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Cleaning Up Chart Junk

Just like a well-designed chart or graph, this post will be short and to the point.

If you’ve ever created a chart in a spreadsheet, I’m sure you are aware of all of the “chart options” that you have to pick form. “Chart options” such as:

This list is not all inclusive list either. There are many other things that you can add to your graph or chart if you really wanted to.

The thing is, you don’t need all of this chart junk to make a good graph.

What is Chart Junk?

Chart junk is any part of a chart that does not help convey the message that the chart is trying to communicate.

Identifying potential chart junk

Put another way, if the chart has any sort of color, information, or decoration on itself that does not help to tell a clear story about the data, then that is what would be considered chart junk.

An Example

Here are two renditions of the same graph.

A Messy Example of a Bar Graph

A Good Example of a Bar Graph

When you look at each graph, there is one that clearly communicates better than the other.

The first graph has way too much chart junk getting in the way and distracting you from the main message of the graph.

These graphs are simply trying to point out how we performed relative to our friends. To do this effectively, you need simplicity and not extra unnecessary fluff.

The Specific Pieces of Chart Junk

The Gridlines

Gridlines on a graph are great for helping us determine more precise values. But in the case above we don’t need to know precise values. We just want to compare them.

That means the gridlines are just getting in the way at this point.

The Colors

Colors are great! However, colors can be very distracting. In cluttered graph above, all the colors add in extra information for our brains to process.

When trying to see which bar represents which person, we are going to look at the labels far more often than the colors.

The Legend

Although helpful at times, a legend is not always necessary.

If there is only one data category, or if you can elegantly add labels to the lines or bars themselves, you don’t need an extra indicator. The legend would be nothing more than a distraction in most cases.

The 3D Look

Making a graph look 3-dimensional is nothing more than decoration. It isn’t necessary, and even more importantly, it makes it harder to draw accurate comparisons within the graph itself.

Making a graph 3-dimensional only takes away and has very little to add.

The Main Point

At the end of the day, you don’t need extra fluff on your charts or graphs. Anything extra simply adds clutter and confusion.

Keep your charts free of chart junk so that they not only look better but communicate more clearly overall!

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