Tag Archives: microcharts

Small charts are beautiful

Well, since you are reading this, I’ll assume that you took the red pill, so let’s keep moving and find out how deep the rabbit hole goes.

We saw that people usually design charts larger than they need to be. Why? Is it because we can’t fit the data into a smaller space? No, it isn’t. It is because in smaller charts there is no room for non-data elements, like title, legend, grid lines. In the dominant “Excel chart defaults” school of thinking data is not a priority.

This is a simple exercise that you can try safely at home and demonstrates it clearly. Start by creating a line chart in Excel, like this one:

Excel line chart

You can see the data, right? Now make the chart smaller:

Excel line chart

Here is a fierce territorial competition, and guess who’s winning? Make the chart a little smaller:

Excel line chart

The title and the legend win, as usual. The data must be here somewhere, but who cares?

This chart size is not large enough. Or so it seems. But what happens when we remove some non-data elements? Since we don’t need the legend, and we can put the title somewhere else, we can remove both:

Excel line chart

We are getting our data back! Let’s just leave the data and a simple grid line:

Excel line chart

I used MicroCharts to display the same data using both a line and a column chart:

Sparklines

With MicroCharts, you can add a “normal band” or a reference line that helps you to understand how the data departs from the expected values.

The above charts show percentage change on previous period GDP at market prices in the US (1980-2009). Here is the same data for some selected countries in the EU:

Sparklines

Michelangelo said: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free“. Like him, keep carving your chart until you set your data free. The essence of a chart is the patterns you discover, buried under all the junk. By making your charts smaller you are force to remove that junk.

Finding this “essence” is what sparklines is all about.