Excel Charts: Tips, Tricks and Techniques

Helen Bradley by , updated on

Some tips, tricks and techniques for better looking charts in Microsoft Excel.

The charting tools in the modern versions Microsoft Excel are way better in looks and functionality from those that were available in earlier Excel versions. While the charts look better, not all the options you can use to make them more functional are immediately apparent. In this post I'll show you some handy tips, tricks and techniques for creating charts in Excel that will help you get your work done more effectively.

Black and white patterns

New to Microsoft Office 2010 is the ability to use grayscale pattern fills for your chart. To see this at work select a chart and choose Chart Tools > Layout Tab and select the series to edit from the dropdown box at the top left of the ribbon. Choose Format Selection (just below this on the ribbon) and choose Fill > Pattern Fill. For a monochrome chart set the foreground color to black and the background color to white and select a fill pattern for the series. Repeat this this for the second series choosing a different pattern. You don't have to use black and white as your colors just choose different patterns to ensure the charts can be understood when printed on a monochromatic printer or photocopied in black and white. Black and white patterns for charts

You can fill a chart with a pattern in Excel 2010 and higher, so it can be printed on a monochrome printer or photocopied in black and white.

Save an Excel chart as a picture

You can save a chart as a picture from inside Excel so you can use it elsewhere such as in a report or on the web. To do this you will use a workaround and the simplest way to do it is to size the chart on the worksheet so it is a good size. Choose File > Save As, select the location to save the file in and from the Save As Type dropdown list choose Web Page (*.htm;*.html), type a name and click Save.

This converts the worksheet to an html file and because html files cannot contain images the chart is saved separately and linked to the html file. You can find your chart in the folder that you saved the html file into. So, if your file was called sales.htm then the images will be in a folder called sales_files . The image is saved as a standalone PNG file. Of course, you'll also need to save your Excel worksheet if you want to save the data and chart to work on in Excel in future. Save an Excel chart as a picture

You can save a chart as an image file if you need to use it in another project later on.

For more information, please see How to save Excel graph as picture.

Adjusting column overlap and spacing

If you think your chart would look better if the columns were wider or if they overlapped you can do this. To adjust the overlap between two chart series or to change the spacing between columns, right click any series on the chart and choose Format Data Series. Use the Series Overlap option to spread the series apart by dragging towards Separated or Overlap the series by dragging towards Overlapped.

You can adjust the Gap Width to move the series closer together or further apart. If you have two chart series that you want to overlap and if the smaller series ends up behind the larger one you will need to change the chart plot order. First set the overlap so they overlap as you want them to do. Then right click the data series you can see and choose Select Data. Click on Series 1 and select the Move Down button to place it behind Series 2. This changes the order that they are plotted in so you can see the smaller data in front of the larger data. Adjusting column overlap and spacing to charts

Larger bars

When you are plotting date-based data, you may find that the bars in your chart are very narrow. The solution for this is to click the Excel chart's X axis, right click and choose Format Axis. Select Axis Options and then click on Text Axis to select it. This changes the way the axis is plotted giving wider bars. You can then adjust the gap width if necessary to make them wider. Make chart bars larger

Plotting on a second axis

When you are plotting very small data such as percentages against much larger data like millions the percentages will get lost and will not be visible. You can solve the problem by plotting the percentages against a different axis. Select the chart and choose Chart Tools > Layout Tab and then from the chart element selector in the top left corner, select the series that is difficult to see. Click Format Selection which appears immediately below this and from the series option group, select Secondary Axis and click Close. Without moving the selection, choose Chart Tools > Design Tab and choose Change Chart Type. You can now select a different chart type such as line. Because you have a series selected that will applied to only that series not the entire chart so you will end up with a combination chart with for example a column chart with a line chart over the top. I like the text on the chart axis to match the color of the relevant part of the chart that that relates to. So if I have green bars I'll type green text on the axis relating to that and a red line will have a red font on its axis. Excel chart: plotting on a second axis

Creating combination charts

Microsoft Excel does not make it clear that you can create combination charts; however it's easily possible to do so. To do this, select the data and plot the first chart type such as a column chart. Then select the series that you want to show in a different way such as a line chart and choose Chart Tools > Design Tab > Change Chart Type and select the second chart type. Some types cannot be combined sensibly such as bar and column but a line and column chart work well together. Creating combination charts

Auto growing Excel charts

If you have data that is going to grow over time you can create your chart so that it will get bigger as more data is added into your data store. To do this, format your data as a table by selecting the data and from the Home Tab on the ribbon, choose Format as Table. Now because your data is formatted as a table if you base your chart on the table data, adding more data to the table will grow the chart automatically.

Smarter chart title

You can have the chart title lift its contents from a cell on the worksheet. First add a chart title using Chart Tools > Layout Tab > Chart Title and position it for example above the chart. Click in the box for the chart title then click on the formula bar on the ribbon and type the cell reference of the cell containing the data to place as the chart title. If you need to preface it with the sheet name so D5 on sheet 1 should read blank. Now whenever the contents of that cell are changed so too will the chart title change. Smarter chart title

Variable colors for Excel charts

When you have a chart that plots only one data range, you will find that Excel colors every bar the same color. You can change this by clicking on the series, right click and choose Format Data Series and then Fill. If only one series is included in the chart then an option Vary colors by point will be selectable.

Of course, you can always click an individual series to select it, right click and choose Format Data Point and then set a specific color for that data point. Variable colors for chart bars

Controlling zeros and missing data

When you have zero values or missing data in a chart you can control how the zeros are shown by selecting the chart series then choose Chart Tools > Design Tab and click Select Data > Hidden and Empty Cells. Here you can select whether empty cells are shown as gaps, zero or if the chart is a line chart whether the data point should be connected with a line. Click Ok when you've made your choice.

Note. This is only for missing values not zeros.

Charting noncontiguous data

To chart data that is not lined up in columns side by side use the Excel shortcut of holding the Ctrl key as you select each data range. Once the ranges are selected, go ahead and create your chart from the selected data.

Save a chart as a template

To save a chart as a template so that you can reuse it over and over again first create the chart making it look the way you want it to look. Select it, click Chart Tools > Design Tab and click Save as Template. Type a name for the chart and click Save. You can later apply this format to another chart by using it when you create the chart or an existing chart to look like the one you have created. To do this, click the chart to select it, from the Chart Tools > Design Tab choose Change Chart Type, locate the templates option and select your template and click Ok. Save chart template

For more detail, see How to create a chart template in Excel.

Tip. You can also save the workbook with your favorite chart as an Excel template and reuse whenever you want.

These charting tips and tricks will get you started creating better looking charts faster and more effectively in Excel.