Flowcharting in Excel Series

How to Create a Flowchart in Excel

By Nicholas Hebb

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This article gives an overview on how to create flowcharts in Excel. There are significant differences between the tools in the newer versions of Excel and the older versions. Make sure that you read the appropriate section below. Most of the editing techniques are the same and are covered in the Editing Excel Flowcharts section at the bottom of the article. Most of the topics described here can also be applied to creating flowcharts in Word or PowerPoint, but in my humble opinion, of all the Office Drawing tools the Excel drawing tools are the most user friendly.

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Setting Up The Environment

Before actually creating the flowchart, we will cover some preliminaries that make flowcharting in Excel a bit easier.

Creating a Grid (Optional)

A grid is not required, but it makes creating flowcharts with uniform shape sizes easier, especially when coupled with the Snap to Grid feature, which we will cover in the next section.

The grid is created by changing the column widths to match the standard row height. Assuming that you're using the default font of Calibri 11, the standard row height is 15 pts, which equals 20 pixels. To create the grid, change the column widths to 2.14 (= 20 pixels). (In case you're curious, the units for Excel column widths are based on the average number of characters that will fit within a cell.)

Follow the steps as described below these images:

1 - Select All Cells Select all cells

Click on the top left corner of the spreadsheet.

2 - Open Column Width Dialog Column Width Menu

Right-click on any column and click on “Column Width”.

3 - Set Column Width Column Width Dialog

Enter 2.14 in the dialog and click OK.

Snap to Grid / Shapes

Snap to Grid / Shape

Enabling Snap

When Snap to Grid is turned on, anytime you add, move, or resize a shape, the edges of the shape will “snap” to the nearest grid line. Snap to Shape provides the same behavior, except shapes are snapped to the edges of other shapes. You can turn on both Snap to Grid and Snap to Shape by clicking the Page Layout tab, then click the Align dropdown, as shown in the image on the right.

Page Layout

Beyond the obvious reasons, setting the page layout before creating the flowchart is important for several reasons:

  • If you plan to copy the flowchart from Excel to Word, or some other application, matching the margins to the target is important. Word, for example, has different normal margins than Excel.
  • If the flowchart direction is left to right, the page layout is typically in landscape orientation.
  • When you display page breaks, they act as a visual boundary to check whether shapes fall within a page.

To set the layout, click the Page Layout tab and use the Margins, Orientation, and (paper) Size dropdowns to change the settings if needed.

Themes: Be careful changing the Theme on the Page Layout tab. It not only alters the font and color scheme, but it also changes the row heights and column widths, which will affect how many shapes fit on a page.

Creating the Flowchart

Inserting a Flowchart Shape

To add the first shape, starting by clicking the Insert tab, where you should see a Shapes dropdown button. Clicking the Shapes dropdown displays the gallery of shape types shown below.

You can add a shape to the worksheet either by double-clicking a shape in the gallery, or by single clicking a shape and drawing its outline on the worskheet while holding the left mouse button down. If you double-click to add the shape, the shape will be placed in a somewhat arbritrary location on the sheet and have a height of 0.67” and a width of 1.0”.

Insert Shapes Gallery

Insert Shapes Gallery

Adding More Flowchart Shapes

After you add the first shape, you'll notice that a Format tab (shown below) becomes available on the ribbon anytime that you click on a shape. We'll cover formatting in a bit, but in regard to adding shapes, the Format tab duplicates the Shapes gallery that we saw above. This makes it handy to add a shape then continue to add shapes in serial fashion.

Format Tab

Format Tab

Adding Text to a Shape

This is straightforward - just click on the shape and start typing. If you need to edit the text in the shape click in the center of the shape, and not on the edges. Clicking the text in the center will put you into edit mode, but clicking the shape's border will select the shape itself.

Adding Connector Arrows Between Shapes

Connector arrows are added to the worksheet the same way flowchart shapes are - via the Shapes gallery. After clicking the line type in the gallery, follow these steps to add it to the flow diagram:

  1. Hover the mouse over the first shape and you will see the available connection points highlighted by red dots. Click the left mouse button down on the desired connection point.
  2. While still holding the left mouse bbutton down, drag the line to the next shape, where again the connection points are highlight.
  3. Release the left mouse button on a connection point, and the line will be selected with both end points highlighted by red dots. If an endpoint has a clear dot, it indicates that the connector wasn't connected.
insert connector 1

Insert connector - step 1

insert connector 2

Insert connector - step 2

insert connector 3

Insert connector - step 3

Adding Labels and Callouts

There are two common ways to add notes to a flowchart.

