How to Choose the Right Graph for Your Data (In One Picture)

  • Choosing the right graph depends largely on your audience.
  • Dozens of graphs fit various data types.
  • While software can help with the design, you still have to choose a graph.
  • A flow chart to help with the decision.

Choosing the best graph for your data poses a challenge. Even if you get a program to do the hard work for you, you still have to make a choice between dozens of potential types of graphs. [noterm]  In general, you'll want to keep your charts as visually simple as possible in order to appeal to a wide audience. For example, instead of a clutter of several line graphs on one chart, make several different single-line charts. This means that your viewer won't have to untangle graphs or constantly refer to legends [1].

The following flow chart serves as a guide for when you'll want to use the basic graph types. Bear in mind that many times, exactly which graph you choose is a judgment call. For example, if you want to chow composition for static data (that doesn't change over time), you have the choice between a pie chart, waterfall chart  [noterm] or possibly a bar (vertical column) chart. Which you choose largely depends on your audience; While almost everyone knows what a pie chart represents, a waterfall chart isn't likely to be a great choice for a math-challenged audience.


[1] Choosing the Right Kind of Chart or Graph.

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