5 Unusual Alternatives to Pie Charts

Before you cook up another pie, consider these alternatives

Shelby Temple

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Credit: MirageC/Moment/Getty

Every time I see a 3D pie chart made in Excel, I die a little on the inside.

When working in data visualization, you hear all sorts of opinions on pie charts. Some people feel they should never be used. Mathematician John Tukey felt there was no pie-chart data that couldn’t be better displayed in any other type of chart. Other people really like them.

Visualization: Shelby Temple, made with Tableau; data: Tableau Sample Superstore

Unlike Tukey and design theorist Edward Tufte—who said, “The only worse design than a pie chart is several of them”—I am not of the opinion that pie charts should never be used. I just think they should be used less often.

I have sensed similar feelings toward Excel spreadsheets. They have even earned the nickname “walls of data.” The connection here is that pie charts and Excel spreadsheets are both overused and stretched to do things they were not meant to do. However, just like you wouldn’t remove colors from the painter’s palette and say, “No more green for you!” I don’t think the solution is to delete Excel and pie charts off everyone’s computer. Perhaps it’s more about making sure the painter has more colors to pick from.

Most existing content on this subject of pie-chart dislike will just direct you to a bar chart or line chart instead. But I have challenged myself to show you five unusual alternatives to boring data visualization. Here they are, ending on the one I like most:

5. The Dumbbell Chart

One of the most common abuses of pie charts is to use many of them together to display change over time or across categories. If the primary message you want to send to your viewer is variance, it’s helpful to know that humans are really good at detecting and valuing the distance between objects. The dumbbell chart, also known as the DNA chart, is a great way to show change by using visual lengths.

Technically this chart is a tri-bell rather than a dumbbell, but the point is that it gives the information some dimension.

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Shelby Temple

Telling stories with data. Likes data science, dogs, and dad jokes.