful UML content.


The IDEF1X notation was developed as a result of the ICAM (integrated computer-aided manufacturing) studies. This ICAM DEFinition language is used by the U.S. Air Force as a manufacturing data-modeling tool. You can make diagrams in this notation in a similar manner as the Crow’s Foot notation.

Visio IDEF1X database notation


UML, the Unified Modeling Language, is a standard for object-oriented design, and it is gaining popularity as a notation for modeling databases. While UML does not have specifications for data modeling, it can be a useful tool for diagraming, especially since data from databases can be used in object-oriented programming. The UML database shapes are very similar to the UML class shapes that are used to model object-oriented classes. UML database shapes are a good way to have a consistent notation for an entire system.

Visio UML database notation

Taking advantage of Visio Features

All of the database templates use core Visio features to their full potential. We have unlocked the shapes to improve the on-canvas experience as well as the extensibility options, and developers can programmatically access the shapes to build customized add-ons. It’s easy to build, adjust and format directly on the canvas. You can collaborate on a design with your team using coauthoring and commenting in Visio and Visio Services.

The new Visio allows you to easily design professional looking diagrams, and the new database notations work great with our new themes. In particular, the Crow’s Foot, IDEF1X and UML have embellishment levels that will change the look of the shapes with certain themes, which allows for many fresh, modern looking, customizable diagrams.

Professional, flexible & beautiful UML content

In the new Visio, we have re-envisioned our Unified Modeling Language (UML) templates in a fresh, modern way. In an earlier post, we talked about our whole new approach to the UML templates. We updated our five most popular UML diagrams, with all new shapes to make it easier and faster to create beautiful, professional diagrams. Our new UML templates allow you to create class, sequence, state machine, activity and use case diagrams that match the UML 2.4 standard.  

UML Diagrams: Activity, Class, Sequence, State Machine and Use Case

The new UML templates focus on a freeform, on-canvas experience. Each template takes advantage of the full capabilities of Visio, including shape effects and themes, as well as collaboration and commenting to share your diagrams across your organization.

In this article we’ll introduce each of the new UML diagrams and present a few tips about using the new model.

Class Diagram

Visio UML Class diagram

The UML Class diagram template lets you build static structure diagrams.  These diagrams can be used to develop a model of the classes and objects in your software program.  Combined with the commenting and collaboration features, it’s now easy to work with coworkers and review software designs.

This diagram features the basic class, member and divider shapes as the foundation of object-oriented classes.  Special interface and enumeration shapes are also available. A package shape can be added to visually group classes into an expanded package or collapsed package.

Relationships between classes, interfaces and enumerations can be represented using the seven relationship connectors: inheritance, interface realization, association, directed association, aggregation, dependency and composition.  If you need to change the relationship type after the connector is on the canvas, use the right-click menu to select one of the other types.  Multiplicity shows the quantity relationship between the objects.  You can use the right click menu to show the multiplicity text boxes.  Edit these text boxes to represent the multiplicity of the relationship.

Visio UML Class diagram - Show multiplicity

Tip: Use the note shape to describe classes or information about the implementation detail. 

Add a note to a class diagram shape

The class shape uses the list data structure to organize members and functions in each class.  (This model is very similar in the database shapes.)  New members can be added to classes using the three methods:

  1. Add or remove members by dragging them in or out of the list shape. A green highlight rectangle appears around the class shape to denote membership, and an orange insertion bar indicates the specific position that a new member will occupy in the class. 
  2. Select a member shape already in the class, then use the right click menu to insert a member shape before or after the selected shape.
  3. Click an insertion triangle on either side of the class shape to insert a new member at the highlighted position. 

Insert a member to a UML class shape

Use the separator shape to divide data members and functions within your class.  To resize, use the yellow control handle on the right side.  This will resize the class shape and all members together.

Resize a UML class shape

Show the template parameter or stereotype by selecting the class shape, then using the right click menu to show these properties.

Stereotype and parameter on class shapes

All UML diagrams are fully themeable.  You can easily adjust the style and tone of the diagram by changing the theme. The class shapes have an additional feature: embellishment levels that can be changed using themes. Each embellishment level has a different style from traditional and conservative (low) to modern and fun (high).

Embellishment levels on UML class shapes

Sequence Diagram

Visio UML Sequence diagram

The UML Sequence diagram models interactions and events in a process arranged in a time sequence. It can be used to show steps in a process by different actors or it can show how data passes between objects in a system. 

Use an actor or object lifeline to represent participants in the system.  Each lifeline contains a set of connection points where messages can be connected to each actor or object.

Lifeline shape in UML Sequence diagram

There are four types of message connectors in the shapes pane: message, return message, self message and asynchronous message.

Tip: Use the right click menu to change a message type between synchronous and asynchronous.  A message can become a self message if the origin and destination is the same lifeline.

Use fragment shapes to encapsulate loops, optional fragments, alternative blocks or sub processes. 

