A Quick Checklist Every Consultant Should Use for Clean, Readable Excel Charts

Consulting Tools

As a consultant you want to get to the point. Deliver your conclusion, keep it clean and clear, then back up that conclusion with detail and process.

We all face infoclutter. What we don’t need is infoclutter in the charts we create.

The following tips apply to all versions of Excel. Thank heavens, newer versions of Excel create cleaner charts that don’t require as much de-cluttering.

Create templates for frequently used chart layouts. If you frequently use the same chart and formatting, create a default chart template. Any new charts you create will open in this default layout.

Delete vertical grid lines. Right click and delete them.

Delete horizontal grid lines. Right click and delete them.

Start the Y-axis (vertical) at zero. Starting a chart to show only the area of change removes all sense of proportion. The Wall Street Journal is infamous for doing this in many stock charts so that every rise or fall in the market looks like a boom or bust, feeding frenzy or fear.

Use distinct colors for each data series. Use distinct colors so it’s easy to tell data series apart.

Don’t chart too many data series.

  • Create more charts with related series in the same chart.
  • Use check boxes to turn data series on or off as described in “Balanced Scorecards and Operational Dashboards with Excel.”

Create white or light-colored chart backgrounds.

Don’t use red text or lines, especially on black backgrounds. Never use red text or lines on black background. It’s impossible to read in dim light or by older readers. I don’t care how cool you think it looks, you’ll lose at least a third of your readers.

Make chart titles descriptive. No one says they have to be one or two words. Make it descriptive, long if necessary.

Use a floating sub-title if you need to add necessary information.

3D charts. Don’t! Well Ok, if you want something to look artsy, but unusable for analytics, then its Ok.

Use pie charts only when you want to show parts that total to 100%. If you need to compare data series, use bar or column charts.