Blog | Tips and Tools for Diagramming & Visual Communication | Gliffy

Understanding Flowchart Symbols

Written by Zack Kushner | Apr 01, 2016

Each variety of flowchart shape has its own specific meaning. While you can create a flowchart online using only the most common symbol types, knowing how to make a flowchart using them all can come in handy.

We’re here to help. Welcome to Gliffy's guide to understanding flowchart symbols.

Basic Flowchart Shapes

A rectangle with rounded cap ends — called a terminator — gets used to start and end each flowchart process path.

Arrows connect up the symbols in your flowchart, guiding the reader through the sequence of process steps. Flow moves in the direction in which the arrows point.

Gliffy’s Flowchart Shape Library also includes three fixed arrow shapes that can come in handy when you need to show stronger emphasis.

When you have a step in your process that has only one possible next step, you use a process symbol.

Check out the simple process flowchart example below to see these three basic symbols used correctly.

The decision symbol marks a branching point in your process, such as one that requires a choice. At least two arrows should emerge from a decision symbol. If your choice isn’t binary, add more than two arrows neatly like so:

Any time you have more than one arrow emerging from a symbol those arrows need to be labeled for clarity.

Advanced Flowchart Symbols

The connector symbol works like a teleporter — you use it to avoid drawing long snaking arrows that would make your flowchart look like spaghetti. Always use connector symbols in pairs like so:

If you want to connect two flowcharts (or one flowchart that spans multiple pages), then the off page connector symbol comes in handy. You use this just as you would use a connector symbol, except readers know to look for the off page connector’s mate on another page.

How do they know? Because you've included a symbol key.

With Gliffy, you can use an off page connector and our Hyperlink Tool to live link two flowcharts.

The predefined process shape serves as a placeholder for multiple steps that you aren’t going to spell out in your flowchart. For example, if you’re illustrating the process of setting up a home computer you might label a predefined process as “connect to the internet,” knowing that describing all the ins and outs of that step is beyond the scope of your flowchart or your grandparents.

The delay symbol is the one you’ve been waiting for…

As you’d guess, this represents a waiting period, such as processing time or attempting to get something done at the DMV.

Get ready for the preparation symbol, which marks a point in the process that requires groundwork.

Use merge or extract when a number of different paths converge into one or for when one path splits into many.

Input / Output Symbols

Either you work with computers and these symbols are just what you're looking for or you’ll likely never use them.

The catchall input / output symbol stands in for input and output from your process, regardless of the form it takes. If you want to be more specific about the form, use one of the other I/O symbols.

Use the document symbol to represent a step that calls for — surprise — a document. There’s also a multiple documents symbol if a number of pages are involved.

Use the display symbol to indicate a process step where data gets displayed, such as on a computer monitor.

The manual input symbol is supposed to look like a keyboard, but hopefully your keyboard isn’t so lopsided. Use this symbol for steps in which a user needs to manually enter data.

When you have a process step that is not automated, use a manual operation symbol. If you’re diagramming a data processing scenario, use a manual operation symbol connected to a loop limit symbol to indicate a looping operation.

Unless you’re living in a cave and surviving off really old computer equipment, you will never use the paper tape symbol. But it exists! And here is one possible scenario in which it may be useful:

And if you like that, you’ll also probably like the card symbol, which stands in for those punched cards computers used when they took up an entire room and didn’t even come with solitaire pre-installed.

Information Storage Symbols

Those working in the software development lifecycle may also need these specialized information storage symbols.

This data storage symbol is the catchall signifier for any step in your process in which data gets stored. If there’s no need to be more specific, this symbol is the one to use.

If you’re representing a step in your process in which data is being transferred to or from a database, pull out this symbol.

This internal storage symbol gets used when data is being stored in memory. For example, you’d use this when information is being held in RAM.

If your process requires storing data on magnetic data tape, you should use this symbol right after you consider buying a computer from this century.

Now that you’re clear on what flowchart symbols mean, all you need is some solid advice on how to make sure your diagrams look professional.

Ready to create a flowchart online now?