Career Development

28 Flowchart Symbols and Their Meanings

April 2, 2021

When embarking on a workflow process such as the development of new software, applications or documents and reports, it can sometimes be helpful to create a flowchart to help map out the processes. When creating a flowchart, common symbols can be used to represent different elements of the workflow. Depending on the complexity of the workflow and processes, the flowchart symbols used can range from commonly used to more complex and specific to the workflow processes. In this article, you will learn the common and complex flowchart symbols and their meaning.

What are workflow symbols?

Workflow describes the processes for how specific work should be done, and a flowchart is the diagram that outlines those processes. Within the flowchart, symbols are used to describe the steps of the workflow process. These symbols are known as flowchart symbols, or workflow symbols, as they are used to outline the path the workflow must take in order to complete the assigned tasks.

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Common flowchart symbols and their meanings

There are common workflow symbols that can be applied to a flowchart, however, different departments of an organization may utilize more complex symbols to outline certain workflow processes specific to each team. For instance, at a software development firm, the programming department may utilize flowchart symbols to outline a specific diagram for an application, data processing program or a user flow software. The following list shows first the most commonly used flowchart symbols followed by more process-specific symbols.

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1. Start and end symbol

This symbol is also referred to as the terminator symbol as it represents starting and end points, as well as potential outcomes of a process path. The start and end symbols will be an elongated oval shape.

2. Process symbol

This common symbol is shaped as a rectangle, and it can also be called the action symbol. It represents an action, function or process and can be considered one of the most-used flowchart symbols.

3. Document symbol

This symbol is shaped like a rectangle with its bottom side in a wave, and it is used to represent the input or output of a document. For instance, this symbol might be used to outline a document input, such as receiving an email or report. Similarly, it can be used to represent a document output like producing a presentation or project.

4. Connector symbol

These symbols are little circles used to connect separate elements of a flowchart across a whole page. Connectors are typically used in flowcharts with more complex processes, such as software or application development.

5. Decision symbol

Shaped as a rhombus, this symbol is used to indicate a question that results in a "yes" or "no" answer, as well as a possible "true" or "false" situation. Depending on the answer to the proposed question, the flowchart can then split into various branches to complete the outline of the workflow.

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6. Off-page connector or link symbol

This symbol looks like an upside-down pentagon and is oftentimes used in more complex flowcharts to connect the separate elements of multiple pages. There can be a page number within each shape, allowing for easier reference.

7. Input and output symbol

This symbol is used to represent any data that can be available for input and output. Also referred to as the data symbol, this shape can also be used to represent the resources used or produced. Shaped as a parallelogram, it may sometimes be substituted with the paper tape symbol.

8. Comment or note symbol

This symbol is the common brace { } and is placed with additional information or comments in a specified range. It may also be connected by a dashed line to various related sections of the flowchart.

9. Multiple documents symbol

Conversely to the document symbol, this symbol represents more than one document in the flowchart. It has the same meaning as the document symbol, with the addition of more documents or reports that may be needed for the workflow.

10. Predefined process symbol

This symbol may only be used in complex flowcharts and indicates a process, operation or function that has already been defined.

11. Database symbol

This cylinder-shaped flowchart symbol represents the data that is stored on a storage service that can allow for user searches and filters. For instance, the data need to run a real estate app can be housed within a storage service for users to search and filter results by price, location and other search criteria.

12. Stored data symbol

Also referred to as the data storage symbol, this flowchart symbol represents where the data is stored within a workflow process. For instance, a software developer producing a new program for accounting might use this symbol to represent the specific location of various financial data within different calculation processes.

13. Paper tape symbol

This symbol, shaped as a waving flag, is one of the more complex flowchart symbols and is most likely to be used in rare cases, such as mapping the processes or specific input data for CNC machines and older computers.

14. Internal storage symbol

This symbol is commonly used in flowcharts that outline software designs and can indicate the data stored within the internal memory system.

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15. Manual input symbol

This flowchart symbol is used to represent manual input of data, such as a step in a process or typing data into a field or form. For instance, if you sign up for a new email account, the login fields would require you to enter your data manually. This symbol is used to represent this process in the software development flowchart.

16. Manual operation symbol

This flowchart symbol is shaped as a trapezoid and is used to represent each step of a process that must be completed manually rather than automatically.

17. Summing junction symbol

Shaped much like a railroad sign—that is, a circle with an "X" in it—this flowchart symbol sums up the input of several converging process paths.

18. Or symbol

Similar to the summing junction symbol, the or symbol is used to indicate where a workflow process takes more than one path.

19. Merge symbol

This triangle shape is used to symbolize the merging of multiple paths into one single process path.

20. Preparation symbol

The preparation symbol is used to differentiate between the steps for preparing the work and the steps that take action to complete the work. It may also be used to outline the setup to other steps that make up the same process.

21. Delay symbol

A half-oval in appearance, this symbol is used to indicate a delay within a process. Oftentimes, programmers will use this symbol when developing software to indicate the length of the delay within the process.

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22. Display symbol

This symbol is used in a flowchart to show where data or information will be displayed within the process.

23. Hard disk symbol

This symbol is also referred to as a direct access storage symbol and is shaped like a cylinder on its side. It is used to show where data is stored on a hard drive.

24. Collate symbol

This symbol looks like a triangular hourglass, and it is used to show a step that orders data and information into standard formats.

25. Sort symbol

A flowchart symbol that looks like a bisected kite, the sort symbol is used to indicate a step in a process that organizes lists of items into sets or sequences determined by specific criteria.

26. Manual loop symbol

This symbol is used to show a set of commands or prompts that will repeat continuously until the processes are ceased manually.

27. Loop limit symbol

The converse to the manual loop symbol, this flowchart shape indicates the stopping point of the process loop.

28. Subroutine symbol

This flowchart symbol indicates a sequenced set of actions that perform specific, smaller tasks that are part of a larger process. Oftentimes, this symbol may indicate that there is a more detailed description of the outlined sequence within a separate flowchart.

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