Dec 19, 2020·4 min read
How to design beautiful bar charts in Excel
Never settle for the standard settings, make your data shine through in less than 5 minutes.
Courtesy of the author.
Theres nothing more boring than a standard Excel chart. You might argue that the default settings are just fine, but ask yourself: is your goal to be just fine?
Assume you more than doubled your sales revenue over a year, working as Head of Sales for my Newsletter, Fundraisedd. Congratulations, thats amazing, please ignore the shameless plug!
Now, say you want to showcase this in a bar chart. This is what Excel gives you out of the box.
As we said before: it does just fine, but you did amazing. Its time your charts achieve as much as you do!
Lets look at how you could spruce things up a little!
Start with making your chart feel less empty. As it stands, all this whitespace between your bars makes it feel unbalanced. Go to the Format data series menu and change the series overlap and gap width settings to something more enticing.
Adapt the colour to your own branding. As it stands, your chart looks bland. Everybody knows this is the Excel default colour for charts. In our example, the company logo is black and pink. Black can be used for the text, and pink for the data!
Nota bene: by default, Excel sets your font colour to a dark grey. Change this to proper black, it looks better.
Remove the outer border. When you paste your chart in a document or a presentation, the border will make it look weird. Lets get rid of it.
Get rid of useless lines, emphasise those you keep. Add data labels on your bar and then remove both the vertical axis and the horizontal gridline. This will eliminate a lot of clutter and make your data stand out. Bolden your horizontal axis to better frame your data.
Reposition your data labels. Opt for the setting Inside End and change the font colour to either another hue in your corporate palette or to one that sharply contrasts with the bar colour. In our case, lets use black.
Do not use the Calibri font and play with the font size or weight. Calibri is MS Office default font, and people recognise it from miles away. If you want your chart to stand out, change the font! Prefer fonts that are sans serif and monospace. This will improve the readability of your data visualisations. Toy with various font sizes and weights to find what looks best to you.
Add the missing information in the title. Our chart looks good but lacks important information. Remember: a chart should stand on its own and shouldnt require any explanation. Here, were showing monthly sales in thousands of dollars (I wish!). We can add this information in the title, and see how far weve come:
Before, and after!
Edit your charts like you edit your copy. Assess the usefulness of each element on your data visualisation. If it adds nothing to the readers comprehension of your data, get rid of it. When it comes to charts, less is more.
Your chart should stand alone. This is the limit to what you can remove. If your chart needs an explanation, youve removed too much. To figure this out, keep in mind:
- Who your reader is?
- What do they know about the underlying data?
- How comfortable are they with data in general?
Be as minimalistic as you can, and as complete as your audience needs.
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