When planning out any kind of process, visualizing things as they flow from one person or component to another is a great way to think through every possibility.
Beyond full-proofing your process, visuals make it easy to share your process with others, so they can understand and reference them quickly.
Luckily, flowcharts are also one of the easiest diagrams to create, making it silly not to incorporate them into every project. And this guide will show you how.
This guide is useful for:
- Anyone interested in visualizing a workflow or process,
- People struggling to communicate their ideas clearly,
- Marketers, Developers, HR, UX Designers, Visual Designers, or any other department that needs to communicate processes to other departments or stakeholders, and
- Flowchart fanatics wanting to brush up on the fundamentals and stay up-to-date on new trends.
What is a flowchart?
A flowchart is a visual representation of a sequence of operations that are performed to create a particular outcome. They are commonly used to document complex processes, systems, and computer algorithms in a comprehensible way.
Each step in the sequence is noted with a diagram shape such as a rectangle, diamond, or oval. Steps are linked by connecting arrows that define the directional flow of steps. Anyone viewing a flowchart should be able to logically follow the process from beginning to end.
Some flowcharts are small, only depicting a few key steps of a process, while others are more comprehensive, able to represent complex strings of steps and potential outcomes.
Flowcharts are often referred to by specialized names such as Process Flowcharts, Process Maps, Functional Flowcharts, Business Process Maps, Business Process Modeling and Notation (BPMN) diagrams, and Process Flow Diagrams (PFD).
History of flowcharts
Flowcharts have been around since the 1920s. Originally called “flow process charts,” they were developed by industrial engineers Frank and Lillian Gilbreth who first presented them to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) in 1921. Flowcharts quickly became a mainstay in industrial engineering for structuring work processes such as assembly line manufacturing.
In the 1930s, industrial engineer Allan H. Mogensen saw an opportunity to extend flowcharts and other useful tools of the industry to business workers. He began training business people in how to use flowcharts to make their processes more efficient, spreading their popularity and use.
Two fellow graduates of Mogensen’s class also helped popularize flowcharts in other industries. Art Spinanger trained employees at Procter & Gamble where he developed their Deliberate Methods Change Program. Ben S. Graham, also the Director of Formcraft Engineering at Standard Register Industrial, adapted flowcharts for information processing with the development of the multi-flow process chart to display multiple documents and their relationships.
By 1947, ASME adopted a symbol set derived from Gilbreth’s original work as the “ASME Standard: Operation and Flow Process Charts.”
In 1949, Herman Goldstine and John von Neumann developed a flowchart to plan computer programs. Flowcharts became a popular means for describing computer algorithms until the 1970s when interactive computer terminals and third-generation programming languages were introduced. Source code then became a more concise way for algorithms to be expressed.
Nowadays, flowcharts are still used for describing computer algorithms, as well as a variety of business workflows and processes.
Types of flowcharts
Flowcharts can be used in practically any industry. A few examples would be manufacturing, architecture, engineering, business, technology, education, science, medicine, government, and administration.
Depending on what you’re working on and who you ask, you may hear flowcharts categorized or labeled in different ways.
In the 1978 book Microprocessors: Design and Applications, Andrew Veronis named three flowchart types based on their level of detail:
- General Flowcharts provide an overview.
- System Flowcharts identify the devices used.
- Detailed Flowcharts document specific details.
In the 2001 book Quality and Process Improvement, Mark A. Fryman categorized flowcharts from a business perspective:
- Decision Flowcharts explain the steps taken to justify a particular decision.
- Logic Flowcharts are used to uncover loopholes in logic which could cause problems.
- System Flowcharts display how data flows in a system.
- Product Flowcharts represent the order by which a sequence of products is created.
- Process Flowcharts show any process taken to achieve an outcome.
In the 2003 book Critical Incident Management, Alan B. Sterneckert designated four flowchart types based on what they control:
- Document Flowcharts show the controls over document-flow through the components of a system, i.e. through various business units.
