How to Use Charts and Graphs in Excel

Experiment with Excel graphs to display your data

Whether you call them charts or graphs, they are visual representations of worksheet data. Excel charts often make it easier to understand the data in a worksheet because users can pick out patterns and trends illustrated in the chart that are otherwise difficult to see in the data.

Pie Charts

Pie charts (or circle graphs) are used to chart only one variable at a time. As a result, they can only be used to show percentages.

The circle of pie charts represents 100 percent. The circle is subdivided into slices representing data values. The size of each slice shows what part of the 100 percent it represents.

Pie charts can be used when you want to show what percent a particular item represents of a data series such as:

  • A company's profits for each month can be shown with a pie chart as a percentage of the year's total profits.
  • A baseball player's batting average can be shown with a pie chart because it represents the percentage of hits compared to the total number of at-bats for a season.
  • The percentage of your total daily calorie count that one cheese and bacon hamburger represents.

Column Charts

Column charts, also known as bar graphs, are used to show comparisons between items of data. They are one of the most common types of graph used to display data. The amounts are displayed using a vertical bar or rectangle, and each column in the chart represents a different data value.

For example:

  • In a school class, you can use a bar graph to show and compare the number of students with different hair colors. The more students with a particular hair color, the taller the bar for that color is on the graph.
  • You could use different colored columns to illustrate the calories in a cheese and bacon hamburger compared to the calories in a bowl of beet greens.

    Bar graphs make it easy to see the differences in the data being compared.

    Bar Charts

    Bar charts are column charts that have fallen over on their side. The bars or columns run horizontally along the page rather than vertically. The axes change as well—the y-axis is the horizontal axis along the bottom of the chart, and the x-axis runs vertically up the left side.

    Line Charts

    Line chartsor line graphs, are used to show trends over time. Each line in the graph shows the changes in the value of one item of data.

    Similar to most other graphs, line graphs have a vertical axis and a horizontal axis. If you are plotting changes in data over time, time is plotted along the horizontal or x-axis, and your other data, such as rainfall amounts are plotted as individual points along the vertical or y-axis.

    When the individual data points are connected by lines, they show changes in the data.

    For example, you could show changes in your weight over a period of months as a result of eating a cheese and bacon hamburger every day for lunch, or you could plot daily changes in stock market prices. They can also be used to plot data recorded from scientific experiments, such as how a chemical reacts to changing temperature or atmospheric pressure.

    Scatter Plot Graphs

    Scatter plot graphs are used to show trends in data. They are especially useful when you have a large number of data points. Like line graphs, they can be used to plot data recorded from scientific experiments, such as how a chemical reacts to changing temperature or atmospheric pressure.

    Whereas line graphs connect the dots or points of data to show every change, with a scatter plot you draw a "best fit" line. The data points are scattered about the line. The closer the data points are to the line the stronger the correlation or effect one variable has on the other.

    If the best fit line increases from left to right, the scatter plot shows a positive correlation in the data. If the line decreases from left to right, there is a negative correlation in the data.

    Combo Charts

    Combo charts combine two different types of charts into one display.

    Typically, the two charts are a line graph and a column chart. To accomplish this, Excel makes use of a third axis called the secondary Y axis, which runs up the right side of the chart.

    Combination charts can display average monthly temperature and precipitation data together, manufacturing data such as units produced and the cost of production, or monthly sales volume and average monthly sale price.

    Pictographs

    Pictographs or pictograms are column charts that use pictures to represent data instead of the standard colored columns. A pictograph could use hundreds of hamburger images stacked one on top of the other to show how many calories one cheese and bacon hamburger contains compared to a tiny stack of images for beet greens.

    Stock Market Charts

    Stock Market charts show information about stocks or shares such as their opening and closing prices and the volume of shares traded during a certain period. There are different types of stock charts available in Excel. Each shows different information.

    Newer versions of Excel also include Surface charts, XY Bubble (or Scatter) charts, and Radar charts.

    Adding a Chart in Excel

    The best way to learn about the various charts in Excel is to try them out.

    1. Open an Excel file that contains data.
    2. Select the range you want to graph by shift-clicking from the first cell to the last.
    3. Click on the Insert tab and select Chart from the drop-down menu.
    4. Select one of the chart types from the sub-menu. When you do, the Chart Design tab opens showing the options for the particular type of chart you chose. Make your selections and see the chart appear in the document. 

      You probably need to experiment to determine which chart type works best with your chosen data, but you can look at chart type after chart type quickly to see which works best for you.

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      French, Ted. "How to Use Charts and Graphs in Excel." ThoughtCo, Feb. 20, 2018, thoughtco.com/charts-and-graphs-definition-3123402. French, Ted. (2018, February 20). How to Use Charts and Graphs in Excel. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/charts-and-graphs-definition-3123402 French, Ted. "How to Use Charts and Graphs in Excel." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/charts-and-graphs-definition-3123402 (accessed February 25, 2018).