  • Text box labels: text box
  • Callouts: text box

Text boxes are often used to label the connectors coming out of decisions. Callouts are commonly used to add side comments, with their shape indicating that they are not a process step. Both can be added via the Insert Shapes gallery.

Formatting the Flowchart

There are so many formatting options in Excel, that it's too much to cover in a single article. The sections below show how to do basic shape and line formatting. There is a special dialog worth mentioning. If you right-click on a shape and select Format Shape from the context menu, the format dialog will display and let you make changes to a wide

Formatting Shapes

When one or more shapes is selected, the Format tab displays the style gallery shown below. Note that the styles changed in Excel 2013. The shape styles are set by their theme number, so if you use one of the purple styles in Excel 2010, for example, and then open it in Excel 2013 or Excel 2016, it will display with the new orange theme.

If you are sharing the document with Excel 2003 users, note that the last row of styles will not render well in Excel 2003. If you are sharing the file with Excel 2000 users (i.e., the file is saved in .xls compatibility mode), the last two rows of styles will not render well.

Excel 2007, 2010 Shape Style Gallery

Excel 2007 - 2010 Shape Style Gallery

Excel 2013 - 2016 Shape Style Gallery

Excel 2013 Shape Style Gallery

Formatting Connector Lines

When one or more connector lines is selected, the Format tab displays the line style gallery shown below. As with the shape styles, new line styles were also introduced in Excel 2013. Excel 2013 / Excel 2016 lines are also thinner and have no drop shadow. This is a good thing because the thicker lines and shadows were known to cause screen and print rendering problems.

Excel 2007, 2010 Line Style Gallery

Excel 2007 - 2010 Line Style Gallery

Excel 2013 - 2016 Line Style Gallery

Excel 2013 Line Style Gallery

Shape Fonts

Fonts are set for shapes the same way that they are for cells. Select the shape then set the font and font size on the Home tab.

Other Formatting Tips
  • You can also use the Format Painter Format Painter icon tool on the Home tab to quickly copy a format from one shape to another.
  • The Shape Fill dropdown lets you apply different fill colors and gradients and also allows you to insert a picture as a shape's background.
  • The Shape Outline lets you change the line color, thickness, dash style, and arrow heads.
  • The Shape Effects dropdown has a number of stylistics effects you can apply such as Shadow, Glow, Reflection, and more.

Editing the Flowchart

This section covers editing guidelines that are specific to Excel 2007-2010 only. For more tips that apply to all versions of Excel, scroll down to the Editing Excel Flowcharts section.

Selecting Shapes

The simplest way to select a single shape is to click on the border. You can select multiple shapes by holding the Ctrl key as you click. Once a shape is selected, you can toggle through the shape selections using the Tab key. Starting with Excel 2007, there is also a Selection Pane tool, accessible from the Format tab of the ribbon. The Selection Pane lists all the shapes by their names, not their text, so it isn't all that useful.

Aligning the Flowchart

If you created a grid and used Snap to Grid, hopefully you won't need to align any shapes after the fact, but in case you do, the Format ribbon tab has several features that are supposed to make this easier. under the Align dropdown menu, there are several options to align the selected shapes to the Left, Center, Right, etc. The left and rright alignment tools do what you would expect, but the centering tool moves all the shapes to the average center position, typically shifting all of them from their original position. As such, I typically recommend aligning shapes manually.

Changing a Flowchart Shape To Another Type

To change a shape, select it with your mouse, and then click on the Format tab. In the upper left, click the Edit Shape dropdown and select a new shape type, as shown in the image below. there is a bug in Excel 2007 and 2010 that you need to be aware of when using this tool. Changing a shape type causes any line connected to the shape to become unconnected. Connected lines will move with a shape when the shape is moved. Unconnected lines will not. Unconnected lines are also known to render strangely when printed or saved to PDF. In short, make sure to reconnect the lines after changing a shape type.

Edit Shape menu item

Edit Shape menu item

Editing Excel Flowcharts

Move a Flow Chart Symbol

To move an Excel flow chart symbol, just click on the shape with your left mouse button and drag it to its new location. Excel will show dashed lines to preview the new layout, as shown below.

autoshape moving

Move a flow chart symbol

You can also move a flow chart symbol with the arrow keys. Normally, the arrow keys will nudge the shape a small amount, but if the snap to grid feature is enabled, the arrow keys will move the flow chart symbol one cell at a time. To nudge a shape when snap to grid is enabled, hold the Control key down when you press the arrow key.