- Data Flowcharts show the controls over data-flow in a system, i.e. the channels that data is transmitted through.
- System Flowcharts show the physical controls of data-flow through the components of a system, i.e. programs, servers, processors, and communication networks.
- Program Flowcharts show the controls in a program within a system.
Additional flowchart types include:
- Swimlane Diagrams, e.g. Swimlane Flowcharts depict who does what in cross-team processes.
- Workflow Flowcharts document office workflows, often involving tasks, documents, and information.
- Event-Driven Process Chain (EPC) Flowcharts document a business process.
- Specification and Description Language (SDL) Flowcharts brainstorm computer algorithms using three basic components: system definition, block, and process.
Related diagrams, sometimes thought of as types of flowcharts, include:
- Data Flow Diagrams (DFD) map out the flow of information for any system or process.
- Process Flow Diagrams (PFD), a.k.a. Process Flowcharts illustrate the relationships between components at an industrial plant.
- Business Process Model and Notation (BPMN) model the steps of a business process.
While the history of flowcharts tells us they originated in industrial engineering before becoming popular in computer programming, they are also used widely today in many other fields.
Here are just a few common industries and uses.
- Plan order and procurement processes
- Draft the paths that users take on a website or in a store
- Develop a product plan
- Document processes for compliance
- Detail the processes for a sale or consolidation
Sales & marketing
- Arrange the flow of a survey
- Plot a sales process
- Detail research strategies
- Demonstrate registration flows
- Distribute internal/external communication policies
- Illustrate the physical or chemical makeup of a product
- Show a manufacturing process from beginning to end
- Discover and resolve inefficiencies in manufacturing or procurement
- Depict process flows or system flows
- Create and optimize chemical and plant processes
- Analyze the lifecycle of a structure
- Design a reverse-engineering flow
- Illustrate the design and prototyping phase of a new structure or product
- Plan academic requirements
- Create a lesson plan
- Organize class projects
- Demonstrate legal or civil processes
- Trace character development within literature and film
- Represent the flow of algorithms or logic problems
- Visualize scientific processes
- Chart anatomical processes
- Map out symptoms and treatments for diseases/disorders
- Communicate hypotheses and theories
Benefits of using flowcharts
Many people may not realize the benefits of visually documenting business processes, but the benefits become clear once you start using them.
Flowcharts allow you to standardize processes for efficiency and quality. They make it easy to communicate workflows for training and understanding by other parties. The process of analyzing flowcharts for bottlenecks, redundancies, unnecessary steps, or missing steps will greatly improve your efficiency.
Once you start thinking about your processes more visually, you’ll get a better understanding of what’s working and what’s not, which means you can replicate the good and start troubleshooting the bad.
In Cacoo, we offer a variety of templates and shapes to get your designs started. Starting from a template can save you a lot of time off the bat.
There are a few basic flowchart shapes and symbols used to denote processes, decisions, documents, manual operations, and more. Uniform symbols make your flowchart more meaningful and easier to read. The below image shows the standard flowchart shapes available in Cacoo.
These flowchart shapes and meanings are fairly standard; however, some people do incorporate different shapes with different meanings into their flowcharts. You can add shapes, define specialized meanings, and tailor your flowchart symbols to your needs.
Here is a rundown of the most common flowchart shapes and their meanings.
Sometimes also referred to as a “terminator,” the Start/End symbol is used to show where your flow begins or ends. Within the shape, you should include the words “Start” or “End” to clarify which it is.
The most common shape for a process is the rectangle. It can signify any process, action, or operation in your flow. They are usually defined by their action, like “Edit blog,” “Create an account,” or “Select plan.”
Another shape used for processes is the rounded rectangle. This is used to represent an event that occurs automatically such an event will trigger a subsequent action, like “receive telephone call” or describe a new state of affairs.
Also called the “Preparation Symbol,” the Process 3 symbol represents a setup to another step in the process.
