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The Stuff Of Legend— Charting in Excel
C H A P T E R 5
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The Stuff Of Legend—
Charting in Excel
They say a picture is worth a 1,000 words—a remarkably durable exchange rate to be sure, given how
long they’ve been saying it. But is it true?
As with most such pithy declarations, the answer depends. When it comes to spreadsheets, Excel
jams a toolbox full of charting options for framing some very pretty—and meaningful—pictures of your
data, but wealth needs to be managed wisely.
It makes sense to have the chapter on charts follow our discussion of formatting, because charting
stands right atop the boundary between data manipulation and the way in which that data is presented.
How charts are formatted, and indeed, the very choice of which chart to use, can exert a significant pull
on readers’ perception of what the data mean . It’s one thing to color a number blue, but it can be quite
something else to assign a chart’s vertical axis a minimum value of zero—and if that sounds like Greek to
you, don’t worry, and keep reading.
The point is that, as with formatting in general, Excel’s charting adornments mustn’t get in the way
of the story the chart is attempting to tell. As with comedy, the first rule of charting is: Know your
audience. Think of the charts you see in newspapers and magazines, and ask yourself if they meet your
standard of intelligibility. They probably do, because the chart-makers at these publications understand
the tradeoff between beauty and truth, so to speak, and will likely opt for simplicity over bling. On the
other hand, you may come upon a very different charting environment in a scientific journal, where the
informational needs of readers can be very different.
In any case, Excel makes basic charting almost unnervingly easy, and if you have a few seconds to
spare you’ll have more than enough time to draw a chart up: click in a range of data, click on a chart
type, and—there it is. If you’re happy with the results, you’re done. Yet there’s more to charting than
those quick decisions, or at least there can be; and again, knowing more about how it all works beats
knowing less. So, let's get started.
First, a bit of terminology. Charts work with data series, which comprise data points . A data series is a
collection of data assigned beneath a category. Thus in this set of data (source: Euromonitor.com)
depicting visitor totals for the top ten tourist cities for 2006 and 2007 (in thousands—that is, the numbers
you see should be multiplied by 1000, shown in Figure 5-1: