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How to NOT spend $ 150,000 and still dress up your charts



By now everyone and their grandmother must have known about how Republican National Committee has spent $ 150,000 on Sarah Palin’s clothing and make up. I am a big fan of clothes. So much that I wear them everyday. But not all of us have a committee or fund raisers to dress up ourselves, none the less for our charts and reports.

That is where you can find Pointy Haired Dilbert useful. I am going to share with you all 5 simple yet effective ways to dress up your charts without spending a penny (or not more than few minutes of time).

1. Use Gradients, Pattern Fills instead of Colors

Select the data series you want to fill with gradient fill (or patterns) and right click, select “format data series”. In the dialog click on “Fill effects” and navigate to gradient tab (or patterns).

Note: go easy on gradients as they may not always gel well with other objects on your slide / report.

2. Use Images to Fill instead of Colors

If using gradients is playing with colors, you can use images to fill the bar (or pie or area) of the chart to decorate your charts. One of the good uses of this technique is to fill each series element with the image of what it represents. For eg. if you are showing sales of your products, fill each bar with small images of your product.

Just right click on the data series element, select format, and in the fill effects dialog, navigate to either “picture” tab. Don’t forget to click on “stacked” option. Otherwise excel would try to stretch your image to fit in the fill area and it looks ugly.

3. Add Text to Chart Area to Grab User Attention

This is one of my favorite technique. You can grab user attention using call outs placed on the chart.

Just select the chart and start typing anything. You will see a new text area added to your chart (the text area is bound to chart, so when you copy paste the chart even this text will be pasted). Now format the text area using drawing tool bar to a call out or star or something nice.

4. Use Bold and Creative Colors

Just go to Colorlovers or Smashing Magazine. Get some design inspiration on which colors to use. Now once you have the colors, just create 1×1 pixel images for each color in your favorite image editor. Then specify these images as fill images (learn more about overcoming 56 color limitation in excel). You now have excel charts that are bold and colorful.

5. Replace the Labels with Company Logos

Instead of using those boring labels to describe what each element on your chart means, you can use images to the story. See how you can yummify a simple “break-up of breakfast snacks in the last 30 days” chart.

Select the chart. Now go to Menu > Insert > Picture > From File and select your company logos or product images or something that conveys what the label does.  Adjust the images and re-size them. 🙂

Of course, you can always download these 73 beautiful excel chart templates for free and become a formatting rock star overnight.

More Excel Charting Ideas and Tips.

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All these tips are tested on Excel 2003. Palin’s Image is from Wikipedia.


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21 Responses to “How to NOT spend $ 150,000 and still dress up your charts”

  1. Counting down the seconds until Jon Peltier arrives and expresses his outrage... 🙂

  2. Chandoo says:

    @John... hehe.. I am sure he will be 🙂

  3. Tony Rose says:

    @ John W. - that's pretty funny. Love your Bible books too.

    @ Jon P.(coming soon) I will pitch in for a new keyboard to replace the one you just smashed. 😀

    I cringe at #2. The use of images instead of columns is, in my opinion, a very rookie move, which I would not recommend. The others I could live with and can actually add some personality to a visualization.

    I'm trying to think if I would rather see a 25 slice pie chart, a background image or a column chart with images instead of columns... tough call.

  4. Chandoo says:

    @Tony: hmm... #2 is in there as a fun alternative. In fact you see them almost everywhere in print info-graphics. But again, it is a personal call. After seeing both of your reactions I am kind of waiting for what Jon would actually say about these.

  5. Jon Peltier says:

    I couldn't tell if Chandoo was serious or just trolling for, well, people like me. One amusing clue is that the first trackback is from scaryhalloween-dot-info. But there's no outrage, at least until after I finish my coffee.

    In my youth, I posted a lot of techniques to my web site which were great technical achievements but visualization setbacks. I've removed some of the more egregious examples, such as the speedometer chart (despite its popularity) and the tertiary axis. My life's work on pie charts is all hosted on another site, so I have no control over it.

    I do have some examples on a web page showing the use of stacked images and the like. I will probably take them down at some point, but they strike me as mere distractions rather than distortions. I'm in the process of redesigning the main site (JW: no javascript!!), so I may retire a few juvenile topics.

    So that's my take on #2 from Chandoo's list. #1 is unnecessary, but if it's not overdone (and Chandoo's example is straddling the line), it may not be a distraction. #3 is fine, in fact helpful, if one uses simpler labels without the speech balloons. #4: stay away from bold colors in filled chart elements, especially bold primary colors, and limit your highlights to the use of one or two colors to show classes of responses (i.e., maximum, or top 5, or >75%, or whatever). If done tastefully (no pun intended) the trick in #5 helps with identifyng the categories.

  6. derek says:

    I like the use of images if I'm dealing with actual integers. Then one, two, three objects on the graph viscerally connects with one, two, three actual objects in the real world. I'll sometime make a graphic with n objects side by side for larger numbers, and I wish Excel had such tiling available as an option.