The diamond Conditional shape is also often called the “Decision” shape. This object is always used symbolize a question. The answer to that question determines which arrow to follow coming out of the diamond. There are usually at least two arrows coming from this shape; one indicating Yes or True, and the other No or False. Arrows are labeled to avoid confusion.
This object represents actions where a user is prompted for information that must be manually inputted into a system.
The Display symbol indicates a step that displays information.
Also referred to as the “data” object or the “I/O” shape, this Input/Output symbol refers to any information the goes into or comes out of your flow.
This shape is pretty straightforward: it represents any document or report that takes part in the process flow.
Similar to the Document shape, the Multiple Document shape simply clarifies that there are multiple documents involved in a single step.
This shape indicates the beginning of a loop.
Conversely, this shape indicates the point at which a loop should stop.
How to create a flowchart
Once you understand the meaning of each symbol, putting together a flowchart is surprisingly easy. Gather all relevant information, build out each step of your flow piece by piece, and label your steps accordingly.
A successful flowchart will convey the information presented in an organized and efficient manner.
Follow these steps to create your own.
Select your tool
While you may start out taking notes with a pen a paper, eventually you’ll want a diagramming tool to help you quickly draw out your flow in a way that is easy to understand and professional looking.
Our cloud-based diagramming tool Cacoo has everything you need to make beautiful flowcharts. Plus, you can try it out for free with our limited free account that comes with six sheets, limited sharing capabilities, and a PNG export option.
If you fall in love, our paid plans provide more sheets, sharing options, import/export options, revision history tools, and more. If you’re working on a team, you’ll love the collaborative features available on our Teams plan, including shared folders, simultaneous editing, commenting, and team management controls.
List your process steps
Once you’ve selected your tool, it’s time to start listing out each step in your flow one by one.
If you’re unsure of how certain pieces fit together at first, put them off to the side of your main diagram; incorporate them later.
Once you’ve listed out every step on your screen, note what’s missing.
- What parts of your flow don’t connect?
- Where does your flow trail off?
- Does your flow have a defined beginning, middle, and end?
- What needs to happen for your process to proceed?
- What decisions need to be made along the way to make the flow happen?
Add symbols & shapes
Each step you’ve listed can be represented by a particular shape based on the symbols we listed earlier, which are all available in Cacoo.
For each step of your flow, make sure it’s symbolized by the correct shape. You can drag and drop any shape in Cacoo right onto your canvas in the Cacoo Editor. Double-click the shape to add text. You can copy/paste any action items you’ve already listed into the correct shape.
Begin with the Start/End symbols. Then add your Process and Conditional symbols, followed by connecting arrows giving direction to your flow. Add in more specialized shapes after to polish off your diagram.
Optimize your flow
Once you’ve come up with a comprehensive first draft of how things work currently, you can begin to analyze any bottlenecks, duplicate efforts, or unaccounted pieces.
Work with members of your team and others to optimize your flow for greatest efficiency. You may need to add or remove steps. Perhaps there’s a better order of actions for your flow. Play around with different versions of your flowchart until you’re happy with the result.
Ask someone to review your work
The simplest way to verify that your flowchart is easy to read is to ask a fresh pair of eyes to walk you through what they see the flow to be. If they get caught up in a particular step or section of steps, you may need to rework your diagram.
Custom templates & shapes
While drawing flowcharts from scratch is easy with Cacoo, using templates can greatly speed up your diagramming process.
There are many different types of flowchart templates to choose from in Cacoo. Simply open the editor, choose a template to get you started, and begin customizing it to your flow.
If you create a diagram you think you’ll want to replicate, save it as a new template or stencil. With custom templates and stencils, you can recreate your best work again and again.
Consider your audience
While many flowchart symbols are universally accepted, you can customize your symbols to your audience as long as you’re sure that the audience will recognize the alternative imagery you’ve selected.