Fragment shape in UML Sequence diagram

Use the activation shape to show when a lifeline is initiated.  Drop this shape onto the lifeline and connect messages to it.

Actor lifeline in UML Sequence diagram

State Machine

Visio UML State Machine

Use the UML state machine diagram to show the sequence of states an object goes through during its lifetime. Model the state with one of four state shapes. Use the initial state and final state to show the beginning and end of the lifecycle.  Use choice shapes to show transitions between states.  

Tip: Add text to connector shapes to label states and conditions.

Add text to connectors in Visio

Activity Diagram

 Visio UML Activity diagram

A UML activity diagram is a special case of a state chart diagram in which all of the states are action states and the transitions are triggered by the completion of actions in the source state. Use an activity diagram to describe the internal behavior of a method and represent a flow driven by internally generated actions. 

The new activity diagram template uses the cross-functional flowchart shapes to show each participant in the system. The swim lanes will resize with contents and dynamically adjust when a new lane is added.

Use the standard UML notation to model the process from initial node to final node.  The new shapes make it easier to stay organized and create great-looking, easy-to-follow diagrams.

Tip: Use auto connect to add new steps in the process:

Use auto connect with Visio

 Use Case


Visio UML Use Case diagram

Apply UML Use Case diagrams to model interactions within and between subsystems.  Connect the actor shape to use case shapes using the auto connect tool.  The connectors describe the relationship between the actor and use case shapes.  There are five connectors: association, dependency, generalization, include and exclude.  The subsystem shape visually represents the use cases within it.

Tip: Use Find Shape to add icons for different actors in the system.  See the Find Shape help article for more information about using this feature. In the example above, a bank shape replaced the actor shape.

Benefits of the new shapes

With the new Visio UML templates, you can quickly create beautiful professional diagrams that show class, sequence, state machine, activity, and use case and also adhere to the UML 2.4 standard. The templates allow you to easily share and review diagrams of complex systems. The new diagrams are more extensible and flexible, and now you can apply the powerful features of the Visio engine to UML models, such as auto connect, replace shape and commenting.

Top timeline tips in Visio

With the new Visio you can quickly create clean, organized timelines that make it easy to order events and share information. Improvements we made across the product allow the new timelines to take on a variety of different looks to create beautiful, professional diagrams. Specifically, we made it easier to:

  • Apply themes
  • Customize dates and elements
  • Reposition shapes
  • Switch between timeline styles

Visio timeline

This blog post will walk through making a timeline so you can learn about the new features and some tips and tricks along the way.

Timeline Template

Suppose you want to create a timeline to illustrate key milestones and map out events in your project. To begin, navigate to the Start Experience, and then find the Schedule category.

 Visio Start Experience

Select the timeline template.

 Timeline template icon in Visio

In Visio, each template includes shapes and tools that are specific to a type of diagram. The timeline template includes features that let you align milestones and intervals to timeline shapes based on dates. The Timeline tab is a useful place to adjust settings for the entire diagram.

From the Shapes Pane, chose one of three timeline shapes. Don’t worry – you can switch between types at any time through the right-click menu. We simplified the set of shapes, giving you the option to choose a block, line or cylindrical one. After you choose a shape, you can also choose from a greater combination of styles. You can create a ruler or divided timeline, as you did in previous versions of Visio. All you need to do is change the interim marker position through the right-click menu. You can apply these combination of styles at any time!

Tip: To make formatting milestones and intervals quicker, set the timeline defaults when you start. To do this, go to the Timeline tab, and open the “Date/Time format” dialog. Now make all your milestones and intervals have the desired date format on drop, by entering them in the diaglog box.

 Change Date and Time Format Dialog in Visio

Milestones & Intervals

You can now populate the timeline with your milestones and intervals. To distinguish different categories of events or highlight significant deadlines, set the milestone type by using the right-click menu.

Next, position your milestones so all the text is readable. To help you do this, we improved how you position milestone and intervals. When you drop a milestone, it now sits on the top of the timeline by default. (You can get the old position back through the right-click menu.) We made the leader line (the line that connects the milestone to the text) easier to position with one click.  Additionally, when you drag the leader line below the timeline, Visio automatically updates the position of milestones.

 Milestones on a Visio timeline

Tip: For timelines with several milestones, we added a text-positioning feature to help with spacing. You can set how the text aligns to the leader line by using the paragraph alignment properties available in the floatie or the Home tab.

Aligning milestone text on a timeline

Milestones and intervals have smart behavior to adjust their geometry based on the timeline type. For example, when you drop an interval on a cylindrical timeline, the interval adjusts to fit the curved shape. This makes it even easier for you to switch between timeline styles!

Cylindrical interval on a timeline

You can change the interval type through the right-click menu. For example, a block interval can have text inside or outside the timeline, and can easily switch to a bracket or curly bracket interval. The bracket interval has been updated so that brackets can be extended as a whole or switched to a leader line to conserve space.

