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Creating an ER Diagram with Crow's Foot Notation: A Step-by-Step Guide

October 27, 2023
Audrey Zilberman
Audrey Zilberman
United States of America
ER Diagram
Audrey is an experienced database management and information systems professional with a rich academic background and a wealth of teaching experience. Holding a Master's degree in Computer Science from a prestigious Yale University, Audrey’s qualifications reflect a deep understanding of the subject matter.

If you're a student pursuing a degree or course in database management, information systems, or a related field, you're likely to encounter assignments that require you to create Entity-Relationship Diagrams (ERDs). ERDs are an indispensable tool in the realm of database design and management, as they provide a visual representation of a database's structure, entities, attributes, and relationships. Among the various notations available for ERD creation, Crow's Foot Notation stands out for its simplicity and effectiveness. In this extensive guide, we will walk you through the process of crafting an ERD diagram with Crow's Foot Notation using a provided schema. By following these comprehensive steps, you will be well-equipped to excel in your assignments, gain a deep understanding of ERD design principles, and foster your journey towards becoming a proficient database professional.

Creating an ER Diagram with Crow's Foot Notation

What is an Entity-Relationship Diagram (ERD)?

An Entity-Relationship Diagram (ERD) is a visual representation of a database's structure. It illustrates the entities (objects or concepts), attributes (properties of entities), and relationships (associations between entities) that exist within the database. ERDs serve as a blueprint for designing and organizing the database, making it easier to communicate and understand its structure.

ERDs are commonly used in database design to:

Before we dive into the details of creating an ERD with Crow's Foot Notation, let's ensure we have a clear understanding of what an ERD is and why it's important.

  • Clarify Requirements: ERDs serve as a common language for stakeholders, including database administrators, developers, and end-users, enabling them to better understand and communicate data requirements.
  • Design Databases: ERDs provide the initial blueprint for designing the actual database tables, specifying the attributes each table should contain, and defining the relationships between them.
  • Detect Anomalies: By visually representing the database structure, ERDs can help identify potential anomalies or inconsistencies before the database is implemented, saving time and resources in the long run.

Now that we have a basic understanding of ERDs, let's proceed with creating one using Crow's Foot Notation.

Crow's Foot Notation Overview

Understanding the visual language of Entity-Relationship Diagrams (ERDs) is akin to unlocking the key to efficient and effective database design. Among the multitude of notations that have emerged, Crow's Foot Notation stands out for its simplicity and expressiveness. Let's delve deeper into Crow's Foot Notation to unravel its significance and the symbols that make it a preferred choice for ERD creation.

Crow's Foot Notation: The Art of Simplification:

Crow's Foot Notation, also known as Information Engineering Notation, is an elegant method for representing complex database structures in a clear and straightforward manner. It is named after the crow's foot-like symbols used to illustrate relationships within an ERD. This notation is favored for its ability to convey intricate database relationships in a visually accessible format.

Entities: Rectangles of Definition:

Entities in Crow's Foot Notation are represented as rectangles. These rectangles encapsulate the essential elements or objects of the database. Each entity rectangle typically contains the name of the entity and, within it, a list of the attributes that define the entity. These attributes provide a comprehensive description of the entity, specifying its characteristics and properties.

Attributes: The Essence of Details:

Attributes, the vital components within entities, are listed within the entity rectangle. They serve as the defining characteristics, properties, or details of the entity, allowing for a granular understanding of the data. In Crow's Foot Notation, attributes are clearly associated with the entity they belong to, eliminating ambiguity and simplifying the interpretation of the database structure.

Relationships: Lines That Connect:

In Crow's Foot Notation, relationships are depicted as lines that connect entities. These lines reveal the associations between entities, illustrating how they are related and interact with each other. Whether it's a one-to-one, one-to-many, or many-to-many relationship, the visual simplicity of the lines makes it easy to comprehend the nature of the connections.

Cardinality: Quantifying Connections:

One of the distinguishing features of Crow's Foot Notation is its use of crow's foot symbols to quantify the cardinality of relationships. These symbols resemble the feet of a crow, and each "toe" indicates the cardinality of the relationship. This means it specifies how many instances of one entity are related to another. Cardinality answers questions like "How many employees report to a manager?" or "How many customers are associated with an order?"