    What amused me about Chandoo's example was nine Euro symbols for 40 things, and also the combination of symbols and gridlines. If I ever use a symbol for large integers, or continuous quantities, then the gridlines are out of there, since the symbols make their own visible divisions, rendering gridlines redundant. (same principle as never having gridlines and zebra stripes, only one or the other)

  7. Jon Peltier says:

    If Chandoo had used the "Stack and Scale to XX Units/Picture" option, he might have gotten a more intuitive eight or ten symbols for 40 things, instead of the awkward nine.
    Good point BTW about one to one correspondence of whole numbers to pictures. That is a sensible situation in which to use this technique (providing one doesn't go overboard with the graphic).

  8. Chandoo says:

    Excellent comments both Jon and Derek.

    @Jon: the trackback was spam. I weeded it out this morning. I was curious what kind of reaction #2 would get and as expected it produced quite some discussion. I agree that using images to fill the area does not always produce perfect results. But as I said you see them everywhere in news print and I wanted to make sure our readers know how to get the effect without leaving excel.

    Regarding #4, the choice of bold colors is debatable but can be appropriate if you are preparing a report and need to follow particular color scheme or something. Also, the colors make sense when you use them everywhere and not in isolation. And picking the right colors plays an important role since bringing out contrast is one of the key ways to highlight what you want or show that 2 series are actually different. That is why I linked colorlovers.

    @Derek: great point about the grid lines. I didnt notice them since they were too light. You are right, if excel had someway to tile images based on values we have it might be useful.

    A note to other readers: in the #2, the point is not about showing 9 images when the value is 40. It is about using images as a way to fill instead of color. If you use images, you may want to make sure the tiling is right and not awkward.

  9. Jon Peltier says:

    @Chandoo: What I meant about colors wasn't that you shouldn't match the corporate colors and all. It's just that using too much intense color, or too many, after a while make the reader immune to the use of strong colors to mean something important. Use light or medium shades, and save the intense colors for the occasional highlighted point.
    Also, you said "if excel had someway to tile images based on values" But it does: if you look at your red arrow on the picture showing how to stack the images rather than stretch them to fit, the third option is to stack them with each image scaled to N units on the Y axis.

  10. Chandoo says:

    @Jon.. thanks for explaining how "stack and scale upto" works. I have used it with few numbers in the units box, but the images were always stretched. but I found the right combination for this chart (which is 5 units) 😀

  11. [...] For a lot more examples of some very catching chart styles, visit this outstanding Pointy Haired Dilbert web page [click here]. [...]

  12. derek says:

    Jon, I think Chandoo was refering to my wish for a parameter to tile the images *sideways*. In the absence of this feature I am forced to do a little extra work to make symbols for multiple objects.

  13. derek says:

    Chandoo, if the corporation you are producing for has done its branding properly, you should already have a good palette that is not heavy on the saturated colors.

    I analysed the color scheme on my company's Powerpoint templates, and discovered that the (anonymous) deviser of the standard had given me a nice selection to work with, even though it was monochromatic, because the use of a single hue still left two dimensions to work with, luminance and saturation, and the designer had chosen a well-balanced selection of those. I plotted them on a 2D scatter chart, since the hues were all almost exactly the same, and printed the page out as a design guide for me and my colleagues.

    The designer had also made one bright vivid color available, whose hue was the complement of the main color, and that works nicely for emphasis.

  14. Ally S says:

    I'm not sure what to make of this post. Is this a joke or not? If not, I might have to remove this site from my bookmarks - please put my mind at rest Chandoo...

  15. Chandoo says:

    @derek: you are right, usually the themes and templates are standardized to prevent users from going wild with colors. But often it is simpler to templatize word and ppt compared to excel.

    The work becomes more tedious if you are a consultant (like me) as you have to constantly come up with good color schemes that are either neutral or suitable for the clients you are working with.

    @Ally S: Welcome & thanks 🙂

    I am happy you didnt like what you read in this post. Disagreement is one of the reasons we have such huge and enlightening discussions here about several day to day issues.

    I would really appreciate if you can tell me why you thought this post was a joke. Do you think the charting ideas presented here are outrageous? Let us know why these should not be used and what you think are the better ways of doing. 🙂

  16. [...] We all know that bar charts are very effective. But too many bars would make the charts look bland. Experimentation could lead to some creative solutions to bar (or pie) fatigue. [Related: 5 ways to dress up your charts] [...]

  17. [...] the right type of chart for your data, make sure you don’t do your data a disservice by forgetting some basic design tips. Kill the grid lines unless they’re absolutely necessary, or at least make them subtle so [...]

  18. [...] the right type of chart for your data, make sure you don’t do your data a disservice by forgetting some basic design tips. Kill the grid lines unless they’re absolutely necessary, or at least make them subtle so [...]

  19. [...] the right type of chart for your data, make sure you don’t do your data a disservice by forgetting some basic design tips. Kill the grid lines unless they’re absolutely necessary, or at least make them subtle so [...]

  20. [...] this article, inspired by this one on Chandoo, I will share a few tips on the tools available to make an Excel chart more [...]

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