Organise

Learn Basic Flowcharting Symbols For More Effective Brainstorming

When you’re trying to brainstorm an idea, develop a plan or make a decision, drawing up a flowchart can be useful. Learn basic flowcharting symbols to make your flowchart more effective.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Conventional flowcharting symbols are designed for programmers to help plan out the logic needed in a given piece of code before actually getting down to implementing them. I learned them when I was studying computer science at school several decades ago. However, their usefulness isn’t restricted to programmers: they can be a useful representation of any kind of decision-making task. In that vein, we’ve featured flowcharts on Lifehacker covering everything from Android troubleshooting to identifying phishing emails to typical readers for Allure network sites.

As you can see from the stencil above (I once owned a very similar one myself), there are a large number of potential symbols you can use in flowcharting. Many of these are quite specific to code development (and reflect the origin of the practice in the pre-PC era). Picture via Wikipedia

In reality, though, there are only four you really need (and even the fourth is more of a nicety than an actual requirement):

Diamonds: Used for questions, which often have either a Yes or No answer, which will move to different areas of the flowchart. (If you’re being pedantic, this should be a rhombus, but I won’t tell if you don’t.)

Rectangles: Used for general information (such as the outcome of a particular decision or the next step you should take in a process).

Arrows: Obvious but vital: use these to join together the other elements of the chart. Indicate the direction of progress to avoid people getting confused.

Ovals: Sometimes used for the start or end of a flowchart. Hardly essential, but can make the entry point clearer if your flowchart becomes complex.

As you can see from the example at the top of this article, you can build quite an effective flowchart even if all you use is boxes and lines. However, the use of the diamond when making decisions and branching out is widely recognised, and makes the chart easier to navigate.

If you want to design flowcharts on your computer, there are plenty of options, ranging from desktop apps such as Visio and Diagram Designer to web-based apps like Creately (which I used for our sample chart), LucidChart and ASCIIFlow. But with these basic symbols, drawing on paper (or on a tablet) can be just as easy.

Lifehacker 101 is a weekly feature covering fundamental techniques that Lifehacker constantly refers to, explaining them step-by-step. Hey, we were all newbies once, right?