You can import images right into Cacoo, or use one of our many other shapes available throughout our Shapes Library.
Readability is incredibly important for flowcharts. If they aren’t easy to read and process, what was the point in creating such a comprehensive visual?
Make sure to adjust the size of your shapes so that they are uniform as the flow progresses. If you use a particularly sized rectangle, stick with that same width/height throughout.
For arrows, keep them flowing in the same direction. They typically flow from left to right or top to bottom. Make sure that you’re naming your arrows after any Conditional/Decision shape is used. And make sure you are consistent with how many arrows enter and exit particular shapes.
Ideally, only one line or arrow should come out of a process symbol. Only one flow line should enter a decision symbol, but multiple (usually 2-3) can exit the symbol. And only one flow line should be used with a Start/End symbol.
Use text sparingly within your symbols. If your audience has to read too much, you slow down how quickly your information can be absorbed.
The most common mistakes people make with flowcharts are mostly related to making them clear and readable. Some people do too much, some not enough. Both can diminish the effectiveness of your flowchart.
Using the wrong symbols
While it may not seem important at first to choose a rectangle rather than a diamond for all processes, it’s important for your audience. Readers accustomed to the commonly agreed-upon meanings of flowchart symbols may struggle to read your flowchart if you’ve assigned your shapes at random.
Flowing in multiple directions
The most widely accepted flow directions are top to bottom and left to right. Choose one and stick to it. Going against the norm or trying to combine the two will most certainly confuse viewers.
Using too many (or not enough) colors
Colors should be used to help tie like-pieces together visually. If you assign a color to the process shape, use it consistently. If you get too creative with colors or don’t use enough color to separate disparate parts of your flow, it can make your design confusing to read or fall flat.
Inconsistent branch directions
Many people overlook which types of arrows come from which part of the shape. More specifically, when dealing with the Conditional symbol, e.g. Decision symbol, you should have all “True” conditions flowing from the bottom of the diamond and all “False” conditions flowing out the right side.
You want to maintain even spacing around your symbols, with enough room for each of them to breathe without stretching so far your diagram becomes mostly white space.
Flowcharts for developers
While today’s developers use source code to express algorithms, flowcharts are still a useful tool for developers, especially when they’re working with cross-functional teams that include non-developers.
For collaboration to be effective, others must be able to understand what you’re doing and why. Flowcharts make it easy for everyone to understand how things work and collaborate on creative solutions to your unique business opportunities.
You can also use flowcharts to demonstrate the logic behind a new feature or product before starting to code. This saves time and provides an overview your team can follow for what needs to be done.
In addition, flowcharts can:
- Illustrate the way code is organized
- Detail the execution of code within a program
- Plan the structure of a website or application
- Demonstrate how users navigate a website or program
Developers also use a number of related diagrams, such as Unified Modeling Language (UML) diagrams, Network Diagrams, Sitemaps, and Network Diagrams.
Why choose Cacoo?
Cacoo is simple to use, easy to learn, and built with collaboration in mind.
Using our cloud-based editor, your team can collaborate on diagrams in real-time. With in-app comments right on diagrams and our presentation mode, you can get easy feedback to refine your work. Shared folders give your team gets access to all the diagrams they need. And sharing diagrams with important stakeholders takes seconds (no downloading or account creation required on their part).
You can create all kinds of professional diagrams; not just flowcharts, but wireframes, sitemaps, network diagrams, mind maps, and more.
Our paid plans give you:
- Advanced exporting options (PNG, PDF, PPT, PostScript, or SVG)
- Revision history (see what changes were made and when)
- Full access to integrations (including Google Drive, Dropbox, Adobe Creative Cloud, and more)
- Team management (invite people to your Organization, create groups, and assign roles)
- Advanced security (manage access to diagrams, so you know exactly who’s seeing them)
Try it out for yourself with our 14-day free trial. No credit card required.
Join the 2,500,000+ users who depend on Cacoo for their flowchart & diagramming needs!