Excel Charting Tips

Creating charts in excel is pretty easy. Excel provides you a lot of tools with a lot of options for creating charts. But are those preset charts good enough? Better yet, what defines a good chart or a bad one? In this post we are going to discuss these questions. There will be a some excel charting tips too 🙂

Chart is a way of visualizing data for presenting information. Therefore a good chart is a chart that delivers intended information as directly as possible and with minimum chart junk. While aesthetic is nice, what matters in information your chart delivers.

Here are some pointers for good charts:

1-      Do you really need a chart? : Simple data can be presented with tables much easily than creating charts for it. It will save you time and deliver information in an easy to understand way.

2-      Selecting correct chart type: Unfortunately this issue doesn’t have a simple answer. There are basic guidelines though.  Column and line charts are good for showing trends. Bar charts are the same as column chart with axis’ switched. These three are good for comparison. Pie charts are good for showing distribution of small data series…

3-      Don’t limit yourself with preset charts: Though excel’s preset charts are not bad, they can be turned to good with a couple of easy touches.

4-      Get rid of chart junk: Chart junk refers to any ink on the chart that is not directly used in delivering information. Colored backgrounds, thick black gridlines, long labels, etc. can be counted as chart junk. These stuff will make your charts harder to understand since they will decrease concentration of viewer.

Here is an example for chart junk:

Imagine that you are a manager with limited time and a lot of things to manage. Which chart would you prefer to see for monthly sales revenue information at a glance?

5-      Be careful about 3D charts: While they look fancy, 3D charts can be easily misleading. That is because perspective comes into play. Depending on the placement of data series in the chart they can look bigger or smaller than they normally are.

Here is an example of this issue:

Left pie chart shows 3 equal values with 1/3 slices. Viewer can easily tell that these 3 slices are identical. Right pie chart( 3D) also shows same values. But due to perspective, red slice without a doubt, seems bigger than other two.


Couple of easy steps for better charts:

  • Remove legends when possible.
  • Remove vertical gridlines, set color of horizontal ones to light gray or remove them too.
  • Use custom number formats for labels when they are too long. Remember that you don’t need to label all data points.
  • Avoid too colorful and/or 3D charts since they will be harder to concentrate on.

Try these excel charting tips and you will see that your charts will hit the target much faster and with grater accuracy. If you are looking for flashy stuff though, I’m posting nice visualizations all the time, you can find them in archives.

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