Skip to main content

Using "Shapes" in Your Word Document

  • Author:
  • Updated date:

Shapes - put some geometry into your Word Document


Word as a Graphic Tool

Have you ever inserted (or drawn) lines, boxes, arrows or other shapes into a Word Document? I'm not talking about borders here, but actual graphic components. Lines and other shapes have been available in Microsoft Word for a long time but recent menu enhancements have made them a lot easier to use.

One simple use of shapes is to insert a line into a document. The line can be placed almost anywhere, have any thickness, be straight or run at an angle and be any length. Another common ues is to insert an arrow. That is a line with an arrow-head at the end. These can come in handy when annotating an imported graphic such as a map, clip art or even a photograph. Inserting lines and arrows is easy but that is just the start of what you can do with Word Shapes.

This is the third installment in a series of Hubs that explore ways to use the graphic capabilities of Word. Microsoft Word offers a number of features that make it possible to graphically enhance a document without the need for any other outside programs. You can also easily copy those graphics and use them in a hub, blog or any another website.


Other Hubs in this Series


Simple Shapes - Build Your Graphic

Shapes, for the purpose of this discussion are defined as lines, polygons (triangle, square, rectangle, etc.) and other geometric elements found in the "Shapes" tab on the "Insert" menu of the Word ribbon. Off all the graphic elements that can be inserted into Microsoft Word, shapes may be the simplest of the bunch. At least that is the way they start off. In reality, shapes can become the building blocks of other more complicated graphic creations.

Shapes and Text Boxes have many similarities. In fact, most shapes can function as text boxes and allow you to type text right into the shape.

The Shapes drop-down menu is found under the Insert Tab of the Word Ribbon. Note the simple shapes that have been inserted - Line, Rectangle and Arrow.

The Shapes drop-down menu is found under the Insert Tab of the Word Ribbon. Note the simple shapes that have been inserted - Line, Rectangle and Arrow.


Lines, Boxes and Arrows

Lines, Rectangles and Arrows are the most common application of "Shapes."

Line - The basic line can be used to separate text or other elements in your document. Like all graphic elements used in Word, it can be place in the foreground or background, can be grouped with other elements and can be enhanced physically with different line weights and color. Lines are more flexible in their use and position than typical Word borders.

Tip #1: when drawing a line, holding down the "Shift" key will snap the line vertically or horizontally.

Tip #2: to change the length of a line (stretch it), click on the line and grab one of the ends. See Tip #1 to keep lines straight.

Rectangle - You might ask, "What would I need a box for?" How about for making borders. When you insert a rectangular shape, it will first appear as a box with fill. If you need boxes with fill, that is great but if you want to use the box for some other purpose, such as a border, then a few easy commands can make that happen.

  • Step 1 - After you have placed a rectangle in your document, click-on it with your mouse; this will activate the "Format" command on the ribbon. Click-on the "Format" command.
  • Step 2 - Go to "Shape Fill" and choose "No Fill" on the drop down menu.
  • Step 3 - Go to "Shape Outline" and choose a color and line weight.

Tip #1: Most shapes that are closed elements, including rectangles, circles, other polygons, stars, banners and call-outs can act as text boxes. Just type right in them.

Tip #2: You can have fill in a rectangle and still have it function as a border. In that case, other elements (shapes or text boxes for example) must be placed in front of the rectangle or the rectangle is sent behind the other elements.

You now have a shape that can function as a border - drag it around, grab the ends to stretch it and make it larger or smaller. You can also manipulate the shape with the "Shape Styles" command for more pre-set features. Using a rectangle as a border is something I do a lot when making Word Graphics. It helps to set-off the graphic, visually, from the main text.

Arrow (pointer) - The arrow is actually an arrowhead connected to a line. It's used to point at something or in some direction. Like the line and rectangle, it can be graphically enhanced and it can be straight (shift key) or angled.

Scroll to Continue

Tip: after you have placed the arrow, click-on in and then select the "Shape Outline" command. At the bottom of the drop-down is a command called "Arrows." This is where you can change the look of the arrow head.

For me, the arrow shape is a real workhorse. I use it for annotating maps and other elements. When you combine an arrow with a text box, you have the basic elements required to key or annotate anything.

