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Why Steve Can Draw

Technology & You


Over the years, I have learned many skills, but my drawing ability has never advanced beyond stick figures. A couple of semesters of drafting classes in high school left me convinced that if I ever expected to make a living, I'd be better off choosing a field that didn't require ruling pens and T-squares. But suddenly, in middle age, I can draw. Credit a clever computer program called Visio for Windows from Visio Corp. (206 521-4500).

Unlike many of today's bloated Windows programs, the $129 Visio doesn't try to be an all-purpose graphics program. It does one thing very well. It allows even folks like me to assemble predrawn objects into professional-looking charts, diagrams, and drawings. It's also easy to insert the results into your report, slide show, or other presentation. You can paste a Visio drawing into most Windows programs, and some, such as Microsoft Word, can even get a Visio button on their toolbar.

QUICK DRAW. Visio's basic metaphor is the plastic shapes template that is familiar to anyone who ever took a mechanical-drawing class. The right side of the screen is a drawing surface that looks like a sheet of paper. On the left is a template from which you drag a variety of shapes into your drawing. You select the template from a menu of 22, covering everything from electronic circuit symbols to corporate organization charts.

The power lies in what Visio terms "smart shapes." (The company was called Shapeware Corp. until earlier this year.) You can resize the shapes by dragging on a corner. You can also rotate them, or flip them horizontally or vertically.

Many shapes, however, have kinetic abilities that go way beyond these obvious manipulations. For example, the map symbols template has a "flexible road" that can be dragged into the shape of your choice, with route numbers that can be added later. The space-planning template's door shape automatically creates an opening when it's dropped on a wall. It takes a good deal of practice, though, to learn all the tricks that can be done with the shapes you use.

The way shapes connect together also shows intelligence. If you use a conventional drawing program to create an organizational chart, for example, and then have to move a box, you have to redraw the lines linking it to other elements. In Visio, connecting lines can stretch, shrink, even bend as needed. In a flowchart, for instance, you can add a new box by dropping it on top of the line linking two existing boxes.

"SMART SHAPES." What might you use Visio for? I'm currently using the space- planning template to draw plans for converting my office into a more practical workspace for testing computer equipment. I recently was able to fill a request for a diagram of our office's local-area network with about 15 minutes of work. A picture really can be worth a thousand words, and Visio makes it possible for people who are baffled by conventional computer drawing programs such as CorelDRAW! or Micrografx Designer to add high-impact illustrations to their work.

In addition to the standard templates, Visio offers an assortment of specialized stencils for drawings tailored to specific areas ranging from chemical engineering to kitchen layout for $29 apiece. You can also create your own shapes from scratch.

Visio 3.0, the current edition, has been around for less than a year. A new version that is designed to take advantage of long file names and other Windows 95 features will start shipping in late August. I use Visio for everything from charts to maps to driving directions. It's a good addition to any Windows user's tool kit.BY STEPHEN H. WILDSTROM

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