Flowchart symbols guide: Basic & advanced flowchart symbol meanings
If you've never made charts before or only know flowchart basics, it's easy to feel overwhelmed by the number of shapes, symbols and connectors there are. Even as a charting pro, keeping everything straight can be frustrating. So, we put together a flowchart symbol guide with definitions of the standard shapes and symbols you'll be using in web and software development diagrams.
Basic flowchart symbols
The most fundamental shapes in the diagramming collections, these basic flowchart symbols are used in creating your flowcharts, just stay consistent.
Standard flowchart symbols
These common flowchart symbols are the classics you'll likely be using to diagram just about any process.
Aka the flowchart start symbol or flowchart end symbol, this oval shape identifies the start or end points of a process or an outcome. The words “Start” and “End” are often put in the shape.
Often framed as true/false or yes/no, the flowchart decision symbol is found at a point where questions must be answered to move forward. Generally, one connector line comes into this diamond shape and branches into two or more paths depending on the possible answers.
Also referred to as the “action symbol”, this rectangular shape is used to represent an entire process, action or operation as a single step or entire sub-process. Typically this is for an intuitive process that people don't need to be spelled out like, 'Login', 'Reset password', 'Upload file', etc.
Advanced flowchart symbols
As you get into creating more complex flow charts - user flow, data processing, process flow, etc - you'll need a bigger library of flowcharting symbols. Behold the advanced flow chart key.
Also commonly known as the flowchart input/output symbol, it represents information or material that's received — a flowchart input symbol — or generated like an e-mail or physical product — a flowchart output symbol. Same symbol whether it's an input or output.
This simple circle represents the continuation of flow through multiple charts or pages. Used in more complex charts, the connector usually contains the same letter or number where the flow breaks in one chart or page and where it continues in another.
Sometimes you need a little more explanation, the note symbol provides space for an explanation and/or comments within a specified area of a diagram. Typically it's connected by a dashed line.
Represents someone or something that interacts with the process or is part of the workflow. It could be a user, an organization or even an internal or external application.
This wavy guy represents the input or output of a document or report. Think along the lines of a printout, email, physical order or the like that your process requires.
Multiple documents symbol
Similar to the single document symbol, this one looks like a couple of documents that are stacked and represents multiple documents, emails, reports, etc.
Some steps prepare for work while some steps are about actually doing the work, the prep symbol is for differentiating those. It's also used for introducing setup to further steps in the same process.
This half-oval symbol is used in process mapping to show a waiting period when two or more things must happen before the process proceeds. It's helpful to put the length of the delay in the shape if you know it.
This pointer-like symbol indicates a step in the process where information will be shown to the user.
Manual input symbol
Used when a process step requires a user to enter information or data manually, like a login, filling out a form, entering payment details, etc.
Off-page connector symbol
AKA the link symbol, this process flow symbol shows the continuation of a process. Connecting elements of the flowchart across multiple pages with the page number within the shape for reference.
The flowchart database symbol represents information housed in a storage location that allows users to search, filter and sort.
Internal storage symbol
This icon indicates that data is saved within internal memory and is typically used in software design flowcharts.
Summing junction symbol
X marks the spot and this symbol represents the point at which multiple branches converge into a single process.
A process can go this way *or* that way (or any number of ways). This shape indicates exactly that, the spot at which the process diverges and continues into more than one branch.
Stored data symbol
Also commonly referred to as the "data storage" symbol, this shape represents where data will be stored within the process.
Manual operation symbol
Not every step flows automatically to the next, this shape is used when a part of the process needs to be performed manually, by a person, rather than automatically.
Predefined process symbol
This briefcase-looking symbol represents a complex process that is defined elsewhere. It's called a “subroutine” if used in flowcharting a software program.
Think of this triangle as an up arrow representing the extraction, or removal, of one or more specific sets of items from a set — it shows where a process splits into parallel paths.
The opposite of extraction, this combines two or more sets of items into one set — it shows the merging of multiple processes and information into one. If extraction is an up arrow, you can consider this a funnel that combines parts of the workflow.
This represents a step where data, information or materials are sorted and organized into a predefined order.
This symbol represents a step in the process that requires organizing data or information into a standard format.
Magnetic tape symbol
Sometimes called “sequential access storage”, this one represents information stored in a sequence, referencing a system for storing digital information on magnetic tape. Pretty specific.
Swim lanes symbol
A type of container that holds process steps within horizontal or vertical “swim lanes”.
