Want to make any complex process a breeze? Start with a flowchart. These documents help you understand, analyze and communicate processes by visualizing the action steps and decisions involved.
Yet while used in so many professions, not everyone knows what flow charts are or how to interpret them. So if you’re wondering: what is a flowchart? And how do I use or create one? Rest assured, you’re in the right place.
Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about flowcharts, including the different types, their use cases and a ton of flowchart templates and tips. Then, use Venngage’s Diagram Maker to design your own in minutes.
Click to jump ahead
- What is a flowchart?
- What’s the purpose of a flowchart?
- Common elements used in flowcharts
- Common flowchart symbols
- Types of flowcharts
- Best practices for making flowcharts
- How to make a flowchart using Venngage
What is a flowchart? (Flowchart definition)
A flowchart, also known as a flow diagram, is a step-by-step graphical representation of a process, system or algorithm needed to perform a task or complete a workflow.
Here’s a good example:
As you can see, these types of diagrams communicate a sequence of actions and decisions that lead to a specific outcome, using symbols and directional cues to convey information.
Here’s an even simpler example:
Not sure if something is a flowchart? Refer to this:
But in all seriousness, flowcharts are great for providing guidance and clarifying the logic behind if/then scenarios… and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
From software development, engineering and sales, to business process mapping, manufacturing and recruiting, there is literally no shortage of use cases for these nifty visualizations.
What’s more, these charts can range from the most basic designs…
…to comprehensive, multi-step diagrams accounting for a wide range of conditions and variables.
In other words, these handy tools have got range.
What’s the purpose of a flowchart?
Flowcharts are typically used to help people understand, communicate or improve upon a process or system. They’re ideal for documenting the steps in a process so they can be repeated accurately.
Other uses for flowcharts include….
- Visualizing and analyzing a process
- Optimizing business processes or workflows for efficiency and quality
- Communicating a process for training or understanding
- Identifying bottlenecks, unnecessary steps and waste in business processes
The bottom line? With a detailed process flowchart, even the most complicated series of steps becomes easy understand.
Common elements used in flowcharts
There are many kinds of flowcharts out there (more on that in a sec). And while they all have their differences, most share a few common features.
These are the six basic elements of a flowchart, or process map:
- The starting point, or the beginning, of the process.
- The steps involved in the process.
- The directional arrows that show a sequential order for the process
- The decision points within the process
- The ending point, or the end, of the process.
- Flow chart symbols representing different types of actions or steps in a process.
Ah yes, the perfect segue to my next point…
Common flowchart symbols
One of the reasons flowcharts are easily understood is because they typically use universal, standardized symbols in their designs.
Let’s take a look at some of the common symbols used in a process flow diagram:
Commonly depicted as an elongated circle (or ellipses), these terminal points signify the beginning or endpoints of a process outlined by a flowchart.
These symbols represent a step taken in the sequence of operations or decisions. They are usually represented as a rectangle.
Typically in the shape of a diamond (rhombus), these symbols demonstrate a point where a conditional statement is made, before the flowchart branches off into two or more paths.
These symbols, usually parallelograms, indicate data inputs and outputs as it enters or is sent out of a process.
Connector or flowline symbol
These symbols represent a connection between two process symbols, input/output symbols or decision symbols. Usually represented as a line with an arrow, they guide the viewer through the sequence (or steps).
On-page connector symbol
The on-page connector symbol takes the form of a circle. It connects two or more parts of a flowchart when it continues on a different section of the page
Off-page connector symbol
These symbols connect two or more parts of a flowchart when it continues onto another page.
Types of flowcharts
Decision flowcharts are exactly what they sound like: they’re used to help reach decisions.
These types of charts include “yes” and “no” questions and answers as part of their flow to illustrate how the decision-making process should work. They provide an ideal example of the questions that need to be asked and the order in which they should be considered.
Data flow diagram
Data flow diagrams illustrate the flow of data or information for any process or system. This makes understanding how the system is designed to work possible. Like most process maps, data flow diagrams make it easier to see where any problems or bottlenecks may occur.
A process flow diagram, also known as a process flowchart or flow process chart, shows the steps or tasks involved in a process. P.S. nearly all flowcharts are process flowcharts!
Swimlane diagrams are used to delineate who is responsible for what during a process. Like swimming lanes in a pool, these flowcharts are divided into horizontal or vertical lanes according to the employee, role or department involved at each step:
They’re useful in providing clarity and accountability as far as communication, connection, handoffs and redundancies.
PERT charts, short for Program Evaluation and Review Technique, are a kind of project management tool used to visually display a series of events during a project. A PERT chart illustrates the sequence of tasks to make organizing, coordinating and scheduling easier. They are commonly used in IT.
