Lessons From IBCS – Choosing The Right Chart Type

Choosing the right chart type to display your data is key to communicating an understandable message to users. Bad or inconsistent use of chart types can lead to confusion and poor interpretations of the data. For a report to be effective, each visualisation must be carefully and deliberately chosen.

In this post, we will outline some of the guidance on chart orientation and type given by IBCS.

Choosing the orientation

Most business charts show one of three things:

  1. Time-related data
  2. Categorical data or structural relationships
  3. Relationship between two values

For the third group, scatter and bubble charts are the most appropriate choice. For the now, though, we are going to focus on the first two groups.

We will refer to charts as either being ‘horizontal’ or ‘vertical’. This is in relation to the category axis: so, for example, a column chart is horizontal and a bar chart is vertical.

Horizontal Charts

For showing time-related data, charts with a horizontal category axis are the most appropriate. They should display time moving from left to right and plot either period types (years, months etc.) or particular dates.

Vertical Charts

For structural data then, we would choose a chart with a vertical category axis. Axes run from top to bottom and show structural elements (e.g. products, countries, accounts). This orientation gives more space to display category labels, which can often be lengthy, and makes it possible to align the chart next to tables or grids.

Choosing the chart type

Below we will outline some of the available chart types within XLCubed and their uses. For further information and examples, please see this article.

Chart types can be directly chosen from the Business Chart ribbon menu, or selected from with the chart taskpane.

Structural & Time Series Analysis

These chart types usually take the form of a typical column, bar or line chart. Columns or bars make the comparison of two values easier, whereas lines will show the trend more clearly.

Stacked bars or columns allow multiple series to be displayed. This can help users to assess the accumulation of values, or contribution of a part to the whole.


Variance charts display either the absolute or relative difference to a comparative value (e.g. previous year). A green bar/column indicates the variance is a good impact on the business, and red a bad impact.

IBCS recommends using column/bars for absolute variance, and pins (lollipops) for relative variance. This means the two stay distinguished and instantly recognisable.


Waterfall charts are a great way of visualising the cumulative effect of positive and negative values and the resulting total. They display either structural contributions to a total or variances between two figures in time.

Structural waterfall showing contribution of values to the Profit

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