Paper tape symbol
This outdated symbol is not commonly used on diagrams anymore but can be used for mapping processes or input methods on much older computers and CNC machines.
Flow line connectors
Flow lines and page connectors show the relationship between representative shapes. In a process flowchart, data flow and user flow are shown by using connectors from one shape to the next, making complicated processes easier to follow. Just like the flowchart standards that define shape meaning, flow lines also have standardization.
This denotes data or process flow from one shape to another.
A dashed line denotes alternate paths or an alternate process.
Parallel lines denote a synchronization process where steps above the lines need to happen before steps below can occur.
Flowchart symbol meanings
Clarity is key when creating charts with any online diagram maker, without it you'll end up spending more time decoding the chart itself than analyzing the process it describes. When you're pushing forward on a project, that's time you just can't afford to waste. Consistency with flowchart symbols, meaning the shapes and lines with which you build, is imperative to creating clear charts that can be taken in with a glance.
What do flowchart shapes mean?
The wide variety of symbols at your disposal is all about flexibility. Flexibility to create charts and diagrams of processes and projects no matter the degree of complexity. Each flowchart icon is a visual representation of something more than just a node on the chart. An actor symbol means something different than a database symbol. Knowing the various flowchart shape meanings equates to richer, more informative charts.
General flowchart rules and guidelines
Just as there are standard flowchart symbol definitions, you better believe there are also flowchart guidelines that help ensure the charts and diagrams you and your team are putting together can be universally understood. Sticking with these common flowchart rules and guidelines also make diagrams easier to collaborate on.
The general flowchart conventions you should be following are:
- Have clearly marked start and endpoints. You'll only have 1 starting point but depending on the process you're charting, you can have many endpoints based on where the decision points lead.
- Use the right symbol for each step, i.e., if data is housed in a place that allows for searching and filtering by users, use the database symbol, not the stored data symbol.
- Flowcharts must be formatted to flow top to bottom or left to right.
- Keep the spacing between flow diagram symbols consistent.
To understand how these flowchart rules work in practice, check out these flow diagram examples.
Frequently asked questions
How many flowchart symbols are there?Honestly, there's no exact number. There just isn't much agreement, even with basic symbols, you'll see some sites saying 4, some 5 or even 8. Fact is though, it doesn't matter how many there are, it matters that you understand them and can make easily comprehensible flowcharts with them.
What is the most important flowchart symbol?Importance is relative and there isn't necessarily one symbol that would take the crown across the board but there are a couple that tend to play outsized roles. Namely, the process symbol and the decision symbol. They both carry a lot of weight and tend to be loaded with meaning.
What does a circle mean in a flowchart?The circle, or connector symbol, represents the continuation of flow through multiple charts or pages. It's generally used in more complex charts and it usually contains the same letter or number where the flow breaks in one chart or page and where it continues in another.
Where did flowcharting symbols come from?Frank and Lillian Gilbreth are generally credited with the creation of process charts in 1921 with Frank considered the inventor of flowcharts. In a piece called ”Process Charts, First Steps in Finding the One Best Way to Do Work” they laid out what flowcharts were and the first symbols.
What are the most common types of flowcharts?There's a wide variety of flowcharts you can utilize but the ones used most frequently are:
- Process flowchart
- Swimlane flowchart
- Workflow diagram
- Data flow diagram
- EPC diagram
- SDL diagram
- Process map
- Process flow diagram
How do you organize a flowchart?Make sure you're using consistent shapes, lines and text – it eliminates distractions and makes flowcharts easier to follow. Try to keep the chart to one page and structure it from left to right or top to bottom. If you're unsure where to begin, start with one of our flowchart templates.
What are the five basic flowchart symbolsThe oval, rectangle, diamond, parallelogram and arrow are the basics. The oval marks the start/end. The rectangle represents any step in the process, like tasks or actions. The diamond symbolizes a decision. The parallelogram represents information that's received/generated like an e-mail or product. The arrow guides the viewer along.
What are the lines in a flowchart called?Lines in a flowchart diagram are often referred to as connectors (not to be confused with the connector symbol). They're used to show relationships between one shape and another. You'll often see them with different endpoints like an arrowhead or circle to show process flow.
How do you know where a flowchart begins?The oval, or terminator symbol, is used to represent the start and end of a process. To avoid confusion, remember to use the same symbol to begin and to end your flowchart. Once you've started, the flow of a flowchart moves from top to bottom or left to right.