Square bracket updates on Visio timelines

Expanded Timelines

When a timeline has a lot of details, you can add an expanded timeline. The expanded timeline lets you create a copy of a segment from the original timeline and resize it or add events independently of the timeline so you can drill down into further detail. This is particularly useful for a specific event such as a conference or trip. Drag an expanded timeline shape from the Shapes pane and drop the expanded timeline on top of the desired timeline. Select the date range for the expanded timeline to create a separate segment.

Expanded timeline in Visio

An additional customization can be used to show or hide elements of the intervals or milestones. Select a milestone or interval shape, then use the right-click menu to position the date above or below the description. You can also hide the date or description for any event.

Alignment Guides

Tip: Using guides is a great way to align milestones evenly. Once guides and rulers are turned on in the View tab, drag a guide from the top ruler onto the page. Attach the control handles of the leader line for each milestone or interval to the guide. For more information about guides, see this help article: Snap to guides to lay out a drawing.

Glue to guide to align milestones

Tip: An entire row of milestones can be adjusted by simply moving the guide up or down.

Move guide to adjust row of milestones

Quick Styles & Themes

You can easily use themes to adjust the style of your diagram. Apply Quick Styles to milestones and intervals to visually differentiate between categories of events.

To create even more looks, try using different embellishment levels. The new timelines automatically adjust with the embellishment level of themes. For example, if you chose a high embellishment level theme, the block timeline gets wider and the text switches to all caps for emphasis. See the Theme blog post for more information about themes and embellishment levels.

 Visio timeline with high embellishment theme

 Our timeline is complete and we can print it or share on the web with Visio Services!


Through our review of how to create a timeline in the new Visio, we hope you see how easy we’ve made it to create great looking ones. Updated positioning behavior makes it quick to align events and unclutter busy regions. New geometry allows timelines to take on any theme, and new options in the right-click menu gives you the power to customize timelines the way you want.

Have a favorite timeline tip of your own you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments below!

Sharing Diagrams with Visio Services


Visio Services on a phoneThe new Visio offers a number of new capabilities – the modern look of the app, new themes and shapes for making professional-looking diagrams, new ways to collaborate with multiple authors and reviewers. We’ve also made it much easier to share those diagrams with your coworkers and friends – even if they don’t have Visio. That’s where Visio Services comes in. Visio Services lets you share great-looking diagrams using SharePoint or Office 365 with up to the minute data.

Full fidelity viewing, no publishing

Visio Services is a part of Microsoft SharePoint and O365 that offers a fast and simple way to consume Visio diagrams. You just need to have a Visio document stored in SharePoint and a browser – no Visio client is required. We present the diagram with the same visual fidelity as the Visio client, including your themes and cool effects. Visio 2010 users will recall that diagrams had to be published to a special web format (.VDW) for viewing. No longer! Visio Services works with the new native Visio file format (.VSDX) so that any document saved in SharePoint is viewable – no publishing required. (Visio Services will still support your existing .VDW files.)

Visio Full Page web access

Collaborate on diagrams with commenting

One great reason to share your diagrams with others is to get feedback on them. With Visio Services your reviewers can add comments to the diagram – as well as see the comments from others. In fact, you may have people commenting on the diagram using the Visio client and people commenting in the browser at the same time. See the collaboration blog article for more details about the new commenting and collaboration features in Visio and Visio Services.

Comments in Visio Services

See the latest information

The information in Visio diagrams is not always static. You can connect a diagram to a variety of data sources to show dynamic information in a visual context. Visio Services can refresh the data and update the shapes in the diagram that are linked to data.

Embedded Visio Services web part

You can even incorporate diagrams into rich dashboards or larger SharePoint solutions. Below is an example of a SharePoint website for a University dorm. Visio diagrams are embedded in this site to give information about upcoming residence hall events and up to date information about dorm facilities. Diagrams are also available in document libraries for easy access to view in the browser or edit in Visio.


SharePoint site with Visio Services web parts

Access wherever you need it

Since Visio Services works through your browser, you can use it with a wide variety of devices – desktops, laptops, mobile phones, or tablets. It works with Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, and Safari to give you access using your platform of choice. We’ve also added enhancements for touch and for mobile devices with smaller screens.

Try it yourself

Now that you know what Visio Services is all about, why don’t you try it yourself? Visio Services is part of SharePoint and SharePoint Online in Office 365. You can get a trial Office 365 Preview account, drop some Visio diagrams in a SharePoint document library, and then see Visio Services in action. We’ve attached some Visio files to this article for starters. Here’s what you need to do:

  • Sign up for the Office 365 Enterprise Preview
  • In the Office 365 Preview admin center, navigate to the SharePoint sites by clicking on the Sites button in the blue header.
  • Go to the Team site to upload a Visio diagram to the Document collection by clicking on “new document” > “Upload existing file” (You may use the example file contained within this zip download)
  • Click a Visio diagram in the document collection to view in the web browser

For more information and resources about the Office 365 Preview, check out this Office Preview Getting Started Guide.

Visio Services is a way to share modern diagrams across your organization with the latest business information. It’s a great complement to Visio and SharePoint.