Diamonds: The Many-to-Many Marker:

In the case of a many-to-many relationship, Crow's Foot Notation employs a diamond shape to represent the connection between entities. The diamond symbolizes the complexity of such relationships, making it clear that multiple instances of both entities are connected.

Legends and Clarity:

To ensure that Crow's Foot Notation remains universally understood, it is customary to include a legend or key within the ERD. This legend explains the symbols and notations used, providing clarity to those who may not be intimately familiar with the notation. A well-documented legend enhances the accessibility and utility of the ERD.

Flexibility and Common Usage:

Crow's Foot Notation is celebrated for its flexibility and adaptability. Whether you're designing a simple database for a small business or a complex system for a large organization, Crow's Foot Notation can effectively convey the intricacies of relationships and data structures. It is widely used in the database design community, making it a practical choice for professionals and students alike.

Step 1: Understanding the Provided Schema

To initiate the process of creating an ERD with Crow's Foot Notation, it is imperative to thoroughly understand the schema provided for the assignment. Let's assume that you've been furnished with a schema for a fictional library database. The schema encompasses three core tables: Books, Authors, and Publishers. Here's a concise overview of each table's purpose:

  • Books: This table houses information pertaining to the books in the library, including attributes such as ISBN (International Standard Book Number), Title, and Publication_Year.
  • Authors: Responsible for storing data regarding the authors of the books, the Authors table features attributes such as Author_ID, Author_Name, and Birth_Year.
  • Publishers: This table is designated for capturing details regarding the publishers of the books, encompassing attributes like Publisher_ID, Publisher_Name, and Location.

Step 2: Identifying Entities and Attributes

The inaugural step in creating an ERD with Crow's Foot Notation involves discerning the entities and their corresponding attributes within the provided schema. It is imperative to scrutinize each table meticulously to ascertain what should be designated as an entity and what should be classified as attributes. For our illustrative library database schema:

Books, Authors, and Publishers are identified as entities and shall be depicted as rectangles in our ERD diagram.

The attributes inherent to each entity should be enumerated within their respective rectangles. For instance, attributes such as ISBN, Title, and Publication_Year will be inscribed inside the Books entity rectangle.

Step 3: Establishing Relationships

With entities and attributes clearly delineated, the next step is to establish relationships between these entities. In our library database schema:

A book can be authored by one or more authors, signifying a many-to-many relationship between the Books and Authors entities. This intricate relationship will be symbolized using a diamond shape connecting the two entities.

Similarly, a book is published by a publisher, signifying a one-to-many relationship between the Books and Publishers entities. This relationship will be manifested using a straight line with a crow's foot symbol positioned at the Books end.

The Authors and Publishers entities may not exhibit a direct relationship within this schema; therefore, they will remain unconnected.

Step 4: Adding Cardinality

In Crow's Foot Notation, the cardinality of relationships is conveyed through the use of crow's feet symbols. Each "toe" on the crow's foot denotes the cardinality of the relationship. It is essential to ascertain and indicate the cardinality for our library database schema:

For the many-to-many relationship between Books and Authors, a "3" is placed at both ends of the diamond to denote that "many" authors can be associated with "many" books.

In the case of the one-to-many relationship between Books and Publishers, a "1" is positioned at the Books end, while a "3" is placed at the Publishers end, signifying that "one" book can be published by "one" publisher, but a single publisher can publish "many" books.

Step 5: Drawing the ERD

Now that we've successfully identified entities, attributes, relationships, and their respective cardinalities, it is time to forge the ERD utilizing Crow's Foot Notation. Various tools and mediums can be employed for this task, ranging from dedicated ERD software to conventional pen and paper. In our ERD diagram for the library database schema:

Books, Authors, and Publishers are portrayed as rectangles, each encapsulating its pertinent attributes.

Relationships between Books and Authors and between Books and Publishers are meticulously depicted using the appropriate symbols and cardinality indicators, aligning with Crow's Foot Notation conventions.