A system flowchart shows how parts of a system work together, by displaying how data flows through the system and how decisions affect this process.
Event diagrams show a sequence of events and their cause-effect relationship to a process. They are often used in software engineering to show how different parts of the system interact.
A workflow diagram is a business process model that visually communicates the steps in a business process. These charts typically use standardized symbols and shapes to showcase how work should be done, in what sequence, and by whom.
This is a great way to simplify a complex chain of events and make it easy for employees to understand their roles and responsibilities.
Fault tree analysis
A fault tree analysis is a tree diagram used for risk assessment processes that shows the possible causes and components of system-level failures.
Starting with the failure itself, these charts reverse engineer the problem by using a top-down method to graphically represent the chain of events and individual elements involved. This makes them an invaluable tool for complex systems.
Organizational charts are a type of flow diagram showing the structure, and ultimately, the hierarchy of an organization. This makes it easier to see teams, chains of command and who reports to whom.
Specification and description language (SDL) diagram
Named after the programming language, specification and description language flowcharts or diagrams are a type of chart used to show the structure of a software program. This description language diagram deploys symbols to represent different parts of the program, clarifying how real-time applications and systems operate.
Best practices for making flowcharts
Now that you’re well on your way to becoming an aficionado, keep the following in mind when designing a process flow diagram or flowchart:
Choose the right type of flowchart
If you’ve been paying attention so far, you’ll know different types of flowcharts are used for different purposes. That’s why understanding which type of flow diagram is the best choice is vital when trying to effectively communicate a process or system to someone else.
For example, a data flow diagram is perfect for illustrating the movement of data between different parts of a computer system, whereas the PERT chart below is used to illustrate the sequence of tasks required to complete a project.
Knowing which type of flowchart to use can be helpful when trying to communicate a process or system to someone else.
For more information, check out: 7 Types of Flowcharts and How to Choose the Right One
Keep things clear, simple and straightforward
A flowchart’s purpose is to help viewers easily understand the process or workflow illustrated. But to do that, it has to communicate clearly.
That’s why it’s important to ensure every detail in your flowchart is clear: labels should be concise, the connections between different flowchart symbols should be clear and correct and any symbols should be easy to interpret.
Design tip: when in doubt, choose the tried and true symbols outlined above.
A great flowchart = a well-organized flowchart.
To arrange your elements effectively, group related steps together, and use indentation to indicate sequences or hierarchies. That way, readers can easily see which steps are subordinate to others.
Design tip: use different colors in your chart to identify respective responsibilities or paths.
Include all possible paths
For a flowchart to do its job, it needs to include all possible paths the process can take. That means including both the correct path and any potential offshoots or errors that could occur along the way.
Use conditional (if/then) statements and decision boxes wherever necessary, like in the Sales Order Process chart below:
Use graphics sparingly
Graphics and illustrations are helpful in a flowchart, but too much can cause unnecessary distractions. Be intentional with your imagery, and choose a simple background.
Design tip: make sure any icons used make sense in your design. For example, the chart below only has a few steps, so icons are welcome. However, for complicated flowchart diagrams or those with many process steps (like the process chart above), it’s best to keep things minimal.
Related: 7 Best Flowchart Software for 2023
How to make a flowchart using Venngage
Now that you know the basics, you’re all set to create flowchart diagrams yourself.
Fear not! You don’t have to be a design whiz to produce one that looks great and gets the job done. With Venngage’s Diagram Maker and easy-to-edit library of professionally-designed templates, you can customize your own in minutes.
- Start by signing up for a free Venngage account.
- Next, click on the “Flowcharts” tab on Venngage’s template page and select a flowchart template that matches your use case. Then, click the “Create” button on the template.
- It’s time to customize! Swap in your desired text, icons and colors to make it your own. Then, use the drag-and-drop editor to map out the process with symbols and directional cues.
FYI: many of our diagram templates are “Smart” — meaning you can add, edit, delete or drag nodes, texts and icons around in one click, and the nodes will automatically adjust to match.
- Once you’re happy with your design, share the link publicly for free or upgrade to a paid plan to download.
Upgrading gives you the ability to download your flowchart as a PNG, PNG HD, PDF, Interactive PDF or PowerPoint file. And with a Business Plan, you get access to other premium features like real-time Team Collaboration, and automated branding via My Brand Kit.
Visually represent any process with flowcharts
There you have it: an introduction to flowcharts, plus a ton of flowchart examples and design tips to help you get a good grasp on this type of process mapping. Now you’re all set to truly go with the flow, yo!
And remember: with Venngage, it’s easy to jump right in and create your own detailed flowchart. Simply sign up for a free account, select a template and get into the flow.