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Spreadsheet Graphs and Charts

Sometimes the best thing you can do with data is use it to create a graph.

Looking at thousands of rows of numbers won’t really tell you anything, but looking at a chart created from all of that information can communicate insights and stories that could have never been discovered in the first place.

That leads me to talking about one of the most powerful features of spreadsheets – the ability to create charts and graphs. In an Excel Workbook alone, you have access to over 20 different graphs and charts.

Excel Ribbon | Graphs and Charts

Although I could go ahead and discuss every single graph offered by spreadsheets these days, I’m sure that would make for a post that is much too long.

So instead, I will pick what are probably the five most used charts and tell you a little bit about each of them.

In this post, I will cover:

  • What each graph is
  • What each graph looks like
  • What each graph is used for

Graph No. 1 – The Line Graph

A line graph is simply a chart depicting change over time with the use of a continuous line drawn horizontally across the diagram.

This graph is perfect for identifying the change of a certain variable or data point over a continuous period of time.

For example, if you want to see how your bank balance has changed over the past few months, it would look something like this.

Bank Balance Line Graph

Line graphs make it easy to identify trends and assist in making predictions for the future. If you want to see what direction something is heading, just line the data up.

Graph No. 2 – The Bar Graph

The bar graph is my personal favorite. This graph can be used to depict all kinds of data and can be used for a variety of different purposes.

However, at the absolute basic level, a bar graph is used to compare the values of different categories. So if you want to know which authors are your most popular, you can use a bar graph to easily identify the top ten.

Popular Authors Bar Graph

Bar graphs offer a lot of flexibility and customization options, and you’re not limited to having a certain amount of categories either.

Whether you are comparing two things or twenty, a bar graph can still get the job done.

Graph No. 3 – The Pie Chart

Although this is probably an unpopular opinion, I am not very fond of pie graphs. Most of the time it is not the right graph for the job despite that it is used quite often by many people.

Nonetheless, pie charts still have their uses. One of the biggest advantages of pie charts is that you can instantly recognize you are looking at parts of a whole.

A pie chart is used to show how much one category or piece of data contributes to the overall picture.

The best way to describe this is with an example. Let’s say you have a basket of fruit.

Inside of your fruit basket, you’ve got 4 oranges, 8 apples, 6 bananas, and 2 plums. If you were to represent this in a pie chart, it would look something like this.

Fruit Pie Graph

From this graph, you can see that the apples make up the majority while the plums make up the minority.

Graph No. 4 – The Histogram

Histograms look just like bar graphs, and it can be easy to get them confused. (I know I mix them up all the time.) But there are a few notable differences to be sure.

Typically in a histogram, the bars are much closer to each other and sometimes even touching. Also, the categories on the bottom of histogram are a range of values rather than a label or a name.

With these two characteristics, you can usually tell that you are working with a histogram and not a bar graph.


So now that we know what a histogram looks like, we can talk about what it is used for.

The main purpose of a histogram is to represent the shape of the data’s distribution. In other words, a histogram tells us how many data points or pieces of information fall within a certain numerical range.

This is a very important statistic to know, especially when calculating averages.

A great example would be to look at the following distribution of book lengths.

Let’s say we read 100 books over the past year. Using a histogram, we can put together a graph that will tell us how many books we read that fall within a certain page range.

This way, we can look at the graph and see how many books we read that were less than 100 pages, how many were between 100 and 200 pages, how many were between 200 and 300 pages, and how many were between 300 and 400 pages. Look again at the graph below to see what I’m talking about.

Book Length Distribution

Graph No. 5 – The Scatter Plot

A scatter plot is an awesome tool for showing the relationship between two variables.

If you want to see how an increase in study time affects a student’s overall grade, you would use a scatter plot.

Study Time Scatter Plot

If you want to see how an increase in temperature affects your electric bill, you can once again use a scatter plot.

Heat vs Electric Scatter Plot

Simply put, if you want to take a look at how a certain measurement or piece of data affects another measurement or piece of data, you should use a scatter plot. Just try not to get too scatterbrained putting it all together.

So the next time you find yourself with rows and columns of data and you aren’t quite sure what to make of it, build a chart or graph.

Creating a useful data visualization diagram is rarely a bad idea. Sometimes a few lines or a couple of bars can tell you more than you ever wanted to know.

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