A column chart is a type of chart that represents data in vertical bars, where the height of each bar represents the magnitude of the variable being displayed. The bars are arranged perpendicular to the horizontal axis, which represents the categories or values of the independent variable.
This type of chart is commonly used to display discrete numerical data, such as sales data, expenses, budgets, opinion surveys, among others. The columns are used to allow comparison between different items or groups, where each column can represent a different category.
The column chart is one of the most popular ways to visualize data, as it allows the user to quickly analyze and compare different sets of data.
Although they are similar in many respects, column charts and bar charts are not exactly the same thing. Both charts are used to display data in bar format, but the main difference between them is the orientation of the bars. In a bar chart, the bars are horizontal and in a column chart, the bars are vertical.
The column chart was invented by William Playfair, a Scottish engineer, economist, and statistician who is considered the first to use charts to represent economic data, developing various types of visualizations, such as line charts, bar charts, and column charts. Playfair published several books on his ideas and inventions, including “The Commercial and Political Atlas” in 1786, which is considered a milestone in the history of data visualization.
When to use column chart?
Being one of the most popular ways to visualize data, there are a variety of scenarios in which the column chart is excellent for conveying information in a clear and logical manner. They are best used when:
- There are a small number of discrete categories in the data, each with a single value;
- The chart needs to compare values for each category;
- The goal is to facilitate understanding of the information.
There are many cases where column charts are useful. They can be used, for example, in financial reports to show variations in revenues or expenses over time, or in market research to show customer preference for different products or services. They can be used in a variety of situations and projects, including:
Comparing quantities or categories
Column charts are ideal for comparing the quantity of different data sets or categories. They allow you to clearly see the differences between values and quickly compare the data.
If you need to show how data has changed over time, a column chart can be a useful option. They allow you to see changes in values over time and identify trends or patterns.
Comparing contributions of parts to the whole
They can detail how different categories contribute to the total, for example, showing a company’s sales by branch.
Showing positive and negative values
The column chart is well-suited for cases where data can be positive or negative, such as a company’s results detailed by month. In the case of a positive value, the bar will be above the X-axis, and in the case of a negative value, it will be below.
Best Practices for Column Charts
To create easy-to-understand column charts, follow some best practices: Unless there is a natural order for the data, such as chronological order, sort the categories so that the largest is positioned to the left, and the others are in descending order. The Y-axis should preferably start at zero. In some cases, it is acceptable to change the scale, but with moderation. If all the data is between 1,000 and 1,500, you can set the Y-axis to start at 1,000, as long as it is not misleading.
- Unless using data groups, use a single color for the bars. If the numbers for each bar are important, it may be beneficial to show the values at the end of the column. If the essential information to be displayed is the trends shown, the values displayed on the Y-axis are sufficient.
- Consider the gaps between columns. They should create enough space to easily distinguish one bar from another, without creating very large gaps. The width of the column should always be greater than the interval, to facilitate the interpretation of the chart.
Types of Column Charts
Simple column chart
This is the most common type of column chart, with vertical rectangular columns that represent values on a horizontal axis. This type of chart is useful for comparing values in different categories.
Stacked column chart
This type of column chart stacks the columns on top of each other to show the contribution of each value to the total. This type of chart is useful for comparing the contribution of different subcategories to a total value.
Grouped column chart
A grouped column chart is a type of chart that presents groups of columns side by side. This type of chart is useful when you want to cross two categories of data in the columns, such as months and sales by sector. The months could be the groups and each bar within the group would show the sales of a sector.
Benefits of Column Charts
Column charts offer several benefits over other ways of presenting quantitative data, such as tables or lists. Some of the main benefits of column charts include:
Column charts allow you to present complex data in a visually appealing and easy-to-understand way. Columns are powerful visuals that can help communicate quantitative information clearly and effectively.
Column charts allow you to quickly compare values between different categories or subcategories. The side-by-side arrangement of columns makes visual comparison easy and allows users to quickly identify differences and similarities between categories or subcategories.
Column charts also allow you to identify trends or patterns in data. This can be particularly useful when presenting data over time, allowing users to see clearly how values have changed and identify patterns or trends.
Column charts can be customized to meet the needs of your project or presentation. You can adjust the color, legend, scales, and other settings to emphasize the most important information and create a customized chart that fits your objectives.
In summary, column charts offer many benefits over other ways of presenting quantitative data. They are a powerful tool that can help communicate complex information in a clear and easy-to-understand way, allowing users to compare values, identify trends, and customize the chart to meet the needs of the project.
Now that you understand how to use column charts, you can also explore other types of charts:
Looking for more?
Be the first to know
Get first-hand access to our free Design and Dataviz content directly in your inbox