Charts can help businesses in a number of ways. They can help leaders, colleagues, clients, and customers better understand data, insights and ideas. They can make it easier for these people to remember what matters and take actions that help them achieve their goals.
There are dozens and dozens of chart types, but which one should you use? The short answer is that it depends on the purpose, on what you want to communicate.
Because some types of charts are more familiar to most people than others are, it is wise to use one that others will be able to understand easily and quickly. In this article, I will draw from my experience as an information designer and share the most common types of charts and when to use each.
Once you’ve learned how to choose the best types of graphs for your business communication needs, you can use Venngage’s Chart Maker to create charts, graphs and start incorporating data visualization into your design—no experience required.
Types of Charts (click to jump ahead):
- What is a chart?
- Bar or column chart
- Line chart
- Pie chart
- Area chart
- Scatter plot chart
- Bubble chart
- Quadrant chart
- Pyramid or triangle chart
- Gantt chart
- Organization chart
What is a chart?
A chart is a visual representation of information. Sometimes charts are based on numeric data and other times they are conceptual models.
In either case, the visual is meant to help the reader quickly grasp important insights and ideas. Because they are visual, they are also easier to remember and can even motivate behaviors, according to research.
Because of this, it’s important to choose the right type of chart that best conveys what is most essential for readers to understand. Knowing the purpose of the chart is critical to selecting the one that will be most effective in achieving that purpose.
Charts versus graphs
Bar chart or bar graph, line chart or line graph and more—what exactly is the difference between charts and graphs?
The words “chart” and “graph” both refer to visual representations of information.
Graphs are more mathematical, with numeric data plotted on two axes, one horizontal (known as the X axis) and the other vertical (known as the Y axis). Graphs are often used to show large or complex data sets or long-term data trends.
Charts can be numeric, in which case they may also be graphs. Line charts, bar charts, and pie charts are good examples of this.
This Venn diagram explores in more detail the difference between graphs and charts:
Diagram versus chart
We’ve used a Venn diagram to describe what charts and graphs have in common and how they’re different from each other. But what about diagrams and charts?
Some charts are diagrams that describe information that is not quantifiable. Diagrams are more symbolic, they use the arrangement of visual elements to show relationships. They are used to explain rather than represent.
Keep reading to learn more about different types of charts and the purposes of each. Note that we’re listing only 11 types since they’re the most common ones for businesses. For more examples of other types of charts, visit our post: How to Choose the Best Types of Charts for Your Data
Bar or column chart
Bar charts are the most common chart types we see, and that’s because they are so easy to read and understand. If you’re working with numeric or quantitative data, a bar chart is often the best chart to use.
These charts help people see and compare differences in values or amounts, so they are perfect for analyzing and explaining the number of customers, sales, revenue, and more.
These charts are also incredibly versatile. Sometimes they look like vertical columns (hence the name column charts):
And sometimes they look like horizontal bars:
The chart above is also known as a histogram, for it shows how amounts are distributed across a range, in this case of ages.
Sometimes businesses want to make multiple comparisons at once, and in this case you can either show a series of bar charts:
Or you can use a stacked bar chart, if you have only a couple of values to compare:
When in doubt, a bar chart is likely the best option for visualizing data, not despite its simplicity but because of its simplicity. They are easy to read and flexible enough to work well for most cases.
For more details on bar graphs, column graphs or stacked bar graphs, read our guide: What is a Bar Chart and 20+ Bar Chart Templates
Line chart (or line graph)
Line charts (line graphs) are almost as common as bar charts, but they are useful for more specific scenarios. They are best used to show how a change in one number relates to changes in another.
A line chart is a go-to solution if you need to communicate how numbers have changed over time.
For example, a line chart could be used to describe how revenue has changed from quarter to quarter, or how employee satisfaction has varied from year to year. Visualizing these numbers in a line chart allows businesses to more easily spot trends and patterns and perhaps even make forecasts for the future.
