The first dataviz challenge was a hit! A few of you wanted to participate but weren’t ready to jump into a challenge that required so much Excel elbow grease. So, this second challenge is geared towards beginners like you. Once I build your foundational skills, we’ll move on to advanced charts.

I’m giving an Ignite presentation tomorrow at the Nonprofit Technology Conference (#13NTC). I’m going to show nonprofit leaders how to make four easy-to-read bar charts by simply using a little #ExcelElbowGrease:


First, let’s take a closer look at default Excel bar charts. The “before” bar chart is shown below. In my example, we’re examining how a nonprofit has grown over the past six years. This is a simple metric so we don’t need anything more complicated than a basic bar chart.

You’ve probably seen these exact charts before. There’s nothing technically wrong with this default bar chart. It doesn’t distort the data. It doesn’t mislead the readers. Default charts are fine for internal use like informal staff meetings. However, a few tweaks can really improve the formatting.


The “after” chart is shown below. Now, my brain sees the pattern immediately. There are fewer distractions — no border, no tick marks, no grid lines. In other words, this bar chart passes the Squint Test — when you squint your eyes, and everything gets a little blurry, you should still be able to detect the overall shape of the data. There shouldn’t be extra ink like borders, tick marks, or grid lines getting in the way.

I also infused a few of my personal preferences into the chart’s formatting. My eyes do better with the larger font. Being a data nerd, I prefer having data labels on my bars so I can read the exact values (rather than having to estimate values in the default chart). The white space and custom color palette make the chart look like something a graphic designer might create. I purposefully focused attention on the 2012 bar by using a darker color. Like I mentioned, these last few adjustments aren’t required. Passing the Squint Test is more important than satisfying everyone’s personal preferences. There are multiple correct ways to improve chart formatting.


The dataviz challenge: Re-create the “after” version of the basic bar chart in Excel or R. No expensive software allowed. You can re-create this exact bar chart, or you can tweak the color scheme and numbers to fit an example from your own work. The goal is to practice manipulating the settings in Excel and to create a basic bar chart that’s easy to read and understand. When you’re finished, email me or tweet a screenshot to @annkemery.

Bonus: Beginners can probably make this bar chart in 30 minutes or less (for example, during your lunch break). You’ll get faster with practice. I bet that advanced Excel users can enter the data, insert the chart, and adjust the chart in 3 minutes or less. Time yourself. Advanced users, how fast are you?

The prize for playing: Beer or coffee, my treat, the next time you’re in DC; a professional development opportunity; and bragging rights.

I’ll post the how-to guide in two weeks, on April 24, 2013. Happy charting!