What Does a Family Tree Look Like?

by Molly Thompson
Medieval family trees included bright colors and heraldic art.

Medieval family trees included bright colors and heraldic art.

Maybe it started as a grade-school project or perhaps an adult interest as family members aged. Whatever the trigger, creating a family tree offers the opportunity to capture important information about your family members in an appealing graphic display. From charts depicting an actual tree to computer-generated diagrams of generations of ancestors, family trees can be as simple or elaborate as desired. Incorporate relevant information and even photos to create a visual display that tells the story of your ancestors to share with today's family members.

Your Roots

Family trees are often displayed as an actual tree diagram or drawing, evoking the idea of a family's history being rooted in its ancestors. For school projects or a simple approach for beginners, create a simple tree design. At the base of the tree, place a title such as "The Smith Family" or "Grandma Jane's Family." Put the name of the family patriarch or matriarch in the center of the tree trunk, then draw limbs to represent each of his or her offspring. From those limbs, continue adding branches to represent later generations. Put the first names of each couple on the limbs, with the names of their children on the branches.

Single Family

To depict one side of a family, use a simple "V" design, either horizontally or vertically. The point of the "V" is the start of the family tree, typically a single individual. The first two offshoots of this point represent his parents, and each entry includes the individual's full name and date of birth. Add date of death for deceased family members. Continue adding pairs of diagonal lines off each individual for her parents. Make sure to space your diagram so that generations are lined up with each other: The entries for grandparents should line up, then the entries for great-grandparents, and so on.

Hourglass Design

The sideways hourglass design is one of the most common and effective ways to graphically depict both sides of a family. These shapes are typically displayed horizontally on a page, with the narrowest point of the hourglass at the center of the page. This is the starting point, and it usually represents a single individual or that individual and his/her siblings. Branching out from the center on the right side is the maternal side of the family with the paternal side on the left. If the center point is a man named Joe Smith, the entries to the immediate right and left, respectively, would be his mother (using her maiden name) and his dad. Branching off from each of these would be their parents, and so on.

Fans, Circles and More

Other family tree charts take the shape of fans, which are usually stylized depictions of the traditional "V" diagram, or circles, which wind around and around tracing back the generations of only one branch of the family. Medieval-style family trees present one line of the family in a linear fashion, often using gilt accents and jewel-toned colors. All types of family tree designs are most useful when each person's entry includes full name, date and place of birth, and date and place of death. Some charts also include marriage dates and places. Such information provides current family members with a rich sense of their family's history and origins.

About the Author

As a national security analyst for the U.S. government, Molly Thompson wrote extensively for classified USG publications. Thompson established and runs a strategic analysis company, is a professional genealogist and participates in numerous community organizations.Thompson holds degrees from Wellesley and Georgetown in psychology, political science and international relations.

Photo Credits

  • Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com/Getty Images