What is a chart or graph in Excel?

A chart or graph in Excel is a visual tool that presents data in a more understandable and engaging way. These graphical representations make it easier to see patterns, trends, and comparisons in your data. Excel offers a variety of chart types, such as bar, line, pie, and scatter, each suitable for different kinds of data and analysis.

Creating a chart in Excel involves selecting the data you want to visualize and choosing the appropriate chart type to best convey the information. This feature enhances the ability to communicate complex data insights effectively, making it a fundamental aspect of data analysis and reporting in Excel.

Chart vs Graph

The terms “chart” and “graph” are often used interchangeably. In fact, chart is a broader term that includes graphs, as well as other forms of data representation, such as pie charts, Gantt charts, flow charts, etc.

A graph is a type of chart that specifically represents mathematical relationships between different sets of data points, typically using axes to plot numerical data. Examples include line graphs, bar graphs, and scatter plots, where each graph focuses on showcasing quantitative data trends or comparisons.

While graphs are more about depicting numerical relationships, charts can be used for a wider range of purposes, including project timelines, organizational structures, or even idea mapping. In Excel, you’ll find both charts and graphs under the Charts umbrella.

In this tutorial, I show you how to make a graph in Excel, but first let’s briefly look at the broader selection of charts available.

Types of Charts in Excel

  1. Bar Chart / Column Chart: These charts use horizontal (bar) or vertical (column) bars to represent data. They are great for comparing different groups or categories, like sales of different products.
  2. Line Chart / Area Chart: Line charts use points connected by lines to show trends over time. Area charts are similar but fill the area under the line. They are ideal for tracking changes or trends over intervals, like stock prices over time.
  3. Pie Chart / Donut Chart: These charts show parts of a whole in a circular format, with pie charts using slices and donut charts using rings. They are best for displaying the proportion of different categories (but no more than 3!), like market share of different companies.
  4. Scatter Plot uses dots to represent the values of two different variables, showing the relationship between them. It’s great for identifying correlations or patterns, like the relationship between age and income.
  5. Radar Chart: Radar charts plot data points on axes that radiate out from the center. They are useful for comparing multiple variables, like the skills assessment of different employees.
  6. Waterfall Chart: Waterfall charts show a starting value and the cumulative effect of sequential positive or negative values. They are helpful for understanding how an initial value is affected by subsequent factors, like monthly cash flows.
  7. Histogram: A histogram displays the frequency distribution of continuous data. It’s useful for understanding the distribution or variability of data, like the range of test scores in a class.
  8. Treemap displays hierarchical data as a set of nested rectangles. They are useful for visualizing parts-to-whole relationships, like budget allocation by department.
  9. Map Chart: Map charts represent data geographically. They are perfect for displaying location-based data, like sales by region or population density across different areas.
List of chart types available in Excel.
Excel Chart Types.

If the sheer number of options feels daunting, do not panic. Excel also has a Recommended Charts feature that can suggest the right chart type for your data.

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How to Make a Graph in Excel

Given a set of data shown below, there are several ways to insert a new chart.

Data set showing Monthly sales per App in an Excel sheet.
Sample data set.

Method #1: Insert Chart from Selected Data

To insert a chart, highlight the entire table including the headers.

Go to Insert tab and select a chart type.

If you are not yet sure what type to add, select Recommended Charts.

Excel workbook open on the Insert tab, with cursor over "Recommended Charts" in the Charts group, with Monthly sales per App selected in the grid.
Inserting a recommended chart based on selected data set.

Excel provides you with some suggested charts. Select one and click OK.

This will insert a new chart in its default layout using your source data.

Recommended Charts in the Insert Chart dialog box, with Clustered Column Chart selected.
Recommended Charts in the Insert Chart dialog box.

Method #2: Insert a Blank Chart

A new chart can also be inserted without having to highlight your data beforehand.

To do this, go to an empty cell.

Go to the Insert tab, and from the Charts group, select the type you prefer.

In this example, I will be using a column chart.

Excel workbook open on the Insert tab, with cursor over a 2D clustered column chart.
Inserting a column chart.

Since no data is selected, Excel will insert an empty canvas.

Whenever you insert or select a chart, you’ll notice additional Chart Tools appear on the ribbon, divided into Chart Design and Format tabs.

Chart Tools on the Excel ribbon open on the Design tab.
Chart Design tab on the Excel ribbon.

