10 Tips to Create Beautiful Excel Charts and Graphs in 2024

Data visualization is a critical skill for professionals today. Being able to translate rows of raw data into meaningful insights through charts and graphs will help you communicate important findings, spot trends, and make data-driven decisions.

Microsoft Excel remains the go-to tool for data analysis and visualization in business. And while it‘s easy enough to select your data and insert a quick chart, creating Excel graphs that are both insightful and visually compelling takes some know-how.

In this post, I‘ll share 10 tips to help you make beautiful, high-impact charts and graphs in Excel. Whether you‘re an Excel novice or consider yourself a spreadsheet pro, these techniques will take your data viz skills to the next level.

1. Choose the right chart type for your data

The first step to great Excel graphs is selecting the chart type that best fits the data story you want to tell. Here are some common business scenarios and the chart types that work well for each:

  • Comparing values: Column charts (for categories) and bar charts (to compare individual values ranked in order)
  • Showing a trend over time: Line charts
  • Illustrating a part-to-whole relationship: Pie charts (for simple compositions) and stacked column or bar charts (for more complex breakdowns)
  • Visualizing a distribution: Scatter plots and bubble charts
  • Showing progress against goals: Bullet charts
  • Analyzing multiple variables: Combo charts (like a line and stacked column chart)

If you‘re not sure which type of chart to use, fear not—Excel has a handy "Recommended Charts" feature that will suggest options based on the data you‘ve selected. Just highlight your data range, click "Insert > Recommended Charts", and see what looks best.

2. Make sure data is well-structured

Proper data structure is the foundation for creating accurate, easy-to-read charts in Excel. Before you start visualizing, take a moment to ensure:

  • Data is in a clean, logical format
  • Columns have clear headers
  • There are no missing values or outliers that could skew the chart
  • You‘ve selected the complete data range you want to plot

If needed, use Excel features like named ranges, data validation, format painter, Find & Replace, and Flash Fill to get your data squared away before charting.

3. Customize the chart title and axis labels

The chart title and axis labels are prime opportunities to add context and highlight key takeaways for your audience. For titles, be as descriptive and specific as possible. Instead of something generic like "Revenue by Year", try "Annual Revenue Growth for Top 5 Products, 2018-2023".

For axis labels, make sure they‘re informative and easy to follow. Use clear, concise category names. Display units (%, $, etc.) in the axis title. And pay attention to number format—reduce decimal places or use abbreviations (2K instead of 2,000) to avoid clutter and long labels.

4. Declutter and simplify

When it comes to chart design in Excel, less is often more. Removing unnecessary and distracting elements will help draw attention to what matters most—the data itself. A few quick ways to declutter:

  • Remove gridlines
  • Delete borders
  • Use data labels instead of a legend when possible
  • Lighten axis lines to draw focus to the data
  • Limit the color palette to 1-2 contrasting hues

Compare this default Excel column chart to a simplified version to see how much cleaner and easier to interpret the data becomes:

Default Excel chart vs. simplified chart

5. Use color and contrast purposefully

Color is one of the most powerful tools for creating attractive and engaging Excel charts. A well-designed color palette can evoke emotion, establish hierarchy, highlight key data points, and reinforce your brand identity. Some tips:

  • Leverage brand colors for instant recognition and cohesion with other materials
  • Stick to 1-2 main colors to keep charts clean and easy to interpret
  • Choose contrasting colors (e.g. light vs. dark shades) to create visual interest and draw the eye to important information
  • Be mindful of color symbolism and avoid hues that clash or send an unintended message
  • Test colors for accessibility to ensure they‘re distinguishable for the color blind

In Excel, you can customize chart colors in the Design tab under "Change Colors", or manually set individual colors in the Format pane. Don‘t hesitate to diverge from Excel‘s default color schemes to craft a compelling, on-brand palette.

6. Leverage white space

In graphic design, white or negative space serves to break up content, create visual balance, and direct focus. Excel charts are no exception. Leaving strategic white space around your chart elements and data points can make them "pop" and improve readability.

Some easy ways to create white space in a chart:

  • Increase the plot area size
  • Add a border or "padding" between the chart area and the edges of the object
  • Adjust the gap width between columns or bars
  • Stagger labels on the x- or y-axis to give them breathing room

Here‘s a before-and-after showing how adding whitespace makes a chart cleaner and easier to analyze:

Crowded Excel chart vs. chart with more white space

7. Highlight key data points

Calling out specific data points in a chart is an effective way to emphasize key messages or trends you want the audience to know. Excel offers several options for accentuating parts of a chart, such as:

  • Data labels
  • Emphasis colors and gradients
  • Trendlines
  • Error bars
  • Annotations and callouts

Used sparingly, these features can help explain the "why" behind the data and make the underlying story crystal clear. Combine them with the other design principles we‘ve covered and you‘ll be on your way to some seriously impactful Excel charts.

8. Make charts interactive with slicers

Slicers are a powerful feature that allow users to dynamically filter the data shown in an Excel chart or graph. They provide an intuitive, visual way to view different segments or "slices" of the data with a click rather than having to create separate charts.

To add a slicer to an existing chart:

  1. Click anywhere in the chart
  2. Go to the Design tab
  3. Click "Insert Slicer"
  4. Choose the data field(s) you want to filter by
  5. Customize the look and feel of your slicer to match the chart design

Curious to see slicers in action? Check out this interactive Excel chart from Microsoft to get a feel for how they work.

9. Tell a story in dashboard form

Individual charts are helpful for displaying different pieces of data—but when you combine a series of related graphs and visualizations in a single view or dashboard, you can really start to tell a powerful story.

Think through which metrics and visuals will paint a complete picture and enable data-driven decision making, then arrange them in a logical layout. Add descriptive labels, brief insights, and visual hierarchy to tie everything together and make the dashboard scannable.

Here‘s an example of what an excel dashboard might look like for a SaaS company measuring the key metrics for their business:

Excel dashboard showing SaaS metrics

Source: Mitch Morando via Mekko Graphics

10. Use templates for a head start

While there‘s certainly an art and science to making great-looking Excel charts, you don‘t have to start from scratch. There are tons of free and low-cost Excel templates out there that can give you a jumping off point for professional data visualizations.

A few of my favorite resources for Excel chart and dashboard templates:

Many of these templates are fully customizable, so you can adapt the colors, fonts, layout, and chart types to your specific needs. They‘re a real time-saver if you‘re looking to churn out high-quality visualizations quickly.

Start charting your data

I hope this post has given you some practical tips and inspiration for making your Excel charts and graphs more informative and visually appealing. Effective data visualization is really a superpower in today‘s business world—so bookmark this guide and refer to it the next time you need to create charts that will wow your colleagues or clients.

From telling a clear story and choosing the right visuals to applying design best practices and interactive features, you now have the formula for driving impact with data in Excel. Happy charting!