Rules for Formatting Organizational Charts

Whether you are using organizational chart software such as SmartDraw or some other tool, here are a few rules to help you build the right diagram for your needs.

  1. Identify the purpose of the org chart
  2. Import data to create an org chart
  3. Determine the right format for your org chart
  4. Types of content to include
  5. How to display non-traditional roles
  6. Choose the best orientation for your org chart

What Purpose Will the Organizational Chart Serve?

Why do you want to draw an org chart? That may seem like a silly question, and it may have a seemingly benign answer: "Because my boss told me to" or "Because the org chart we have is outdated." But chances are, that's not the real reason. It's important to know how the org chart will be used. Here's why.

The format you choose for your org chart and the information in it may depend on its purpose. For example, if it is to be used to plan a growth or change strategy, you may decide to make a completely different org chart than if you're putting together a visual company directory.

Here are three examples of how organizational charts are structured differently depending on their purpose:

Org Chart Types

Import Data from Another File to Create an Org Chart

If your org chart data is in another file, such as Microsoft Excel® or Outlook®, your software program may allow you to import it to create your org chart. Check the specifications and follow the instructions. If you are using SmartDraw, you can also import data from other applications such as PeopleSoft® or SAP® R/3®.

Org Chart Types

How to Format an Organizational Chart

There are a few general guidelines for creating an org chart. Following these will ensure that your org chart is professional-looking and achieves its purposes.

The most common arrangement for a standard organization chart design is a combined horizontal/vertical layout. In this diagram, the boxes in the level under the top position are arranged in a horizontal row. Under these positions, boxes are aligned in vertical columns. Here's how it looks:

Formatted Org Chart

This format type is preferred over a horizontal layout, which would look like this:

Horizontal Org Chart

As you can see, the combined horizontal/vertical layout uses the space on a page much more efficiently.

If there are several positions reporting to one manager, a multi-column branch style is a good way to present this.

Some positions, such as assistants and co-managers, require specialized formatting.

Combined org chart layout

Assistants are shown on a side line, below the position they assist, but above those who report to that same position. Here's how an assistant's position should be displayed:

Org chart assistant

When co-managers lead a team or department, they are shown with connecting lines above and below their boxes. Those positions reporting to the co-managers are then shown on a vertical branch under the joint positions, as shown below.

Best practice tip: All of the boxes in an organization chart should be the same size. In some cases, the top position may be larger than the others, but in no case should they be smaller than those below.

Org chart co-managers

The one exception to this rule is the multi-person box, which combines all of the people having the same title into a single box. This can save a considerable amount of time and also uses space more efficiently. Here's an example:

Multi-person org chart box

Content to Include (or Exclude) in an Org Chart

How you intend to use your org chart will be a key driver in determining what content to include in it. For example, if management is looking at a corporate restructuring, the only content you may need is key positions and, perhaps, names of key people. When doing this, it is considered best practice to place the job title above the individual's name because positions define the organizational structure, not the people who currently occupy them. If someone is promoted or moves to another department, this allows you to change the names of the people holding those positions without having to rearrange the org chart.

You can add other content into the org chart, as well. Telephone numbers or email addresses are common additions. Headshots are another element that can be particularly useful if your org chart will be used as a company directory.

Org chart with phone numbers

How to Display Non-traditional Roles

One person may hold more than one role in an organization. This is often the case in smaller companies. Here are some examples of non-traditional roles and how to handle them when creating an org chart.

The Manager with More than One Department

Suppose in a small technology company, Paul Smith, the CEO, also acts as VP of Engineering. Both the management team and all of the programmers report to him. So, how do you show this?

Instead of engaging in exotic formatting, it's best to draw both positions in the chart and show Paul as occupying both of them. Remember the organizational structure is based on positions, not the people that occupy them. Following this simple guideline will give you a more functional org chart.

This also shows how an org chart can be useful for planning. This one suggests that perhaps, some day, Paul should hire a VP of Engineering.

Multiple org chart positions

The Employee Who Wears Multiple Hats

The other type of multiple-hat situation is an employee who is directed by more than one manager. While it's not unusual for an employee to work in several teams and take direction from more than one manager, there is usually just one position to which they report. This is the position that hires them, sets their salary, and is the (one) position they report to in an organization chart.

But there are exceptions. One common example is an assistant that works for three managers. How do you draw an org chart that shows these multiple-person relationships?

The best way to show relationships outside the hierarchy of a normal org chart layout is with a dotted line connecting the boxes of two positions.

Dotted org chart line

Jane reports to Dan because he sets her salary and hired her. This connection is shown with a solid line. But she assists Tony and Linda, as well as Dan. Therefore, when drawing an org chart, her connection to their positions is represented with a dotted line.

It's not useful to try and impose the structure of multiple teams on the organization chart with lots of dotted lines. Too many and the chart becomes a mess. If this is the case, then it's better to create a separate org chart for each team. A team chart shows the role of team leader in the center with the other team members and their roles surrounding it.

Team Org Chart

Choose the Best Orientation for Your Organizational Chart

Normally, an organization chart starts with the leader of the organization at the top and flows down the page. This wasn't always the case. In fact, the earliest org charts were drawn in an inverted pyramid fashion. Some organizations are structured in a manner that may be better reflected in an inverted format, like this.

Inverted Org Chart

Less common formats can also flow from one side to the other, such as this one, with a left-to-right orientation.

Left-to-right org chart