Select Data

There are a couple of ways to introduce your data to an empty chart:

  1. Select the empty chart and go to the Chart Design tab. Click on Select Data.
Location of Select Data on the Chart Design ribbon in Excel.
Select Data on the Chart Design ribbon.

2. Another way is to right-click on the empty chart and click on Select Data.

Select Data in the right-click menu over an empty chart canvas.
Select Data in the right-click menu.

Once you are in the Select Data window, you will need to specify your chart values. There are also different ways to do this:

  1. Under Legend Entries (Series), click on Add.
Select Data Source dialog box with the Add button in the Legend Entries (Series) section highlighted.
Select Data Source dialog box.

The Edit Series window will ask you to specify the different components of the chart.

For Series name, you can either hardcode the name or you can do a cell reference to the table header, in our case cell B5.

For Series values, highlight the values in the source data.

Edit Series window over an Excel spreadsheet, populated with cell references for Series name and Series values.
Edit Series window.

After adding the series values, you will notice that the labels (A6:A10) are not yet displayed on the chart.

To add these, click on Edit under the Horizontal Axis (Category) Labels.

Axis Labels window with Axis label range populated with cell range reference.
Axis Labels window.

In this window, you can add new series, edit the existing series or remove them.

2. Instead of adding the series details one by one, you can also just specify a Chart data range by selecting the text box and highlighting your entire data range.

In this case, A5:B10.

Select Data Source window with chart data range populated with cell range reference.
Select Data Source window with chart data range populated.

Excel figures out where to plot the given data range and generates a column chart.

Excel spreadsheet with a column chart titled Sales and a data set on which the chart is based on.
Column chart based on Excel data.

Method #3: Use Shortcut Keys to Insert Default Chart Type

An even faster way to create a chart is to highlight your source data (A5:B10) and then hit the ALT + F1 key combination.

This automatically inserts a new chart based on whatever type is set as default.

To change the default chart type, go to the Insert tab and click on the small icon at the bottom right of the Charts group to bring up the Change Chart Type window.

Excel ribbon open on the Insert tab with an arrow pointing to the icon in the corner of the Charts group, and a tooltip "See All Charts".
Expanding the Charts group on the Insert tab.

In the Change Chart Type window, find the chart you are likely to use the most.

Right-click on it and select Set as default.

Change Chart Type window with Line Chart selected and set as default chart.
Setting chart as default.

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Format a Graph in Excel

In this section we’ll be formatting a bar graph but while some attributes are chart-specific, the core elements and options are common between most chart types.

Chart Elements

A chart is comprised of different chart elements, such as axes, gridlines, data labels, title and so on.

You have the option of adding or removing them as needed by clicking on the + sign found at the top right of the chart.

Excel bar chart with the Chart Elements flyout menu expanded.
Chart Elements.

The list of Chart Elements also contains arrows on the right which summarizes the most used options you can select.

Data Labels

For Data Labels, you can select the alignment or click on More options to customize it further.

A bar chart with the Data Labels options in the Chart Elements flyout menu expanded.
Data Labels options in the Chart Elements flyout menu.

Clicking on More options for the Data Labels element displays the Format Data Labels pane on the right-hand side where you have full control of all of the options for that element.

Format Pane

Depending on the chart element you select, there are different options.

There are various ways to open the sidebar to format a specific chart element:

  1. Double-click on an element on the chart
  2. Use the shortcut key CTRL + 1.
  3. Right-click on a chart element and select Format…
Format Data Series selected in the right-click menu, with data series (bars) selected in the bar chart.
Format Data Series selected in the right-click menu.

Once the Format sidebar is activated, this will continue to show up and show the corresponding options when you click on the other chart elements.

Axis Options

By default, bar charts present data in reverse order compared to the source (where the first row in your source table is the last bar on the chart, while the last row in the table shows up at the top of the bar chart).

If you want the chart to follow the actual arrangement of the source table, do the following:

  1. Double-click on the chart axis to display the Format Axis.
  2. Under Axis Options, select the last tab.
  3. Expand the first section, Axis Options.
  4. Tick the box: Categories in reverse order.
Bar chart with vertical axis selected, Format Axis pane open on Axis Options and "Categories in reverse order" checked.
Categories in reverse order on the Format Axis Options pane.

Series Options

When working with bar of column charts, there are 2 important Series Options you want to be aware of. These are the Series Overlap and the Gap Width.