Resize a Flow Chart Symbol

First, Excel has an autosize feature available in the shape formatting dialog. Don't use it. Excel's idea of flow chart shape autosizing is to resize the shape so that all the text fits on one line.

Tip: You can move, resize, delete, or format multiple flow chart symbols at once. See this article on selecting multiple flow chart shapes.

To resize a flow chart symbol, first select the symbol by clicking on it with your mouse. The symbol will be highlighted and little circular handles will appear on the sides and corners, as shown in the picture below-left. Click and hold one of the handles and drag it in the direction that you want to resize the shape, as shown in the picture below-right. Excel will also display a dotted outline of the new shape size (not shown in the picture). Release the mouse button when the shape is the size you want.

autoshape selected handles

Selected Excel flow chart autoshape

autoshape resize handles

Resized Excel flow chart autoshape

Deleting Flow Chart Symbols

One of the least enjoyable things to do with a flow chart is maintain it. Here's a tip to make that process a little easier. Lets say you start with a flow chart that looks like this:

delete flow chart shape 1

Delete shape - fig. 1

delete flow chart shape 2

Delete shape - fig. 2

delete flow chart shape 3

Delete shape - fig. 3

You want to delete Step 2, but that will leave a void, as shown above in fig. 2, which means, you have to move the other shapes. You can select multiple shapes using various methods and drag them to their new home. That works OK many times, but if the flowchart is really big it can be a hassle to select them and move them all.

By default, Excel sets the flow chart autoshapes to move when cells are deleted, inserted, or resized. We can use this to our advantage by deleting cells to move the shapes. Select a range of cells as shown in the picture below. You must select a range of cell as wide or wider than the shapes you want to move! Right-click on the cells and select Delete... from the context menu. In the example, we want to move the shapes in this swim lane up, so we select Shift cells up, as shown in the image below.

delete cells

Delete cells - Shift cells up

The result can be seen below in fig. 4. First there's the small issue of the flow line (Connector). It's not connected. Step 3 was moved into position to be connected to Step 1, but the connection still needs to be closed manually.

The second, and bigger, issue is the symbols in the Dept 3 swim lane. This method would have worked fine if there were only one swim lane. But the flowchart symbols in the Dept. 3 swim lane didn't get shifted. To remedy this we could have elected to delete the entire rows to have everything shift up. This option depends on the flow chart layout and what other shapes might be effected by such a move.

delete flow chart shape 4

Delete shape - fig. 4

delete flow chart shape 5

Delete shape - fig. 5

delete flow chart shape 6

Delete shape - fig. 6

Another option would be to backtrack and select the cells from both the Dept 2 and Dept 3 swim lanes, as shown above in fig. 5, where we do a Delete... and Shift cells up, just as before. The result, in fig. 6, is much better. Now all you need to do is close the connection between Step 1 and Step 3.

Inserting New Shapes Between Existing Shapes

Inserting new flow chart symbols is essentially the same process as deleting a flow chart symbols - just in reverse. As with a Delete operation, we select the range of cells to perform the insert on. In fig. 1, the range is selected so that the cell shifting affects the other flow chart symbols in the desired way.

In fig. 2, a space has been opened up to place the new flow chart symbol, and in fig. 3, the new flow chart symbol has been added. Also, as shown in fig. 3, the connector from Step 1 is now connected to New Step 2, and a new connnector has been added between New Step 2 and Step 3.

insert flowchart symbol 1

Insert Excel shape - fig. 1

insert flowchart symbol 2

Insert Excel shape - fig. 2

insert flowchart symbol 3

Insert Excel shape - fig. 3

Miscellaneous Tips
  • If you want to force line breaks at certain points in the text, hold the Alt key down when pushing the Enter key.
  • The text inside the shape can be formatted (bold, italic, etc) using the standard formatting toolbar buttons.
  • Autoshapes available from the Insert > Shapes gallery don't integrate directly with Smart Art shapes. Lines cannot be connected between them, and the formatting tools are separate.
  • If shapes omit text when printed, try Grouping all the shapes before printing. This is a bug that exists since Excel 2007, and it is also seen with PDF creation and some print drivers.

Lastly, Excel is a great tool to create flowchart, and I hope this article was helpful to you. Most of the topics covered in this article can be automated using FlowBreeze, and, of course, as its creator, I encourage you to check it out.