Principles of Flowchart Design

Four patterns of historical events show up throughout world history:

  • Linear where events follow one line of development;

  • Convergence where 2 or more events or factors converge to create 1 result;

  • Divergence where 1 event or factor has 2 or more results; and

  • Feedback models where 2 or more events or factors feed back on one another to create a recurring cycle.

Flowcharts help students see these patterns, and understand the details of each pattern as it occured at a specific time. As the patterns become more recognizable, readers become more adept at understanding the material.

In order to make the patterns more recognizable, memorable, understandable, and interesting, the flowcharts use three design elements: simplicity, bilateral symmetry, and color. Each flowchart's design is also determined by the nature of the historical material and thus reflects that period's uniqueness.

 

Simplicity

is of paramount importance if readers are to make sense of the complex patterns and forces of history. For the sake of simplicity, detailed information is kept to a minimum in the flowcharts, leaving a framework upon which readers can later attach details as the patterns of events become clear. To that end, the accompanying readings parallel the flowcharts so that, even if read alone, they provide both a comprehensible framework and more in-depth understanding of history.

However, each flowchart's design is also determined by the nature of the historical material and thus reflects that period's uniqueness. Although certain general patterns (e.g., feedback cycles) tend to recur, the information in each pattern is specific to that topic. As the patterns become more recognizable, readers become more adept at understanding the material.

Color

makes the charts both more pleasing to view and easier to understand by highlighting and distinguishing different types of information. The use of colored fields draws the reader's attention to related types of information within a flowchart, while colored groups sub-divide the chart into more easily digestible parts.

The elements are color-coded as follows:

  • Links to other flowcharts have a heavy black border, round corners, white background, and blue text.

  • New pieces of information, information is not linked to any previous box, have square corners, and light-red backgrounds. This is especially used for acts of nature such as epidemics or changes of climate.

  • Two or more boxes describing a feedback model are enclosed in a box with a bright red background.

  • Two or more feedback models that feed back on each other are enclosed in a box with a light orange background. This is also used to show how a feedback model leads into and is reinforced by a sequence of specific events.

  • A general concept is shown in black text over a light blue background, with supporting or relevant information in connected boxes below it. This organizes the flowchart into smaller and and easily digested units to help understanding of the whole flowchart.

  • A process that is part of the larger flowchart is grouped in a large box with a light green background. This also breaks up the flowchart to aid in understanding.

Bilateral symmetry

or "mindless symmetry" as my students call it, is another device to make the flowcharts more attractive and easy to remember. Symmetry serves as a mnemonic device to help remember the flowcharts. As mentioned elsewhere, a common pattern of learning among my students is to visualize the flowchart's design first, and then fill in the relevant facts.