Series Options on the Format Data Point pane, with Series Overlap set to 0% and Gap Width set to 80%.
Series Options on the Format Data Point pane.

These two settings allow you to manipulate the width of and distance between bars or columns.

Removing an element

There are two ways to remove chart elements:

  1. Click on the chart element you want to remove and press the DELETE key.
  2. Untick the corresponding box at the Chart Element list that shows up when clicking the + button.

Improving Chart Design

There are various ways to format the appearance of the chart elements:

  1. Click on a chart element and tweak the settings in the Format side bar.
An Excel bar chart with series (bars) selected on the left and the Format Data Series pane open on the Fill & Border options on the right.
Fill & Border options on the Format Data Series pane.

2. Click on the chart element you want to format. Go to the Format tab and customize the options under Shape Styles.

Shape Styles group in the Format (Chart Tools) tab on the Excel ribbon
Shape Styles group in the Chart Format tab.

PRO TIP: If you find that you are using these options a lot, you have the option of adding them to your quick access toolbar. To do that, right-click on the option and select Add to Quick Access Toolbar.

3. Right-click on the chart element and specify the colors you prefer from the fly-out menu.

Fill and Outline in the right-click menu over a bar chart with data series (bars) selected.
Fill and Outline in the right-click menu.

Axis Lines

For instances where you want to thicken axis lines, you can do so by specifying the line thickness and color.

To do this, select the vertical axis in the bar graph and activate the Format Axis sidebar.

Under Axis Options, go to the Fill and Line tab (first tab).

Under the Line section, specify the color and the width.

An Excel bar chart with a thick vertical axis selected on the left and the Format Axis pane open on the Line options on the right.
Line options on the Format Axis pane.

Format axis labels

If you want to format axis labels, click on them and go to the Home tab. There, specify the font type, size, color and style from the Font group in the ribbon.

Alternatively, right-mouse click on the axis labels and select Font.

Font group on the Home tab of the Excel ribbon.
Font group on the Home tab.

When adjusting your chart design, remember about one rule: keep it simple, clear and consistent.

Add New Series to the Chart

There will be cases where you will need to add a new data series into the chart.

Let’s say we want to add a Budget column to our original column graph for the sake of comparison. As usual with Excel charts, there are different ways to go about it:

  1. Click on the chart. You will notice that the chart data range is highlighted. Hover over the dot between the Sales header and values. You will notice your cursor changing to a double-arrow. Click and drag this to include the Budget column.
Excel spreadsheet with a chart selected and chart's source data highlighted on the side. A diagonal double-arrow in the top right corner of the highlighted area between the header and values of the source table.
Extending the chart series by dragging and dropping the selection in the source range.

Note that you have to click on the right element before you expand this selection—in this case, the chart area. If the columns are selected before the data range is expanded, you will not be able to expand the entire data set or might be able to expand just the header but not the data.

2. Another way is to right-click on the chart and click on Select Data.

Select Data in the right-click menu over a column chart.
Select Data in the right-click menu.

This will display the Select Data Series window and you can manually add the series like you did before when populating a blank chart.

Under Legend Entries (Series), click on Add.

This will display the Edit Series window where you will need to specify the Series name and the Series values, in our case – the Budget column header and Budget values.

Select Data Source window with Sales and Budget in the Legend Entries (Series) section.
Select Data Source window with second series added.

Change the Series Order

If you have multiple series, you have the option of rearranging them on the chart.

As an example, I have added a third series, budgetduplicate.

Column chart with three series also visible in the Select Data Source window (Sales, Budget, budgetduplicate).
Column chart with three series also visible in the Select Data Source window.

To rearrange the series, click on the series you want to move up or down and then click on the arrows beside the Remove button.

Select Data Source window with the up and down arrow buttons in the Legend Entries (Series) highlighted.
Select Data Source window.

You’ll notice that when you push budgetduplicate up, the grey column switches places with the orange for Budget.

Use the Remove button to get rid of budgetduplicate series.

You also have the ability to switch what appears on the x (horizontal) axis and y (vertical) axis by clicking the Switch Row/Column button in the Select Data Source dialog box.

Missing Data Series

You might also come across a situation when you add a data series but it does not appear on the chart.

There could be a number of reasons, for example it could be that the missing series has no fill.

To find it, go to the Format sidebar.