Here’s an example of a line graph being used to visualize sales projections:
Line charts are also good for other types of continuous data, or data that cannot be counted in whole numbers and that can have any imaginable value including fractions or decimal points. You can use a line chart to illustrate temperature, measurements, cost, etc.
Read more about line charts at: A Complete Guide to Line Charts
Pie charts are the last of the three most common chart types. They are often a go-to chart type, but it’s always worth asking whether they actually fit the bill.
Pie charts are appropriate if you are comparing percentages of a whole, particularly if you have only a few. The pie chart in this example only has three slices, making it really easy to understand:
Donut charts are used for the same purpose, but they are really only useful if you have a couple of percents you are comparing and they are very different:
In general, it’s wise to be careful not to use pie charts if you have too many slices, like more than 3 or 4. You can also use a bar chart or pictogram to compare percentages.
Relevant resources you may be interested in:
- Everything You Need to Know About Pie Charts
- What is a Donut Chart and 20+ Donut Chart Templates
- Pie Charts and Other Ways to Show Percentages in Infographics
An area chart is essentially a line chart with the area beneath the line colored. The colored area draws a lot of attention, so they are most useful if you are looking to communicate how percentage rates have changed over time.
Area charts can be great alternatives to pie charts if you want to show not only percentages but change over time.
Another great option for showing percentages is the pictogram. Pictograms usually show ratios, which are usually more relatable than percentages, and they are excellent if you are comparing percentages of people specifically.
With a pictogram, you can help your audience easily compare the differences between percentages. For example, this pictogram shows the visual difference between 85% of African American teens versus 75% of White-Hispanic teens:
For more information about pictograms, visit our post: What is a Pictogram and When Should I Use It?
Scatter plot chart
Like a line chart, a scatter plot allows for comparisons between two variables or numbers, each of which is on an axis of the chart. However in a scatter plot chart, the data points do not create a line because the relationships between the variables are more varied.
Scatter plot charts are useful if you want to understand complex relationships between various measurements. For example, here’s a scatter plot chart that shows relationships between not only sales and revenue (on the axes) but also how these relate to types of customers:
Bubble charts are also used to compare numbers. Research has shown that it’s harder for us to compare sizes of areas, so these charts are only useful if precision isn’t important, if you just want to show the big-picture themes.
Here’s an example of a bubble chart comparing the search volumes of keywords people type on a fashion website:
A quadrant chart plots information along two axes, like the line and scatter plot charts, but in this case the information is not numerical data. Rather by using two qualitative variables, this chart helps to break lists into four discrete categories, which are usually also ranked.
For example, this chart shows how different levels of expressiveness and assertiveness make for different leadership styles:
Pyramid or triangle chart
A pyramid or triangle chart ranks parts of a whole in a simple way. This chart is best to use when you want to emphasize a natural order of size or importance.
For example this pyramid chart shows how different functions within finance build upon one another:
A flowchart visualizes a process, often one that has multiple turning points or paths. They can be used to show how information, decisions, actions, etc. develop throughout an interaction, project, or system.
This template, for example, represents a decision flowchart:
Sometimes the process is more circular, or a feedback loop:
People also read:
- 7 Types of Flowcharts and How to Choose the Right One
- 20+ Flow Chart Templates, Design Tips and Examples
- 21+ Flowchart Examples to Organize Projects and Improve Processes
Gantt charts are more detailed charts for describing projects. They usually outline team and/or individual responsibilities, dependencies, deadlines and dates.
An organization chart is a type of tree diagram that helps people see the hierarchical relationships between teams and individuals within an organization.
Summary: Choose the right types of charts to best represent your business communications
Charts can help your audience quickly grasp and remember information, whether it’s data or something else complex. By selecting the most appropriate type of chart, you can be sure to communicate and convey the information purposefully.
To summarize, if you specifically want to show:
- Change over time, use a line chart
- Complex relationships between numbers, use a scatter plot
- Percentages, use a pictogram
- Ranked items, use a pyramid or quadrant chart
- Processes, use a flowchart or Gantt chart
Remember, when in doubt, use a bar chart!
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