Saturday, April 6, 2013

chart chooser

A common basic question that arises in the course of visualizing data is: what is the best type of chart to use? 

First, think about what it is you want to show. Is it a relationship between two variables, a distribution, a comparison? The answer to this question will lead you to the right suite of charts that might be appropriate. Andrew Abela ( has developed a chart chooser to help with this exercise:
(c) A. Abela, 2010, used with permission, link to full size jpg
Once you've answered the question of what you want to show and determined the right suite of charts that might be appropriate, the right answer to the question what is the right chart for my situation? will always be the same: whatever will be easiest for your audience to read. There's an easy way to test this, which is to make your visual and share it with a friend or colleague. They don't need any context; actually, it's better if they don't have any (this puts them in a position similar to your audience, who will always be less familiar with what you want to communicate than you are). Ask them to talk you through what they see: where they focus, what observations they make, what questions they have. This will help you to see if you are on the right track when it comes to whether what you want to communicate is coming across, or in the case that iteration is needed, where to focus your effort.

The meta-lessons here are 1) choose a visual display that's appropriate for the data and information you are trying to show, and 2) seek feedback, there is tremendous value in getting a fresh perspective from someone less familiar with the data than you are to help you iterate for success. A related tip is to start with a blank piece of paper, which can be helpful as you try to determine the visual display that will work best as part of your early iterating process.

Do you have other resources or tips for choosing the right type of visual display? Leave a comment with your thoughts!


  1. Although chart choosers are useful for novices,



    for limitations of using chart choosers.

  2. color version (thanks to Mathworks) of this 8-years old diagram is here:

  3. (I accidentally deleted the following comment when I was trying to publish it, so I'm posting this on behalf of the original poster: rclickhandbuch from

    Hi there,
    nice post! Reminds me of some stuff I read in Alberto Cairo's "functional art", which I had our library purchase after your recommendation. Thanks for that one, it is indeed a very good book!

  4. This one always makes me smile. Goes beyond data-visualization. It's a clever visualization in itself.

  5. Cole, Thanks for pointing folks to Andrew's work - he's done a great job at providing structure to a process that, to many, feels like abstract art.

    Shortly after he created his Chart Chooser diagram, we worked with him to create to take it one step further: allow folks to download Excel and PPT templates for some of the more frequently used charts on his diagram.

    I hope you and your readers find it useful!