Click on the dropdown and you will see a list of all your active chart elements. Each series is listed separately.

Chart element options dropdown in the Format pane.
The Options dropdown on the Format pane allows you to select the chart element.

Find the series that seems to be invisible, select it and adjust formatting.

This dropdown also lets you switch between all your chart elements when you want to format them one by one.

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Creating Combination Charts (Combo Charts)

In some scenarios you may want to display the data series using different chart types, especially for certain data comparisons, like actuals to budget.

It is possible to have both a column series and a line series in one chart.

In our example, we have two series: Sales and Budget, which currently are both displayed as columns.

If we were to convert the Budget series into a line graph, here are the steps:

  1. Click on the bars on the chart. Right-click and select Change Series Chart Type.
  2. Excel takes you to the Combo view in the Change Chart Type window, where you can change the type for each series individually.

NOTE: If instead right-clicking directly on the series, you right-click elsewhere on the chart area, you will see Change Chart Type rather than Change Series Chart Type. This will open the Change Chart Type window, but you’ll have to click over to the Combo section at the bottom to change individual series. Otherwise, you’ll be changing the entire chart.

The advantage of right-clicking on the series itself is that it takes you directly to the Combo section.

Combo chart in the Change Chart Type window, with the option to separately change the chart type for Sales and Budget series.
Combo chart in the Change Chart Type window.

3. Change the chart type for the Budget series by making a selection in the corresponding dropdown.

Combo chart in the Change Chart Type window, with the chart type dropdown expanded for the Budget series and line chart selected.
Selecting Line Chart for the Budget series.

4. Select a line graph with markers and click OK.

A combination chart, combining a column and a line graph.
Combined column and line graph.

5. Format the new series. In this case, you can remove the line by selecting No Line in Series Line Options on the Format Data Series pane.

6. Customize the markers in the Marker tab on the Format Data Series pane. You can change the marker type, size, borders and fill.

In Marker Options select Built-in, and for Type, select the dash. Adjust the size to make it longer.

On the left, Combo chart with columns and dash markers above the columns. On the right, Format Data Series pane open on Marker Options with built-in type dash selected.
Marker Options on the Format Data Series pane.

Adding Data Labels

Right-click on the series and select Add Data Labels.

From the Format Data Labels sidebar, you can select the position where you want them displayed, and then change the font color from the Home tab, if needed.

On the left, Combo chart with blue columns and white data labels placed inside base, and dash markers above the columns with black data labels positioned above the markers. On the right, Format Data Labels pane open on Label Options, with Label Position set to "Above".
Position of the data labels in the combo chart.

In this example, I placed the Sales series data labels on the Inside Base, while the Budget series data labels are placed Above.

Adding Series Legend

Click on the + sign at the top right of the chart and tick the box for Legend.

Specify where you want it displayed. In this example, I want it to be displayed on top.

The legend is based on the series names. To change the name used in the legend, e.g., replace “Sales” with “Sales Actual”, you simply have to change the name of the data series. In this case, it’s taken from the header of our source table.

Adding a Chart Title

It’s important for the audience that will be viewing and interpreting your graph, that they immediately understand what it’s representing. That’s the role of the chart title.

Tick the Chart Title element on the list and type in the title you want. Make sure it’s clear and informative.

In this example, I used “Sales Actual vs Budget”.

More Pro Chart Inspiration

I hope this article helped you understand how to make a graph in Excel and become more familiar with all the chart elements and options.

Now it’s your turn to practice!

If you are looking for more examples, or more chart tips and tricks, check out:

3 Handy Excel Chart Tips You Might Have Missed

How to Create Conditional Bar Charts in Excel

Highlight Max & Min Values in an Excel Line Chart

How to Present Survey Results in Excel with a Chart

How to Create Professional Excel Column Charts – Overlapping Bar Trick

Excel Dynamic Map with Drop-Down

How to Create Excel Interactive Charts with Dynamic Arrays

How to Best Present Charts in PowerPoint

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Leila Gharani

I'm a 6x Microsoft MVP with over 15 years of experience implementing and professionals on Management Information Systems of different sizes and nature.

My background is Masters in Economics, Economist, Consultant, Oracle HFM Accounting Systems Expert, SAP BW Project Manager. My passion is teaching, experimenting and sharing. I am also addicted to learning and enjoy taking online courses on a variety of topics.