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Getting Started With Flowcharts

Get up to speed with flowcharts and refresh your terminology. Flowcharts were first documented in 1921, almost a century ago.

A flowchart is a diagram that explains a process visually and sequentially in a series of steps. Each such step is represented visually by a flowchart symbol. Common flowchart symbols look no different than your regular oval, diamond, or rectangle shapes, as shown in Figure 1, below.

Figure 1: Common flowchart symbols

Each of these shapes can be connected to another with lines that have arrows on one end indicating the direction of a flowchart process (as shown in Figure 2, below).

Figure 2: Flowchart shapes connected

Notice that the flowchart you last saw in Figure 2 was not completed. That explains why you see an "arrow with the word No" (highlighted in red within Figure 3, below) going nowhere!

Figure 3: Arrow with the word "No"

Figure 4, below shows the completed flowchart. Look closely and you will see that this example continues to use just 3 symbol types: ovals, diamonds, and rectangles.

Figure 4: A completed Flowchart

Notice these nuances in the flowchart you just saw:

  • A flowchart is essentially a sequence, and the first and last shapes of a flowchart sequence are ovals. In flowchart terminology, these ovals are called Terminators.
  • In-between steps of the sequence, where any kind of processing takes place are indicated using rectangles. These shapes are called Processes.
  • Diamond shapes are used to indicate decision points. These are parts of a flowchart sequence where you have to make a Yes or No decision. It's for this reason that diamonds typically have two output branches. In flowchart terminology, these diamonds are called Decisions.
  • All these shapes are linked to each other with connectors that have an arrowhead at one end to indicate the direction of your flowchart process. These connectors help you move your attention to the next shape in the flowchart process.
  • Some connectors, especially the ones that emanate from Diamond (Decision) shapes have text placed parallel to them. Most of the time, these text-enabled connectors are placed in pairs. The text used is similar to Yes and No, or even True or False. In rare scenarios, you may come across triplet text connectors that are text enabled with Yes, No, and Maybe. These are great for indecisive people!

We have just explored three flowchart symbols (Terminators, Processes, and Decisions) and connectors now. But in the real world, there are several other standardized flowchart symbols used. Flowchart gurus dream about these symbols even when they are wide awake. Unaware to you, they may be semi-consciously in another world altogether where every human is a flowchart symbol! OK, we made that up. But that may still not be too far from the truth.

Later in this series of tutorials, we explore all flowchart symbols. For now, let us look at flowcharts, and how and when they evolved.

Flowcharts may have been created for centuries but the first time they were documented as being a "flow process chart" was in 1921. They were used by Frank Gilbreth for a presentation. In those days, presentations happened with the use of paper, typically flip charts. It is interesting how today's presentation technologies such as PowerPoint slides continue to use flow charts to make processes more comprehensible for audiences.

Common flowchart symbols are available to all users of Microsoft Office programs such as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Explore a quick walkthrough in our Basic Flowcharts in Microsoft Office tutorial.

Note: Are you using Office 2011 on a Mac. Then explore our Basic Flowcharts in Microsoft Office 2011 for Mac tutorial.