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Flowcharts use special shapes to represent different types of actions or steps in a process. Lines and arrows show the sequence of the steps, and the relationships among them. These are known as flowchart symbols.
The type of diagram dictates the flowchart symbols that are used. For example, a data flow diagram may contain an Input/Output Symbol (also known as an I/O Symbol), but you wouldn't expect to see it in most process flow diagrams.
Over the years, as technology has evolved, so has flowcharting. Some flowchart symbols used in the past to represent computer punchcards, or punched tape, have been relegated to the dustbin of history.
Basic Flowchart Symbols
For most flowcharts, these five basic symbols are all you will need.
More Flowchart Symbols
Here is a more comprehensive library of flowchart symbols.
The terminator symbol marks the starting or ending point of the system. It usually contains the word "Start" or "End."
Action or Process Symbol
A box can represent a single step ("add two cups of flour"), or and entire sub-process ("make bread") within a larger process.
A printed document or report.
Multiple Documents Symbol
Represents multiple documents in the process.
A decision or branching point. Lines representing different decisions emerge from different points of the diamond.
Represents material or information entering or leaving the system, such as customer order (input) or a product (output).
Manual Input Symbol
Represents a step where a user is prompted to enter information manually.
Represents a set-up to another step in the process.
Indicates that the flow continues where a matching symbol (containing the same letter) has been placed.
Indicates that the process flow continues in more than two branches.
Summoning Junction Symbol
Indicates a point in the flowchart where multiple branches converge back into a single process.
Indicates a step where two or more sub-lists or sub-processes become one.
Indicates a step that orders information into a standard format.
Indicates a step that organizes a list of items into a sequence or sets based on some pre-determined criteria.
Indicates a sequence of actions that perform a specific task embedded within a larger process. This sequence of actions could be described in more detail on a separate flowchart.
Manual Loop Symbol
Indicates a sequence of commands that will continue to repeat until stopped manually.
Loop Limit Symbol
Indicates the point at which a loop should stop.
Indicates a delay in the process.
Data Storage or Stored Data Symbol
Indicates a step where data gets stored.
Indicates a list of information with a standard structure that allows for searching and sorting.
Internal Storage Symbol
Indicates that information was stored in memory during a program, used in software design flowcharts.
Indicates a step that displays information.
Indicates that the process continues off page.
Quick Tip for Using Flowchart Symbols
Most of the flowchart symbols shown here are for use in very specific applications, such as a data flow diagram used for computer programming. Unless you have specialized knowledge and your diagram is being developed for a peer group with similar knowledge, it's best to stick to basic flowchart symbols. If more than the most basic flowchart symbols appear in your diagram, it is good practice to include a legend or symbol key.
Most flowcharts should be built using only the Start/End and Action or Process Symbols and should follow the minimum standards of visual grammar. Sticking with just these two primary flowchart symbols is the best way to ensure that your diagram will be easy to understand. For more information on using visual grammar to make better flowcharts, read this article.