The Ultimate Flowchart Guide 2023

This guide is brought to you by Zen Flowchart, the simplest free flowchart maker.

All you need to know about flowcharts (or flow chart): Definition, History, Flowchart Symbols, Flowchart Examples & Templates, What Flowcharts Are and How To Use Them.

Table of Contents

  1. Flowchart Definition
  2. When to Use a Flowchart?
  3. History of Flowcharts
  4. Flowchart Symbols & Components
  5. How to Create a Flowchart
  6. Types of Flowcharts
  7. Flowchart Tools
  8. Flowchart Examples

1. Definition / What is a Flowchart?

In the most basic sense, flowchart or flow chart, is a type of diagram that describe processes.

Flowchart Example - Sales Process Map

Flowchart represents information or processes as boxes, lines, and text. The boxes represent activities, the lines (or flowlines) represent the workflow that connects them, and the text represents what happens at each activity. A flowchart can be drawn by hand on paper or projected on a whiteboard. A flowchart consists of a set of interconnected shapes which signify process steps, decision points (if-then branches), or headings.

Let’s take a quick example:

Let’s say you need to write up the instruction of the first step to clean your home, which would be deciding whether to throw away or keep an item (courtesy of Marie Condo’s cleaning method).

Here would be the text-only instruction, and the very same instruction presented in flowchart form:

INSTRUCTION: Follow the following steps. First, pick up an item, then ask yourself: “Does this item spark joy for me?”. If the answer is Yes, the keep the item. If the answer is No, then discard the item. Then, repeat the process until you have gone through all of your items.

Flowchart Example - Marie Condo Method

This is only a made-up scenario, and in which case, flowchart is not that helpful because the text-based instruction is already quite easy to follow. But as you can imagine, for processes with numerous steps and complex rules, flowchart can be a powerful tool to describe processes clearly and concisely.

Since its invention, flow chart has expanded its usage to different functions and industries, with various types serving specific purposes. Alternate names for “flowchart” may include process flowchart, functional flow chart, process map, process chart, functional process chart, business process model, process model, process flow diagram, work flow diagram, business flow diagram, etc.

2. When to Use a Flowchart?

Flowchart is a very simple yet powerful tool to improve productivity in both our personal and work life. Here are some ways flowchart can be helpful:

  • Document a process
  • Present solution to a problem
  • Brainstorm ideas in a meeting
  • Design an operation system
  • Explain a decision making process
  • Store information
  • Draw an organizational chart
  • Create a visual user journey
  • Create a sitemap

3. History of Flowcharts

It's hard to set the records straight on who was the true inventor of flowcharts, but we do have records of the first standardized documentation on flow chart, which was first introduced by Frank and Lillian Gilbreth.

In 1921, the Frank and Lillian presented what was only a "graphic-based method" in a presentation titled: “Process Charts: First Steps in Finding the One Best Way to do Work”, to members of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME).

In 1930s, Allan H. Mogensen, an industrial engineer trained some participants in his Work Simplification Conferences in New York. Afterwards, participants from this conference such as Art Spinanger and Ben Graham then began to use flowchart in their respective fields, which helped propagate the use of flowchart. Because of its wide range of potential applications, flowcharts quickly became a very popular tool in the modern workspace.

In 1947, ASME adopted a symbol set derived from Gilbreth’s original work as the “ASME Standard: Operation and Flow Process Charts.”

In 1949, flowchart has started to be used to plan computer programs. It has become a popular tool for designing algorithms and programs due to its simplicity and effectiveness. Nowadays, flowcharts are an important tool for productivity, being used by business employees or professionals in various industries.

Flowchart Inventor - Lillian and Frank Gilbreth
Lillian & Frank Gilbreth
Flowchart Discussion - Allan Herbert Mogensen and Ben Graham
Allan Mogensen (left) and Ben Graham

4. Flowchart Symbols & Components

Flowchart Symbols
Flowchart Symbols

Flowchart is a very intuitive way to illustrate processes. In most cases, you won't need to worry about the standards and rules of all the flowchart symbols.

In fact, a simple flowchart, made up of simple rectangles and drawn arrows, is sufficient.

Nevertheless, to get more formal and precise about flowcharting, there are rules and standards in place that you can follow. Specifically, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) set standards for flowcharts and their symbols in the 1960s (PDF guide). Afterwards, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) adopted the ANSI symbols in 1970.

In general, flow charts are read from top to bottom and left to right. Read our flowchart tips article to learn more about how you can improve your flowcharting skills.

Flowchart Symbol - Flowline

1. Flowline: Shows the step's direction. Each flow line connects two blocks. This component is represented by lines with arrows indicating the flow's direction. Users can also add text on top of flow line to add more context to the step.

Flowchart Symbol - Terminal

2. Terminal Symbol: Indicates the beginning or end of a flowchart. This symbols is indicated by the oval shape.

Often, you'll see the word "Start" or "End" in a terminal component. In a large flowchart, having terminal symbols helps users quickly identify where the flowchart begins so they can actually begin reading the process.

Flowchart Symbol - Process

3. Process Symbol: Represent a step in a process. This is the most common component of a flowchart. Process symbol is represented by the rectangle shape.

