Meaning of the Different Flowchart Shapes

different flowchart symbols

Photo by Yan Krukau:

Hieroglyphs are one of the most ancient forms of writing known to humankind. These artistic representations emerged in ancient Egypt. They continue to excite curiosity in academic discussions and scholarly circles. This form of writing was predominantly based on shapes and symbols that denoted a variety of animals.

The use of shapes finds echoes in modern-day systems such as flowchart diagrams. The dictionary defines flowcharts as “diagrams that show step-by-step progression through a procedure or system especially using connecting lines and a set of conventional symbols.” Various flowchart symbols find use inside such diagrams and describe the working components of a system or process. Companies can use a tool like interactive decision trees to create flowcharts and improve customer satisfaction. Certain design practice has emerged in the use of flowchart shapes and their intended meanings. Let’s explore more.

Oval shape

An oval symbol represents the beginning of a process depicted inside a flowchart diagram. This symbol is essentially a rectangle with rounded edges. It also denotes the termination of a process but finds no intermediate use inside the diagram. The design community has voiced certain alternatives in terms of flowchart shapes. However, the oval continues to dominate the start and end of a depicted process. Typically, a single connector emerges from the oval to signify progression to the subsequent stages of the process. In addition, the oval shape serves as a repository of information that provides context to readers surveying a complex process. In elementary flowcharts, the oval may be labeled ‘start’ or ‘end’ depending on its location within the diagram.

Document symbol

The document symbol represents a design novelty when we survey a range of flowchart shapes. This symbol emerges in the form of a rectangle that bears a wave at the bottom. Documentation is vital in most modern processes. It spurs designers to deploy the document in appropriate locations inside a flowchart. The document may connect to various flowchart shapes in the interests of maintaining continuity and context within the confines of a diagram. The symbol also signifies that a depicted process has achieved a mature stage wherein documentation is necessary to move further. Process maps, typically, feature document symbols as part of their use of contemporary flowchart shapes.


Diamond shapes inside a flowchart represent a decision point. The diamond is crucial in the armory of flowchart shapes. Its multiple pathways and directions can emerge from a diamond shape. The end stages of a process as depicted on a flowchart depend on the actions contained in the diamond shapes. These shapes typically punctuate industrial processes, workplace process illustrations, flowcharts that describe a sales process, and other such diagrams. The inputs into the diamond must be flawless. This presumes perfect knowledge of a process on the part of the flowchart designers. More than one diamond can be positioned inside a flowchart should it describe multiple stages of a complex (or extended) process. The diamond remains the only flowchart shape that resembles the commercial image of a natural mineral mined for profit.


The rectangle typically represents the stages of a process inside a flowchart diagram. This unit among flowchart shapes finds the maximum representation owing to the multiple stages that complete a described process inside a flowchart. The rectangle denotes part of a process, task, or operation. Each rectangle is visually identical, but the labels vary depending on the stage of the process or system. Rectangles can grace any location inside a flowchart and their use allows the described process to achieve completion. In addition, the use of rectangular shapes allows the modern flowchart to gain visual symmetry. The alternative scenario involves the use of too many different flowchart shapes that may (at best) transmit a garbled message to readers and reviewers.


Parallelograms represent an important component of the flowchart shapes that describe a process inside an interlinked illustration. It denotes input and output operations inside a flowchart. Parallelograms remain critical because a large number of operations are positioned inside these shapes. Readers and reviewers may find a series of these shapes in rapid succession or in the vicinity of a decision point in a flowchart. Further, the parallelogram gains importance because it houses data that enables readers to decrypt essential portions of depicted processes.

The loop

The loop is a member of the typical set of flowchart shapes that create meaning inside such illustrations. This structure is essentially an arrow that may go back and forth to connect one stage to an earlier stage. The loop exists outside the regular flow of information that describes a modern flowchart. Typically, the presence of a loop denotes that it tests a certain condition and performs an action if the condition exists. This set of actions continues inside the process until the point when the qualifying condition ceases to exist. The repetition structure denoted by a loop typically attests to the complexity inherent in a system or process.

Open-ended rectangles

They represent an outlier in any collection of flowchart shapes. These shapes are not typical components in modern flowcharts. However, they denote the presence of comments, notes, or statements from creators, designers, reviewers, or readers. Comments remain important inputs that allow readers and reviewers to understand a process better. The very nature of such content allows these rectangular shapes to be positioned anywhere inside a flowchart. Designers of such diagrams can collaborate with knowledge experts, in a bid to reserve space to accommodate such flowchart shapes.

Rectangle with double lines

External factors and foreign elements often create a significant impact on the functioning of a process or system. Flowchart diagrams are no exception to this rule. Consequently, an esoteric element of flowchart shapes manifests itself in the form of a rectangle with double lines on the short side. This shape typically finds use in flowcharts that describe computer programming. The shape signifies the use of an algorithm that is not explicitly present within the vicinity of a flowchart diagram. Designers that use this form of a rectangle enlighten readers on the possibilities of referring to external sources and repositories of information. In addition, the use of these shapes allows designers to compress the expanse of a flowchart, which might otherwise distend to accommodate multiple algorithms.

The arrowhead

An arrowhead pointing south is the typical symbol of an off-page connector in modern flowcharts. The use of this form of flowchart shapes is critical as it forms a connection across the multiple pages of a complex flowchart. In line with this, designers and creators of flowchart diagrams can elect to place slide numbers or page numbers inside the off-page connector in a bid to spur reader comprehension. Additionally, said connector may feature a minor hyperlink that, when clicked, connects readers to an external source of relevant information.

The Verdict

We’ve discussed some of the shapes that animate and add meaning to the modern flowchart. Design orthodoxy dictates that designers adhere to the standard definitions and the intended uses of these shapes. However, an evolution of design language may lead to the creation and addition of new shapes to the design lexicon. Evolution in this context may point to the possibility of embellishing extant shapes and symbols with additional artwork. This may represent an extension of meaning for each new version of a symbol or shape positioned inside the future edition of a modern flowchart.

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