How to Flowchart

Whether you are using a flowcharting tool such as SmartDraw or just a pen and paper, here are a few things you should consider before creating a flowchart.

What is its Purpose or Function?

Before deciding how to draw a flowchart, it's important to determine the purpose of it. Will it be used to brainstorm a product or system? Will it be used for training a new employee for a specific task or job? Is it a set of instructions to assemble a product? Will it be used as an overview for a group presentation?

If it is to serve as a working diagram for thinking through a design or programming problem, then how it is designed and drawn are of less importance than its function. In other words, how you make a flowchart look is less important than being able to read and understand it later.

On the other hand, if it is going to be used to explain a process to someone else, then you need to be very careful about how you draw a flowchart. It needs to convey the information in a way that is easy to understand. It should follow some standard formatting rules known as visual grammar, which are covered in more detail in this article.

If it will be used for a group presentation, then you probably want to generally follow visual grammar rules, but you might want to make a flowchart with more interesting visual elements for the benefit of keeping your audience's attention.

Designing and Building a Flowchart

The first step is to identify the start and end points of the process. While this may sound simplistic, it's important. Think about how to draw a flowchart in the way you might think about how to plan a car trip. You don't get into the car, drive down the street and then start making turns without first knowing where it is you want to end up.

It's the same for creating a flowchart. Define the beginning and end, then design or document the most efficient way of getting between them. Consider decisions you will be faced with as a motorist must choose which way to turn at an intersection. If the route chosen doesn't lead to the proper destination, then direct the user back to a previous point or re-route them on a new path.

In What Direction Should a Flowchart Run?

The general path of a flowchart should be in one primary direction: either left to right or top to bottom. While either is acceptable, the left-to-right path is preferred. In Western culture, this is how we read and write, so this pattern is more natural.

Flowchart direction

Using Symbols and Connectors

Let's take a look at how to flowchart a simple process for warming a cup of coffee.

Simple process

Note how the beginning and ending of the process are shown in shapes having rounded edges. The intermediate steps use rectangular shapes. Also, notice how the step labeled, 'Is it warm enough' splits the flow into two lines, depending on a yes or no answer. In traditional flowcharting, this type of decision is presented with a diamond symbol. You can read this article for more about flowchart symbols.

For today's modern flowcharts, the split decision model shown here is the preferred standard. The reason is that a decision diamond forces the flowchart into an up or down direction, while the split decision model keeps everything on a left-to-right path. This article offers additional tips on modern flowchart techniques.

Finally, all of the symbols in the flowchart need to be linked with connecting lines and directional arrows. This ensures that the process is easy to follow and there's no ambiguity. Anyone should be able to follow the process from beginning to end by following the shapes and arrows.

Using Spacing and Color

Symbols and connecting lines make up only one part of how to flowchart. There are also other considerations, such as color, spacing, pictures, etc.

The diagram above uses the modern flowchart format known as visual grammar. This makes it very easy for anyone to understand, without explanation. It follows a left-to-right path, it uses shapes that are consistent in size, shape and color, and it doesn't have any lines that overlap.

Sometimes color is helpful in making process steps clearer. Certain types of processes, such as decisions, might be shown in a different color, as might steps that require the user to return to an earlier step (such as 'Reheat' in this example.) Spacing, on the other hand, should always be consistent. Most drawing programs require you to do this manually, which can be time-consuming, so if you're looking at software, be sure to look for something with automated drawing and formatting built in.

There may be times when it is acceptable, and perhaps even preferable, to draw a flowchart that moves beyond a basic, simple design scheme. Making a flowchart with photographs might be one of those situations. This can make a flowchart a more interesting element in a presentation slideshow, for example. It also might be useful in the event your audience is multi-lingual. Maybe there are steps in the process that are more clearly explained with a picture. A good software program will let you make flowcharts with photos, symbols, links, and so forth.

Flowchart with photos

How to Fit a Flowchart on One Page

Sometimes, a flowchart becomes too big to easily fit on one page. If that happens, here are some solutions for you.

  1. If it's just slightly too big, try scaling it down. Remember, though that the font you are using will also scale. For example, it you're using 10pt font and you scale your diagram to 60%, your font is now effectively 6pt. A tip here is to use a larger font that will offset the scale. In this example, if you re-set your font to 16pt then 60% will result in 9.6pt type. Of course, using a larger font will probably increase the sizes of the symbols, so you may have to make a few adjustments to get the right look.
  2. Depending on the number of steps, you can also have your chart flow left to right, then down to a next line where it continues. It might look something like this:
  3. Another way is to break it up into a collection. This is done by starting with a top-level process flowchart that provides a brief summary of the steps in the complete process. Each of these brief summaries is hyperlinked to a separate flowchart showing the details of that step. The steps in the detail flowcharts may themselves be summaries of even more detailed steps, or sub-processes, which are hyperlinked in the same manner, perhaps into several layers of detail.
    Link to a flowchart
  4. Large charts may also be published and shared online. Whether viewed on a computer screen or tablet device, the user can pan, scroll and zoom to look at specific areas of a large chart. This article goes into more detail about using online flowcharts.

Review. Simplify. Repeat.

When it comes to making flowcharts, simpler is better. It doesn't matter whether it has five steps or fifty, as long as it is easy to understand. But if you can make it understandable in five, that's better. If it requires fifty steps, don't try and put them all on one page. Break it down into multiple charts and hyperlink them together. To learn more about making linked flowcharts that you can publish and share online, read this article.

How to Flowchart: Eight Quick Tips

Read this article for some tips to help you create perfect flowcharts.

For more information about selecting the right flowchart maker for your needs, read this article.

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