Annotate a Picture

Below is an example that uses the three basic shapes to annotate an old map. The 1910 map of Chicago was cropped and inserted into a Word Document. It was placed in the background (sent to back) and lines, rectangles, arrows, and simple text boxes were placed over the map. Here are some highlights:

  • A rectangle shape outlines the 24th Precinct. There is no fill, the line color is a blue tone and dashed.
  • Two lines were used to mark the route of the present-day, Eisenhower Expressway. They were changed to a red tone and also dashed with a different dash size.
  • Arrows, both straight and angled were inserted and the color was manipulated (some red some blue). Text boxes were grouped with the arrows (note that the text box border was removed - "No Outline").

Read more about text boxes in a previous hub - Part 1.

  • Two other shapes, a Star and a Circle where added, with fill left in, to mark the location of two places.
  • Also, notice that the "24th Precinct" Text Box has a border and fill, but the transparency of the fill has been manipulated to allow some of the map to show thru.
This annotated map used the basic elements: lines, rectangles and arrows to tell a story.

This annotated map used the basic elements: lines, rectangles and arrows to tell a story.


All Those Other Shapes

There are many other shapes in the "Shape" command. These are grouped into nine sections:

  • Recently Used: This is a collection of shapes that you have been using.
  • Lines: Includes both lines and simple arrows.
  • Rectangles: Basic and modified rectangular shapes.
  • Basic Shapes: Here you will find polygons of all types.
  • Block Arrows: A vast array of different styles of arrows.
  • Equation Shapes: If you need a shape that looks like a + or - sign.
  • Flow Chart: These are the basic shapes found in flow charts.
  • Starts and Banners: A number of different types of stars and banners.
  • Call outs: Perfect for that cartoon you are ready to publish.

The shape Free-form, found in the line section is great for drawing a series of lines that are connected. Remember the shift key, which will keep the lines straight (if you want them straight). This line type is great for tracing over a border on a map or for highlighting any object.The Banner and Call-out shapes are especially useful when making an annotated document. It can be fun to create your own, customized, documents.

If you are looking for a Smiley Face, a Heart or maybe the Sun, you will find them all here. With a little imagination, shapes have unlimited possibilities. Use Shapes and Text Boxes to create flyers, invitations, greeting cards, certificates, awards, stationary or letterhead. A Google Search of "documents made with Word shapes" or some other variation on that search will turn up a number of other examples.

I create an award style certificate for my son's golden birthday, which was on 12/12/2012 (below). As you can see, this is a good example of the use of some shapes and shows how they can be combined to create a very professional looking graphic object. For the certificate, I used the following shapes:

  • Rectangles: I used a number of them to make the borders, including one with scalloped corners. All of them have fill but by placing the outermost ones behind the inner ones, the fill for each shows up in the right place. I used textures as the fill, thickened the lines and used different colors.
  • Sun: The shape found in each corner is from the "Basic Shapes" section of the shapes pull down menu. I selected a golden color and then used "Shape Affects" to give it the beveled look.
  • Four Point Star: Found in the "Stars and Banners" section of the shapes pull down menu. These were manipulated in a manner similar to the Sun shapes.
  • 12 Point Star: The seal at the bottom is also a star and since most shapes also work as text boxes, I places some text in this one. After finding the color I wanted, I then selected a "Gradient" in the "Shape Fill" pull down and used a "Bevel" and "Glow" affect from the "Shape Affects" pull down.
  • Ribbon Banner: The blue banner also from the "Stars and Banners" section of the shapes pull down menu. I made the "Shape Outline" one color and the "Shape Fill" another. Since it works as a text box, I place text inside the banner. I selected a different font, chose a color and size for the text.
  • Text Boxes: Most of the other text on the document was placed using text boxes. I used "Text Affects" to get the various shading, shadowing and reflections shown. I also changed the "Text Outline" and "Text Fill" on some of these (note the gold outline on the gray "Meritorious" line of text). That was done by changing the text outline.

The "sky is the limit" when making these types of documents. I show you this example, not to overwhelm you (as that could easily be the case) but to give you an ideal of what can be done once you become familiar with the capabilities of Microsoft Word. You can keep it simple or make it very elaborate. There is no right or wrong - it is totally up to you - and that is the beauty of design.

