How to Make a Flowchart

A good flowchart should communicate a process clearly and effectively. When starting out, it's a good idea to focus on a couple of things.

How to make a flowchart in a few simple steps:

  1. Determine the purpose or function of the flowchart
  2. Add steps and connect them with arrows
  3. Add decisions or split paths
  4. Show any loops back to previous steps
  5. Insert your flowchart into Microsoft Word®, Excel®, PowerPoint® or any other app
How to make a flowchart

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SmartDraw can help you create a professional-looking flowchart you can insert into Microsoft Word®, Excel®, PowerPoint® or any other Microsoft Office® product. It's easy to use, runs on any device, and works with tools you already use. This short video shows you how it works.

What is the Purpose or Function of Your Flowchart?

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. Following some basic structure and design concepts will make your flowchart easier to read and understand.

How to Make a Flowchart with SmartDraw

Start with a Flowchart Template

To create a flowchart in SmartDraw, select a flowchart template in the template dialog.

Every SmartDraw template has a SmartPanel docked to the left of the work area. This SmartPanel contains all the tools, libraries, and shortcuts you'll need to build a specific diagram.

We recommend starting with the standard Flowchart template because it will give you the most automation and intelligent formatting letting you create your flowchart faster.

This tutorial will cover how to create a flowchart using the standard Flowchart template. The Flowchart (manual) template contains only line draw automation - a style of drawing that will be more familiar to Visio® or Lucidchart users. You can read more about the manual template here.

If you selected the standard Flowchart template, you can use the SmartPanel to add new steps to your process, create split paths, adjust spacing, and more. Let's explore this in more detail.

Flowchart template

Adding Steps and Flowchart Symbols

The first part of any flowchart is represented with a rounded or pill-shaped box. If you started with the built-in standard flowchart template, this shape will already be on your page.

To add any other flowchart symbol, just select it from the library and stamp once in the drawing area. To add text, simply type while the box is selected.

To go to the next step, hit the "Add Right" button from the SmartPanel. This command will always add the currently selected shape type. By default, the selected shape type when you start with a flowchart template will be the standard rectangle symbol that represents a step.

You can also hold down the [CTRL] key and hit the right arrow key to achieve the same effect.

Build a flowchart using buttons

How to Use Flowchart Symbols

As we mentioned above, flowcharts use special shapes to represent different types of actions or steps in a process. Your basic SmartDraw flowchart template will already have a pill shaped symbol on it to represent the start of your flowchart. The common rectangle shape represents a step in the process. Some of the common symbols and their meanings is listed below:

Common Flowchart Symbols
  • Rectangle Shape - Represents a process
  • Oval or Pill Shape - Represents the start or end
  • Diamond Shape - Represents a decision
  • Parallelogram - Represents input/output

You can learn more about flowchart symbols on this page.

Basic flowchart symbols

A libary of basic flowchart symbols is docked next to your work area. If you need to find more symbols, we have a library of audit flowchart symbols and swimlane flowchart symbols, you can click the "Search Symbols" text at the very top of the SmartPanel.

This will open the Symbols panel with a search field. Type in "process", "flowchart", "data" (or anything you want) to bring up all the symbols related to your query. You can drag-and-drop or use the add buttons from this screen just as you would from the regular symbol library on the main SmartPanel.

To dock or pin any of the search results, click on the three dots next to a library's name and select either "Add result" or "Add library" depending on whether you want to add the entire symbol collection or just the symbols that matched your search.

To add every symbol found to the main SmartPanel, click on the star icon.

Finding more flowchart symbols

Keep adding steps and flowchart symbols until your flowchart is complete. Most flowcharts flow from left to right.

Add shapes

Add Text to Shapes

To add text to any shape, simply select the shape and type.

Add text

Add a Title

To add a title, select the Text tool from the Home toolbar and click anywhere in the work area to type.

Add a title

Style Your Text

You can change fonts, font weight, color, or add other common text styling to any selected text or switch the style of all text in your diagram. Note that once you select a new style of text, all future text you add in your chart will inherit the new style.

Choose text styles

Decisions and Split Paths

If you need to add a decision, you can first select the diamond shape and then hit "Add Right" or you can also add a "Split Path" using the SmartPanel and skip the decision symbol altogether.

If the split path is a yes/no decision, you may want to make this clear by typing YES and NO in the lines of the split path. To do this, simply double-click on the line and type in the information.

Flowchart split path

Returning to a Previous Step

If you get to a point in the process that you can go no further and you need to return to an earlier step, you can do this by drawing a line to one of the previous boxes. Just click on the Line button here at the top, select the box you want to start from and then select the box you want the line to point to. The connecting line is placed in and formatted perfectly.

Flowchart return to step

Moving and Deleting Steps

If you need to move a step, just click to select it and drag it to its new position. As you move the shape, you'll notice SmartDraw's automatic connector will attempt to grab it. SmartDraw shows you a dashed outline of where your step will be if you let go of your mouse. To drop a shape into place, simply let go of your mouse. The flowchart will automatically readjust itself without any manual redrawing required.

To delete a step, just select it and hit delete. Again, SmartDraw's automation will allow the flowchart to reflow automatically.

Move flowchart step

Adding Hyperlinks

You can link to a website or another flowchart using hyperlinks. You can add a hyperlink to text or to a shape. If you select a shape, open the Insert toolbar and click on "Hyperlink." Enter a URL or browser to a file on your system.

Once a link has been added, you'll see a small chain icon appear in the lower right corner of your shape. You can click that icon to access the link. To edit the hyperlink, select the shape and click the "Hyperlink" button again on the Insert menu.

If you add the hyperlink to text, the text will appear blue like a traditional web link.

