I have a friend who was asked to show 2014 gross sales figures to his executive committee as part of a year-end review. (Obviously, I’ve disguised his chart.) After doing his Excel spreadsheet, he played with several options and finally settled on this one because he thought it “jazzed up” the information.
What a chart should do is communicate clearly, and this one does not. Where did he go wrong?
1. He used 3D.
The 3D effect actually obscures the information. Can you tell the true value of sales for each division? Can you see the data points? Not easily.
2. He reversed the type (used a dark background with light type).
Whenever possible (which should be about 99% of the time), use dark type on a light background for legibility. It makes it easy for people to read.
3. He did not start his Y axis (the vertical axis) at zero.
If you set the baseline at anything other than zero, you skew the visual representation of the differences between the columns. Skewed data doesn’t give you credibility.
4. He indulged himself in chart junk.
Simplify, simplify, simplify. If it is not absolutely essential to conveying the information accurately, eliminate it. For example, direct labeling of your columns enables you to get rid of the legend, the grid lines, and the Y axis.
5. He used different colors to show simple data.
This chart doesn’t need different colors for each of its bars—the bars themselves tell the story through their respective lengths. Now, if each bar itself included additional values—if for example, you wanted to show how much each product contributed toward sales in a given quarter—you could show those additional values by stacking the products, each represented by a different color, to make up each bar. And if you chose to colorize the bars like that, you would use bold colors. Pastels are hardly worth the effort.
Here is the same chart after a makeover:
Far less dramatic. Far more informative. by conveying the information at a glance, this is a much more successful chart.