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Types of Charts: Choose the Best Chart to Convey Your Message

You’ve got your data, you’ve made some sense of it, and now it is time to communicate your results.  Great!  This article will provide examples of many types of charts and graphs and explain how to pick the best one for your data depending on the message you want to convey.

Choosing a type of chart depends first and foremost on what kind of data you have and what you want to express.  I find that charts and graphs are typically used to convey one of the following: comparisons/relationships, distribution, trends, composition, flow/process, or location.

1. Comparison/Relationship Charts – Pretty self explanatory, right?  You have data on two or more variables and you want to show them together, probably to show a correlation or pattern of some type.  Examples might include MPG of three different cars, average heights according to race, etc.  Bar charts and line charts, or combinations of the two, are very commonly used for the purpose of comparison.

linegraph

Line Graph Comparing Happiness and Age, Source: The Economist

Bar Chart

Bar Chart Comparing Presidents and Executive Orders, Source: I Love Charts

Venn diagrams are especially useful to show relationships.  These are typically qualitative in nature.

Venn Diagram

Funny Venn Diagram, Source: I Love Charts




2. Distribution Charts – These types of charts aim to convey “what is the distribution?” of my data.  For example, let’s say you did a survey and you asked everyone their age.  A distribution chart would be usefeul to visualize the distribution of ages among respondents.  Column and Line Histogram charts are probably the most common forms of distribution charts.  Scatter plot charts are also great for this purpose.

Column Histogram Chart

Column Histogram Chart

scatter plot chart

scatter plot chart

Scatter Charts in MS Excel

Scatter Charts in MS Excel

Word clouds are an interesting way to visualize the frequency distribution of words with textual data.  Here’s an example of a word cloud from the 2011 Academy Award acceptance speeches.  While these aren’t the solution to the world’s problems, they can be useful from time to time in quickly analyzing open-ended comments from surveys.

wordle word cloud oscar speech

Word Cloud Oscars 2011

3. Charts that show Trends – While the chart categories mentioned above can certainly show trends, I think it is deserving to identify this as a category of its own.  The most common way to show trends over time is with a line chart.  Nowhere is this more common than in showing stock price trends over time.  The chart below is a “candlestick” chart.

Stock Candlestick Chart

Stock Candlestick Chart

Here is a good article if you want to learn more about stock market charts.

If you have a few extra minutes, here’s an incredible video of Hans Rosling showing charts in motion, demonstrating both relationships and trends all at once.

4. Composition Charts – The next category of chart types is “composition” charts, which attempt to show viewers “this is how my data is composed.”  By far, the most common “composition” chart is a pie chart.  A pie chart might show that 60% of my survey respondents were composed of women and 40% were men.

Funny Pie Chart

Funny Pie Chart
Original: http://tongodeon.livejournal.com/583338.html This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.5

Pie Charts MS Excel

Pie Chart Option found in MS Excel

I like using doughnut charts as a variation on the all-too-common pie chart.

Doughnut Charts

Doughnut Charts




5. Flow/Process Charts – Flow charts are used to show–you guessed it–the flow of a process.  These are often used to guide a decision.  In fact, they are often called “decision trees.”  Here’s a couple of examples:

Flow Chart

Flow Chart

Funny Flow Chart

Funny Flow Chart, Source

6. Location Charts (Maps) – Geographical maps and data overlays on maps cannot be left off this list.  Of course, everyone knows about basic maps, but take a look at some of these map-inspired charts and graphs:

World Map Based on Population

World Map Based on Population, Source: WorldMapper

Crime Map Oakland, CA

Crime Map Oakland, CA

Advanced Charts and Data Visualizations 

Most of the charts and graphs shown above are pretty traditional.  Data visualization is a hot field and there are many new cool forms of “charts” emerging.  Calling them “charts” doesn’t do them justice.  I’ll dedicate more time to this in another article, but here’s a sample of what I’m talking about.

Advanced Data Visualization

Advanced Data Visualization, Source: Information is Beautiful

Infographic

Infographic, Source: Information is Beautiful

That’s about it.  I’ve leave you with some links to additional information.

Additional Links and Information

The best guide for choosing a chart that I’ve found to date is this one.  They’ve narrowed down the categories of charts down to four.

Chart Types

Chart Types, Source

“Juice Labs” has a nice tool they call the “chart chooser.”  It allows you to filter based on your needs.

Finally, here is a nice infographic from online-behavior.com (snipit below) explaining a wide variety of chart types.

Chart Type Infographic

Chart Type Infographic, Source: online-behavior.com

I hope this article was informative and that you have a better understanding of the types of charts and graphs out there in the world.  If you have any additions or comments, please chime in below.

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2 Comments

  • Reply Jeremy

    Nice work!

    March 18, 2015 at 11:16 am
  • Reply Anonymous

    A distribution chart would be usefeul to visualize the distribution of ages among respondents. Column and Line Histogram charts are probably the most common forms of distribution charts. Scatter plot charts are also great for this purpose.
    Word clouds are an interesting way to visualize the frequency distribution of words with textual data. Here’s an example of a word cloud from the 2011 Academy Award acceptance speeches. While these aren’t the solution to the world’s problems, they can be useful from time to time in quickly analyzing open-ended comments from surveys.

    March 1, 2017 at 1:34 pm
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