Add a hyperlink

Adding Notes

Put details about your visual in notes instead of on your diagram for a cleaner and simpler look.

To add a note, you'll first navigate to the "Insert" menu. On the "Insert" toolbar, click on "Note" and enter your text.

The note will appear as a small yellow sticky-note icon in the lower right of the shape.

Add flowchart note

Adding Sub-Charts

To make a complicated process easier to follow and understand, you may want to break complex diagrams into more manageable components.

When you're ready to add a new sub component to your flowchart, select a shape you want to link from and then click the "Create a Sub-Process" button on the SmartPanel that creates a new page where you can continue your diagram. This new sub-chart is just another page in your document and it is automatically linked to the original diagram.

You add as many sub-charts that you want. Click on the link within the shape to navigate between the original process and the sub-process.

Create a sub-process

Adding Swimlanes

At any time, you can transform your flowchar to a swimlane diagram by adding a pool with swimlanes to your existing diagram. The SmartPanel will let you add the pool with some built-in swimlanes as well as add or remote swimlanes as needed.

If you need to toggle off the swimlane, you can just click a button for that too.

Transform your flowchart into a swimlane

The second swimlane button will add a pool with 4 vertical swimlanes to your diagram. You'll be able to continue adding shapes and the lanes will automatically expand vertically to accommodate your chart. Adding a shape to the right or left will not expand that swimlane. In a vertical swimlane, the swimlanes will only expand vertically downward to accommodate new shapes.

The third swimlane button will add a pool with 4 horizontal swimlanes to your diagram. You'll be able to continue adding shapes and the lanes will automatically expand horizontally to accommodate your chart. Adding a shape to the top or bottom, will not expand that swimlane. In a horizontal swimlane, the swimlanes will only expand horizontally to the right to accommodate new shapes.

Once you added your swimlane pool, you can select the existing column headers and replace them with your own copy. Click in each row or column header and select the existing "Person/Group" placeholder text and type to replace it with your own divisions.

If you need to toggle off the swimlane, you can just click a button for that too.

If you changed your mind and you don't want to see swimlanes in your flowchart, you can remove all swimlanes without removing the rest of your flowchart by clicking the first button under Swim Lane in the SmartPanel. You'll have every shape in your flowchart without any lanes.

Add shapes to a vertical swimlane diagram

Changing the Style of Your Flowchart

SmartDraw automatically applies professional design themes for you, but also gives you complete control to customize your process chart in any way you want.

Change the entire look of your chart by applying a new design theme with just one click.

Or change the look of individual shapes instantly by selecting a new Quick Style. Choose from more than 40 preset looks.

Flowchart themes

Formatting Options

You can use the options in the "Style & Format" section of the Flowchart SmartPanel to the right of your work area to change how symbols and spacing behaves in your chart.

The "Auto Symbol Select" option is selected by default. This will change any shape to a decision diamond if you connect two shapes to it. Uncheck it if you want to turn this behavior off.

The "Display SmartAction Buttons" option refers to the yellow controls around each shape that let you quickly add shapes in any direction. If you find those distracting, uncheck this option.

The last two option here refer to the vertical and horizontal spacing of your chart. Your flowchart shapes are connected by lines that automatically space themselves for a uniform look. If you want to change the uniform space between shapes, you can set that here.

Formatting options

Adjust Spacing

As we mentioned above, flowchart shapes are connected using automatic connectors. You can use the SmartPanel spacing options to adjust uniform spacing. However, if you need to adjust the space between just two steps, select the step to right so you can see the green left and right arrow appear in the upper left corner.

As you hover over the icon, you'll notice that your cursor turns into a left and right arrow. Click and without letting go of the mouse, drag the shape into its desired position. Doing so will not disconnect the shape from the flow. You will simply adjust the space between the two steps.

You can do the same to adjust the space vertically between two rows of shapes.

Flowchart spacing arrangement

You can also adjust this individual spacing between two shapes using the small green circles that appear on the line between shapes when the line is selected.

Adjust connector spacing using the line

Inserting a Photo into a Shape

Most flowcharts are built using standard flowchart symbols and shapes.

However, for a presentation or for any other special purpose, SmartDraw gives you the power to create unique shapes and charts. For example, you can insert a photo or any image into any flowchart symbol in your chart.

Select the symbol or shape you want to add a picture to and go to the "Insert" toolbar and select "Picture." Choose any picture on your computer and add it to the shape.

Insert a picture into a flowchart

Turn Any Flowchart Symbol Into a Table

Most flowcharts are built using standard flowchart symbols and shapes.

As with photos, you can also enhance your flowchart by turning any shape into a table with just a few clicks.

Select the symbol or shape you want to insert a table into and navigate to the "Table" toolbar. Specify the number of rows and columns and click on "Insert Table."

Insert a table into a flowchart symbol

Add Your Flowchart to Microsoft Word® and More

When you're finished you can add your flowchart to Microsoft Word®, Excel®, or PowerPoint® easily.

Once your flowchart is ready, click on "Export" under the "Home" tab and choose "Export to Office."

You can also share your flowchart as an image or a PDF. Or share a link to your flowchart in SmartDraw easily.

Export your flowchart to Office

Keyboard Shortcuts for Flowcharts

Create your entire flowchart without taking your hands off the keyboard with quick and easy keyboard controls.

To add a shape to a flowchart, simply hold down the [Ctrl] key and use the up, down, left or right arrow key.

To create a split path after a decision step, use the [Ctrl] and right arrow key to add the first step and then simply hit the [Enter] key to add the second choice to your process.

To the right are some other keyboard shortcuts you may find useful.

Keyboard shortcuts
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