Flowcharts answer problems. Good flowcharts answer problems directly and efficiently. Master these flowchart rules and flowchart best practices, and you’ll be able to create direct visual solutions.
When designing a flowchart, the format and design elements should be as simple as possible to make them easily comprehensible. Keep these tips in mind to avoid overcomplicating the design as you get started with your next flowchart.
How to make a flowchart
A flowchart is a visual representation of a process or system. Each step of the process should provide options that lead to the next phase of options until the process is complete.
Before starting with the visual aspect, you must first brainstorm all aspects of the issue you’re dealing with and all possible solutions or branches that the process could take. It’s easiest to create a well-organized flowchart if you already know what the flow will look like and how many options you need to fit into each area of the chart.
Once you have an idea of how your diagram will look, you can put together the visuals in Cacoo.
Formatting your flowcharts
While the processes that flowcharts visualize require a lot of creative problem-solving to design, flowcharts themselves are formulaic. Save the creative liberties for other design projects. The foundations of flowchart design are set in stone at this point.
Flowchart rules to start following
There are a few key rules that go for all flowcharts:
- Always format your flow from left to right or top to bottom.
- Run your return lines under your flowchart, ensuring they don’t overlap.
- Maintain consistent spacing between symbols.
- Use the correct symbol for each step (diamond shapes are for decisions, rectangles are for processes, and start/end shapes should be the same, etc.)
Other flowchart rules are more flexible. In the case of capitalization, the opinion is changing. Banning all caps was once standard. However, today, many high-quality flowcharts have found ways to use all caps without occupying too much space.
Give your flowchart the resume treatment when it comes to length: keep it to one page. People get lost jumping between pages, rendering your flowchart unreadable. If you find your chart exceeding one page, and you can’t edit any further, break it into multiple charts — each chart also sticking to the one-page rule.
If you find yourself struggling to condense a flowchart, consider:
- Re-reading it out loud. Deleting redundant words or finding shorter synonyms can save you valuable lines that add up when you require a little more space.
- Resizing your diagram. Keep in mind your image’s resolution. Don’t go so small that the font becomes blurry or illegible.
- Playing with fonts. Some business standard fonts are larger than others. Font size also comes into play. Consider scaling that 16 font down to a 14.
Above all else, remember to keep your formatting changes consistent. If not, your flowcharts are sure to look unprofessional and disorganized. Minimalist designs make errors much easier to catch, which is great for proofing your flowchart but not so great if you forget to resize one of your flowchart shapes to match the rest.
Take the time to review each element of your work thoroughly, from design to grammar. Double-check that you’re using the right symbols. Check for consistent fonts and colors. Take a few steps back from your screen, and see if anything stands out that you didn’t notice close up.
These may seem like obvious steps, but you’d be surprised at how many simple errors slip through the cracks. Strive for polished consistency every time.
Designing your flowcharts
Creative designers, don’t get us wrong: your work is vital to countless projects. However, your creativity needs to be a bit more Frank Stella and a little less Basquiat when it comes to flowcharts. In short, keep it minimal.
Designing with a purpose
First and foremost, a flowchart should clearly demonstrate a flow, like a team hierarchy, operational procedure, or workflow. Their functional purpose is to help people understand how something works. If the page’s ornate design delights the eye but confuses the viewer, you’ve gone too far.
Because the formatting for flowcharts is so structured, most design choices will come down to colors, fonts, and lines. And a lot of creativity can still go into these!
When used effectively, colors can help highlight key elements. You can use color to delineate responsibilities or highlight important areas. Just don’t go overboard. A simplistic palette is a strong choice when it comes to flowcharts.
Much like the evolution of using all caps, some design elements have become more flexible over time. The decision symbol, traditionally represented as a diamond shape, is now sometimes represented with a split-path symbol.
Some feel that the diamond symbol is less known to readers and can confuse the flowchart if it breaks the left-to-right text format we mentioned. Instead of dividing at a 90-degree angle as the diamond symbol does, split paths use a forked approach that eliminates the possibility of breaking the standard reading format.
Triangle vs. Split-path
Opinions vary, so choose what works best for your chart. Whatever you decide, remember to include a flowchart legend. As options and opinions vary, providing a key ensures that your readers always understand your work. These may not be the most complex art decisions you make, but they can significantly impact your flowchart’s readability.
After you’ve mastered all these aspects of your flowchart, you can add another dimension. Making a flowchart cross-functional means that it shows the process or setup and shows the relationship between the steps.
The flowchart can use colors, symbols, or labels to show which member or department is in charge of each step or even milestones that need to be hit between each step. While the cross-functional flowchart is a bit more complicated, it provides miles more information than one that just shows the system.
Four flowchart problems (and how to avoid them)
1. The flow is difficult to follow.
A disorganized flow usually results from placing flowchart shapes too close together or making connectors that are hard to see. Before you design, try listing the different process steps in groups that make up a ‘zone.’ Once you have a clear idea of how much space you need, you can carve out a zone that’s adequate for the set of steps.
And as for the connectors, make the lines prominent enough for anyone to see them. Avoid using very long or winding connectors that weave around shapes, as this can be difficult to follow. Readers may lose their place and continually backtrack to remember what they previously viewed. The return lines are typically the only ones that need to have a longer extension.
2. The descriptive labels aren’t intuitive.
Whether you’re creating a simple or complex flowchart, the language should be as concise and straightforward as possible. Awkward phrases, drawn-out sentences, and overly technical jargon are a no-go (if only tech-literate readers are using it, you can make an exception).
Before adding text to your flowchart, give your labels a once-over to remove any superfluous words that don’t add clarity. The simplest phrasing that gets your point across is best. Have teammates review your chart to make sure all the steps are understandable to others.
3. The forks aren’t clearly defined.
If your process has forks, make sure the decision paths are easy to differentiate. Let’s say you’re charting the question, “What new hobby should I pursue?” The next question asks whether you prefer to do something indoors or outdoors.
Readers may feel confused if your connectors go straight to the options’ gardening’ and ‘dancing. It’s a good idea to include a step in between each destination that clearly identifies the choice ‘inside’ or ‘outside.’ This helps to bring balance to the layout and makes the design easy to skim.
4. The graphics are harsh on the eyes.
Creative flowcharts have their place, but in many cases, they aren’t very good at relaying information. Common design issues that affect readability include:
- Overuse of images: incorporating too many images leads to a complicated flowchart. Use them sparingly in areas with plenty of open space to cleanly navigate connectors around the graphics. You should also avoid using images as a substitute for process steps. Text eliminates the possibility that someone will misinterpret the information.
- Poor color contrast: backgrounds and color schemes shouldn’t interfere with the process you’re trying to visualize. A simple white or neutral-colored background is usually the best option. The process shapes should distinctly stand out from the background, and the text should stand out from the shapes. Don’t force people to strain their eyes.
Creating a flowchart isn’t as easy as it may seem. But all it takes is an eye for detail and a basic understanding of a few industry standards to get started. Templates can also help speed up the process. With these helpful tips and our Cacoo diagramming tool, you’ll be on your way to creating functional and beautiful flowchart diagrams for your team.
This post was originally published on August 21, 2017, and updated most recently on February 9, 2022.