Step 6: Refining and Documenting

Creating the initial Entity-Relationship Diagram (ERD) is a significant milestone, but it's essential to understand that the refinement and documentation of your ERD are equally critical steps in the process. This phase ensures that your ERD not only serves its fundamental purpose but also offers a clear, comprehensive, and professional representation of the database structure. Here's a deeper dive into Step 6, focusing on the importance of refinement and documentation:

  1. Incorporate Primary Keys:
  2. In the world of database design, primary keys play a vital role. They uniquely identify records within a table, which is essential for efficient data retrieval and maintenance. While creating or refining your ERD, make sure to explicitly indicate which attributes within each entity serve as primary keys. This information provides a clear understanding of how records are uniquely identified in the database.

    For instance, in our library database schema, the ISBN attribute in the Books entity could be identified as the primary key. Marking it as such in your ERD signifies that no two books can share the same ISBN.

  3. Specify Data Types:
  4. Attributes in a database have associated data types, such as integers, text, dates, or decimals. Specifying these data types in your ERD adds a layer of detail to your design. This information assists developers in implementing the database correctly by defining the format and constraints for each attribute.

    For example, in the Authors entity, you might specify that the Birth_Year attribute is an integer data type, ensuring that it can only contain whole numbers.

  5. Document Assumptions:
  6. In many real-world scenarios, the provided schema might not cover every nuance of a database system. During the creation of your ERD, you might have to make assumptions or simplifications. It's crucial to document these assumptions within your ERD. This ensures transparency and helps others understand the constraints or choices you've made in the absence of complete information.

    For instance, if your schema doesn't explicitly state whether the Publication_Year attribute in the Books entity should be a four-digit year, you might make an assumption about it and document it in the ERD.

  7. Review and Revise:
  8. While creating an ERD is a structured process, it's not immune to errors or oversights. A critical step in refinement is to review your diagram thoroughly. Check for consistency, accuracy, and adherence to the principles of Crow's Foot Notation. Look for missing attributes, relationships, or other details that might have been overlooked.

    If you encounter issues or discover that your ERD could be enhanced further, don't hesitate to revise it. Designing a database system is an iterative process, and refinement is a continual aspect of that journey.

  9. Consider User-Friendly Notation:
  10. While Crow's Foot Notation is an industry-standard and widely accepted method for ERD creation, remember that your ERD is a communication tool. It should be easily understandable by stakeholders who might not be familiar with the technical intricacies of database design. Use clear labels, avoid clutter, and structure your diagram in a logical and organized manner.

  11. Version Control:
  12. In collaborative projects, it's essential to implement version control for your ERD. As your team reviews and refines the diagram, multiple iterations may be created. Version control ensures that you can track changes, compare different versions, and revert to previous iterations if needed.

  13. A Well-Documented Legend:
  14. Include a legend or key within your ERD to explain the symbols and notations used. This aids anyone reviewing your diagram in understanding the meaning of the various symbols and shapes employed, especially if they are new to ERDs or Crow's Foot Notation.

  15. Compliance with Standards:
  16. If your assignment or project follows specific standards or guidelines beyond Crow's Foot Notation, make sure to adhere to those standards and document the compliance within your ERD. Consistency with established practices is a hallmark of professionalism in database design.


In conclusion, the refinement and documentation phase in ERD creation is where you add the final layer of precision and clarity to your design. It transforms your ERD from a simple visual representation into a powerful and informative tool that can be readily understood by a broad audience. This polished ERD not only fulfills the assignment's requirements but also demonstrates your commitment to creating accurate and transparent database designs, a skill that will undoubtedly benefit you in your academic and professional journey.

The art of creating an Entity-Relationship Diagram (ERD) with Crow's Foot Notation serves as a critical competence for students embarking on a journey through the realm of database management and design. By adhering to the systematic steps elucidated in this guide, you are poised to tackle similar assignments with poise and confidence. It is imperative to bear in mind that proficiency in database design is an iterative process, and practice plays a pivotal role in honing your skills. As you continue to craft ERDs and refine your abilities, you will embark on a trajectory of excellence in the field, positioning yourself for academic success and a prosperous career in database management and design.