How to create a vertical family tree

Strategies and tips for creating a vertical family tree to fit in almost any space #familytree

Family trees come in all shapes and sizes, like the groups they represent.

Some are small and neat while others are large and rambling. Both are a visual snapshot of those who came before us and the potential of what is still to come.

These diagrams are a powerful resource for every family historian. At a glance, you can learn so much about a family line such as births, deaths, marriages, size and names. In turn, this creates an opportunity to find clues that aren’t obvious when looking at family members one at a time.

A family tree can fit almost any shape that you can imagine – circles, triangles, or a standard org chart. Most families will fit into any of those, but the tricky part is getting it to fit onto a printable page.

It’s a problem I had at the start of my genealogy journey too. And solving it is what led me to the diagram style that I still use today.

Humble beginnings

My favourite design has always been a vertical family tree. It’s what I created when I first started researching. That was in the early 1990s, and I had no access to other family historians or genealogy templates. No internet. No Google.

Vertical Family Tree created in Microsoft Word
Example of a vertical family tree created in Microsoft Word

I’d only seen ever seen one family tree which Dad’s cousins picked up at a reunion. It was hand-drawn and a little hard to follow, but I thought it was a work of art. There were hundreds of names crammed onto an A2 poster, each representing a person related to me. All descended from my Dad’s maternal grandparents.

I immediately knew I needed three more trees, and didn’t have access to paper larger than foolscap at the time. Nor did I have any of the details required to create a family tree, but I was more concerned about the page size. After all, I could find out the details, right? How hard could it be?

Discovering the details is another story, but fitting a large family on one or two pages was the easy part in the end. I wrote out a list of all the people, indenting each new generation.

Did I mention that I didn’t have a computer? I was using one at work, but it would be another 10+ years before I’d have one at home. So all my research notes were handwritten in notebooks including the family trees. Something that was a little awkward when I forgot to include one or two people. I rewrote those trees so many times I almost knew them by heart!

Handwritten family tree
An example of my early handwritten family trees

Creating a vertical family tree

Let me show you a few different looks for your family tree and some software options to create them.

The vertical family tree toolkit

As I proved in the 1990s, all you need is a paper and pen to start creating your family tree. Oh and your genealogy research of course!

The good news for your hand is that today there are other – easier – ways. Any software that lets you create an indented text or list of bullet points is perfect for your family tree.

Software to use

  • Try Word processing software such as Word or Google Docs. These apps have the bonus of being able to create styles to format each generation with one click.
  • Workflowy is a list building app. Its primary purpose is to create lists. Lists nested inside other lists. Therefore it’s perfect for adding many generations of ancestors.
  • Experiment with presentation or layout apps such as PowerPoint, Google Slides or Canva. Add ancestors as individual text boxes. Then use colour or fonts to differentiate between ancestors.
  • Do you have an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription? Try your hand at using InDesign or Illustrator to create a tree. InDesign also lets you set up custom styles for one-click formatting.
  • Put your ancestors on the spreadsheet. One of the talented ladies in the ’52 weeks to ancestors stories’ group did that with great results. Try Google Sheets or Microsoft Excel to see what you can create.

Get creative with your family tree

As a family history enthusiast, you already know that thinking outside the box is a part of the journey. And you have experience thinking creatively to discover your ancestors’ stories.

Now it’s time to turn that creativity to pull together a family tree that is easy-to-follow, and a work of art.

Use your favourite word processing or layout app and get creative. Or show the world that you are a guru with Excel and make good use of the columns and rows.

Finally, see what else you can spot in the details. Is there a family name you missed? Or shared date of birth or death?

Tell me in the comments

Can you see a use for a vertical family tree in your research and storytelling?


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9 Responses to “How to create a vertical family tree”

  1. Rae says:

    I have just tried to prepare a family tree via Word, SmartArt, Hierachy, but found this difficult if you didn’t get it correct first up. Ended up using an Organisation Chart (still under SmartArt) and found that easier, although you still had to organise the format according to what you wanted. I need a visual tree to understand who fits in where.

    • Prudence says:

      I’ve used the Org Chart for family trees before, and it’s tricky. PowerPoint is a great option for drawing, and you can cut and paste as Microsoft Objects into Word. Have you tried adding text to a shape and using connectors to add the lines?

  2. I have found the vertical family tree best suited when I don’t have much space and I want to see an overview of the family by siblings and their descendants. It just learning something new as we are simply familiar with the standard family tree shape. Also, the word tree suggests that it should have base with branches.

  3. Jason Leiper says:

    Great ideas Prudence – I use Roam research instead of Workflowy for the second example, but I’m keen to try the third example. What app did you use to do that one?
    My initial thoughts were a table in a landscaped Word doc with a merged cell for the top line and centred, distributed columns when you’ve worked out how many children. Then remove the gridlines and add graphics to provide meaning. Am I on the right track?

    • Prudence says:

      Hey Jason, I used InDesign, but you could do it in any app that lets you create individual text blocks. PowerPoint is a great option because of the text boxes and connectors. Google Slides would probably work as well, and Canva (though lines are a bit of a pain in the latter). I’d avoid creating it in a table because it will be quite fiddly.

  4. Donna M. S. says:

    I have used Excel spreadsheets from the beginning and still do today as I find it easy to read. The beauty of that is using different types of numbers (I., -1-, [1], 1., etc.) and then same for letters (A. , -A-, -a-, [A], [a], etc.). They are the column headings. Each heading is indented one column when used for the generations. The column size is only large enough for the number or letter. The beauty of that is if you forget someone, or add a new baby, you just insert another row. As you get more information for a family, you just insert rows. Everyone in column A would be siblings, then column 1 would be first cousins, etc. Hope this makes sense to you. I do prefer a fan chart for the direct line.

    • Prudence says:

      This is a great tip for family history enthusiasts who love working in Excel. I know there are a lot of them. Not me, unfortunately. I’ve tried to use Excel for something similar and I don’t have the patience to work for me.

  5. Pamela says:

    For decades I have used Family Tree Maker ‘Outline Chart’ which is a vertical tree. I copy it from FTM to Word and then format to my preference. I put the maiden names in red. I can make notes under any person or family. I keep each family in alphabetical order by surname in a very thick binder. It’s my go to reference.

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