Most companies (and people) don’t want to pore through pages and pages of spreadsheets when it’s so quick to turn those rows and columns into a visual chart or graph. But someone has to do it…and that person must be you.
Ready to turn your boring Excel spreadsheet into something a little more interesting?
In Excel, you’ve got everything you need at your fingertips. Excel users can leverage the power of visuals without any additional extensions. You can create a graph or chart right inside Excel rather than exporting it into some other tool.
Are Charts and Graphs the Same Thing?
Technically? No, they mean separate things and the terms are independent of each other.
In the real world? Yes, they are used interchangeably and people generally accept both.
In this post, you’ll learn exactly how to create a graph in Excel and improve your visuals and reporting…but first let’s talk about charts. Understanding exactly how charts play out in Excel will help with understanding graphs in Excel.
Charts in Excel
Charts are usually considered more aesthetically pleasing than graphs. Something like a pie chart is used to convey to readers the relative share of a particular segment of the data set with respect to other segments that are available. If instead of the changes in hours worked and annual leaves over 5 years, you want to present the percentage contributions of the different types of tasks that make up a 40 hour work week for employees in your organization then you can definitely insert a pie chart into your spreadsheet for the desired impact.
Graphs in Excel
Graphs represent variations in values of data points over a given duration of time. They are simpler than charts because you are dealing with different data parameters. Comparing and contrasting segments of the same set against one another is more difficult.
So if you are trying to see how the number of hours worked per week and the frequency of annual leaves for employees in your company has fluctuated over the past 5 years, you can create a simple line graph and track the spikes and dips to get a fair idea.
Types of Graphs Available in Excel
Excel offers three varieties of graphs:
- Line Graphs: Both 2 dimensional and three dimensional line graphs are available in all the versions of Microsoft Excel. Line graphs are great for showing trends over time. Simultaneously plot more than one data parameter – like employee compensation, average number of hours worked in a week and average number of annual leaves against the same X axis or time.
- Column Graphs: Column graphs also help viewers see how parameters change over time. But they can be called “graphs” when only a single data parameter is used. If multiple parameters are called into action, viewers can’t really get any insights about how each individual parameter has changed. As you can see in the Column graph below, average numbers of hours worked in a week and average number of annual leaves when plotted side by side do not provide the same clarity as the Line graph.
- Bar Graphs: Bar graphs are very similar to column graphs but here the constant parameter (say time) is assigned to the Y axis and the variables are plotted against the X axis.
How to Make a Graph in Excel
1. Fill the Excel Sheet with Your Data & Assign the Right Data Types
The first step is to actually populate an Excel spreadsheet with the data that you need. If you have imported this data from a different software, then it’s probably been compiled in a .csv (comma separated values) formatted document.
If this is the case, use an online CSV to Excel converter like the one here to generate the Excel file or open it in Excel and save the file with an Excel extension.
After converting the file, you still may need to clean up the rows and the columns. It is better to work with a clean spreadsheet so that the Excel graph you’re creating is clean and easy to modify or change.
If that doesn’t work, you may also need to manually enter the data into the spreadsheet or copy and paste it over before creating the Excel graph.
Excel has two components to its spreadsheets:
- The rows that are horizontal and marked with numbers
- The columns that are vertical and marked with alphabets
After all the data values have been set and accounted for, make sure that you visit the Number section under the Home tab and assign the right data type to the various columns. If you do not do this, chances are your graphs will not show up right.
For example if column B is measuring time, ensure that you choose the option Time from the drop down menu and assign it to B.
Choose the Type of Excel Graph You Want to Create
This will depend on the type of data you have and the number of different parameters you will be tracking simultaneously.
If you are looking to take note of trends over time then Line graphs are your best bet. This is what we will be using for the purpose of the tutorial.
Let us assume that we are tracking Average Number of Hours Worked/Week/Employee and Average Number of Leaves/Employee/Year against a five year time span.
Highlight The Data Sets That You Want To Use
For a graph to be created, you need to select the different data parameters.
To do this, bring your cursor over the cell marked A. You will see it transform into a tiny arrow pointing downwards. When this happens, click on the cell A and the entire column will be selected.
Repeat the process with columns B and C, pressing the Ctrl (Control) button on Windows or using the Command key with Mac users.
Your final selection should look something like this:
Create the Basic Excel Graph
With the columns selected, visit the Insert tab and choose the option 2D Line Graph.
You will immediately see a graph appear below your data values.
Sometimes if you do not assign the right data type to your columns in the first step, the graph may not show in a way that you want it to. For example, Excel may plot the parameter Average Number of Leaves/Employee/Year along the X axis instead of the Year. In this case, you can use the option Switch Row/Column under the Design tab of Chart Tools to play around with various combinations of X axis and Y axis parameters till you hit on the perfect rendition.
Improve Your Excel Graph with the Chart Tools
To change colors or to change the design of your graph, go to Chart Tools in the Excel header.
You can select from the design, layout and format. Each will change up the look and feel of your Excel graph.
Design: Design allows you to move your graph and re-position it. It gives you the freedom to change the chart type. You can even experiment with different chart layouts. This may conform more to your brand guidelines, your personal style, or your manager’s preference.
Layout: This allows you to change the title of the axis, the title of your chart and the position of the legend. You might go with vertical text along the Y axis and horizontal text along the X axis. You can even adjust the grid lines. You have every formatting tool conceivable at your fingertips to improve the look and feel of your graph.
Format: The Format tab allows you to add a border in your chosen width and color around the graph so that it is properly separated from the data points that are filled in the rows and columns.
And there you have it. An accurate visual representation of the data that you have imported or entered manually to help your team members and stakeholders better engage with the information and utilize it to create strategies or be more aware of all the constraints while taking decisions!
Challenges with Making a Graph In Excel
When manipulating simple data sets, you can create a graph fairly easily.
But when you start adding in several types of data with multiple parameters, then there will be glitches. Here are some of the challenges that you’re going to have:
- Data sorting can be problematic when creating graphs. Online tutorials might recommend data sorting to make your “charts” look more aesthetically appealing. But beware of when the X axis is a time-based parameter! Sorting data values by magnitude may mess up the flow of the graph because the dates are sorted randomly. You may not be able to spot the trends very well.
You may forget to remove duplicates. This is especially true if you have imported the data from a third party application. Generally this type of information is not filtered of redundancies. And you might end up corrupting the integrity of your information if duplicates sneak into your pictorial representation of trends. When working with copious volumes of data, it is best to use the Remove Duplicates option on your rows.
Creating graphs in Excel doesn’t have to be overly complex, but, much like with creating Gantt charts in Excel, there can be some easier tools to help you do it. If you’re trying to create graphs for workloads, budget allocations or monitoring projects, check out project management software instead.
Many of those functions are automated and without the manual data entry. And you won’t be left wondering about who has the latest data sets. Most project management solutions, like Workzone, have file sharing and some visualization capabilities built in.