Flowchart Symbol - Decision

4. Decision Symbol: Shows a step that decides the next step in a process. This is commonly a yes/no or true/false question. Decision is represented by the diamond shape.

Typically, from this decision symbol, there will be two flow lines that branch out. Often, these flow lines will have the texts "Yes" and "No", indicating the decision to be made.

Flowchart Symbol - Input Output
Input / Output

5. Input / Output Symbol: Indicates the process of inputting or outputting external data. Input / Output is represented by the parallelogram shape.

An example for this

Flowchart Symbol - Annotation
Annotation / Comment

6. Annotation / Comment: Indicates additional information regarding a step in a process.

Predefined Process
Predefined Process

7. Predefined Process: Shows named process which is defined elsewhere.

On-page Connector
On-page Connector

8. On-page Connector: Pairs of on-page connecter are used to replace long lines on a flowchart page.

Off-page Connector
Off-page Connector

9. Off-page Connector: An off-page connector is used when the target is on another page.

Flowchart Symbol - Delay

10. Delay: Any delay period that is part of a process

Flowchart Symbol - Alternate Process
Alternate Process

11. Alternate Process: An alternate to the normal process step. Flow lines to an alternate process block is usually dashed. Alternate Process is represented by a rounded rectangle shape.

Flowchart Symbol - Data

12. Data: Data input or output

Flowchart Symbol - Document

13. Document: A document

Multi-document Symbol

14. Multi-document: Multiple documents

Flowchart Symbol - Preparation

15. Preparation: A preparation step

Symbol Display

16. Display: A machine display

Symbol Manual Input
Manual Input

17. Manual Input: Data or information into a system

Flowchart Symbol - Manual Operation
Manual Operation

18. Manual Operation: A process step that isn’t automated

5. How to create a flowchart

Step 1: Map out major steps

Start drawing several major blocks that represent the most important steps in your process. Don’t worry about the details for now.

In most cases, you can start with terminal symbol, and start drawing more process symbols (rectangles) for the next steps, and continue working your way through the end of the process. Because flowcharts are read left to right and top to bottom, make sure to draw your terminal symbol at the top left corner of your workspace.

Step 2: Input the details

Fill in the remaining steps. We recommend working in the natural order of the process. An optional step here is to style your chart with different shapes and color to make it easier to follow.

Step 3: Test your result

Work through all the steps in your chart to make sure they are clear and exhaustive, and that there is no unintended open-ended node remained. When there is a decision point, make sure the options cover all possible scenarios.

Step 4: Gather feedback on your flow chart

Share a draft of the flowchart and get feedback from the intended users. If the flow chart is meant just for yourself then you can skip this step. But if the chart is meant for a team or a group of people, then it’s important to get their feedback to make sure that your flowchart is accurate and helpful.

Step 5: Publish the flowchart

Flowcharts should be made easily accessible to all parties involved. So make sure you publish your work in the right place. Our flowchart maker has a handy publishing feature, which allows you to publish and share your flowcharts.

6. Types of Flowcharts

From the basic flowchart, we have seen its proliferation into other variations to serve specific functions and industries. Here are some types of flowchart you may come across:

Data Flow Diagram

A type of diagram that represents the flow of data in a process or system.

Swimlane Flowchart

Swimlane Flowchart is a flowchart with the addition of swimlane component, which helps organize the nodes of a chart into the appropriate party or team. Each lane will only contains the steps involving a single party. For example, for a hiring process that involves multiple teams, a standard flowchart may be reorganized into different lanes involving different teams to better view the division of task and handover points in a process.

swimlane flowchart
Swimlane Flowchart

EPC Diagram

EPC diagrams, or event-driven process chain diagrams, are used to document or plan business processes. This standard was developed within the framework of Architecture of Integrated Information Systems (ARIS) by August-Wilhelm Scheer.

SDL Diagram

SDL diagrams, or specification and description language diagrams are used to describe specifications of a system. In comparison to UML, SDL diagrams deal with the detailed aspects of a system, whereas UML deals with a more abstract level.

UML activity diagrams / Activity Diagrams

UML is a standardized modeling language used to visualize the design of a system. It is often used in the field of software engineering.

7. Flowchart Tools

You can use just some pen and paper to start drawing a flowchart. However, these days, there are many flowchart maker software available to create flowcharts effortlessly. Here’s a full list of flowchart tools which may help serve your needs:

  • Zen Flowchart
  • Microsoft Visio
  • LucidChart
  • SmartDraw
  • Gliffy
  • Visme
  • Canva
  • Omnigraffle
  • Cacoo
  • Creately
  • Miro

8. Flowchart Examples & Templates

Flowchart have endless use cases and are used extensively across all industries and functions. Below are just a small number of examples we have compiled.

For more examples and templates, visit our Flowchart Examples & Templates Guide here.

Flowchart Example - System Flowchart
Git Branches System Flowchart

Flowchart Example - Process Flowchart
Hiring Process Flowchart

Flowchart Example - Sales Process Map
Simple Sales Process Map

Flowchart Example - Org Chart
Org Chart

Flowchart Example - Algorithm Flow
Algorithm Flow Chart
customer service flowchart

Customer Service Flowchart

Scrum Workflow Flowchart
Scrum Workflow Flowchart

Flowchart Guides