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Charley's Swipe File #54

Pie charts are common in business, but typically a bad idea. Here are three chart figures that offer a great alternative and use the same space.

by Charley Kyd, MBA
Microsoft Excel MVP, 2005-2014
The Father of Spreadsheet Dashboard Reports

Charley's Swipe File #54Pie charts probably represent the greatest area of disagreement between visualization experts and the business community.

Visualization experts, including Stephen Few, Edward Tufte, and William Cleveland, oppose the use of pie charts. Primarily this is because humans find it difficult to estimate the proportions that the pie segments represent.

I dislike them for another reason: They ignore trends. This is a problem for two reasons.

First, trends are important in nearly any measure of performance. Trends give us some idea about how we arrived at our current status, and they provide a hint about what the future might hold.

Second, any snapshot of performance—as represented by a pie chart—may show random variations that differ significantly from typical results. But if we show trends instead, we give readers a more accurate picture of about what our performance actually tends to be.

However, when compared to most other chart types, pie charts do offer one significant advantage: they display results in a small space. That can be a huge advantage in many reports, PowerPoint sides, and other presentations. Therefore, here are three small-space alternatives you might consider the next time you’re tempted to use a pie chart.

The most intriguing alternative is the one at the bottom-left. If your readers know the time period that the chart represents, if they recognize that the chart is a 100% stacked area chart, and if the only alternative is a pie chart, there’s often no reason to display labels for either axis.

Alternatively, you could use the same approach with a 100% stacked column chart, somewhat like the top-right chart, but without labels or gridlines.

Even so, the two charts on the right also are worth considering. From an Excel perspective, the most significant feature of these charts is that they display gridlines. This is significant because Excel positions gridlines behind area plots and column charts, making the gridlines impossible to see. To get around this problem...

(Continued in the documentation.)

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