The "Certificate" was created in Word using shapes and text boxes. A series of rectangular shapes (with fill) make the border. Text boxes and other shapes are placed on top of the rectangular border shapes.

The "Certificate" was created in Word using shapes and text boxes. A series of rectangular shapes (with fill) make the border. Text boxes and other shapes are placed on top of the rectangular border shapes.


How to Make a Shape - From Plain to Perfect

Even after reading the description above, you might be asking yourself, "How did he do that?" Never fear, I am going to show you. This one example will give you the tools and knowledge to take a shape and make it great. We are going to make the "Sun" shape found in the four corners of the certificate.

The Golden Sun - here are the steps . . . start with a blank Word Document.

  1. Go to the "Insert" tab on the Word Ribbon.
  2. Select "Shapes" from the Illustrations section of the Insert Ribbon.
  3. Go down to "Basic Shapes" and select the Sun Shape.
  4. Click-on the document and place the shape. You can drag the mouse to create a larger image. Don't worry if it is not perfect.
  5. Click-on the newly created Sun and select the "Format" command on the Ribbon.
  6. Now go to the "Size" section of the Ribbon and change the size (make it larger or smaller) and make both the height and width same size (you can use the arrow keys or type it into the box).
  7. Click-on the Sun and change the "Shape Fill" - "Shape Outline" - "Shape Effects" as outlined in steps 8, 9 and 10 below.
  8. Fill: select "Shape Fill" and find a color. To get the gold I wanted, I chose a custom color by selecting "More Fill Colors" in the pull down. It is trial and error utill you get the color that works.
  9. Outline: select "Shape Outline" and follow the same process as you did for fill. For the Sun, I used a slightly darker color for the outline.
  10. Effects: this is where it gets fun - when you select "Shape Effects" a number of options appear. When you hover over them with the mouse, the shape will change so you can easily preview any number of effects. For the Sun in the certificate, I chose a plain "Bevel." The bevel effect adds a sheen and reflection to the shape.

That was it for the sun. If you followed along and made this shape, I would encourage you to play with some other effects - try glow, reflection and shadow. These are great enhancements that will work on any shape (see below for more on "Shape Effects"). Also, click on the shape and type some words. You can see how easy it is to make any shape a text box.

Placing and enhancing a shape is Microsoft Word.

Placing and enhancing a shape is Microsoft Word.

"Shape Effects" (Shadow, Reflection, Glow and Bevel) will set-off a graphic. You can even use more than one of them at a time.

"Shape Effects" (Shadow, Reflection, Glow and Bevel) will set-off a graphic. You can even use more than one of them at a time.

Adding the "Shape Effect" called "Shadow" can make an image appear to float.

Adding the "Shape Effect" called "Shadow" can make an image appear to float.

Changing the color and line thickness is a great enhancement to any shape but if you really want to set-off your graphic element, then "Shape Effects" is something you will want to experiment with. There are six shape effects: Shadow, Reflection, Glow, Soft Edges, Bevel and 3-D Rotation. A shape can even have more than one effect applied to it.

Of all of the effects, I probably use "Shadow" the most. It gives an element the illusion that it is floating above the paper. If you have one shape on top of another, adding shadow to the top shape will give it some separation from the bottom shape. This floating effect looks great.

Tip: I usually place the shadow on the bottom-right or bottom-left of the object. I do this because I am assuming the sun is to the top of the page (in this case, an imaginary sun). Most people will instinctively read the image better if the shadow is on the bottom of shape.

"Bevel" is the other effect I like to use. Bevel gives a shape a subtle three dimensional feel. It also adds a shine or shimmer and reflection to the shape. Using shadow and bevel together will really pop an element.

As with anything that you might be unfamiliar with, using shapes and other graphic elements from Word will take some practice. There will be some moments of frustration - I know because I have had some of those moments. I am confident, however, that with a little practice you will be creating flashy documents in no-time.

Tip: placing shapes and other elements on top of one another is something that you will encounter when creating a document similar to the "Certificate" example I showed above. If you select any Word graphic element and right-click, you will see a command called "Send to Back" or "Bring to Front." This command will get your elements in the right place - either behind or in front of other elements.

Please let me know if you find this useful or if you have any questions - I would be happy to help. Also, look for my other Microsoft Word graphic tutorials, coming soon . . .


My Blog Sites

Related Articles