Hello there.

Today’s topic is about some of my favorite charts to use, they also happen to be the most commonly used in the data visualization ecosystem; Bar & Column Charts.

As you probably already know, both Bar & Column charts are very useful in data viz; for showing comparisons & also trends in your data.

Both are basically the same, only difference is that one is lying down (Bar chart), & the other is standing straight (Column Chart).

Now does this mean that they can be used interchangeably in any situation? Maybe…Not in all cases.

Let me ask first; are you one of those who use whichever one of the 2 that catches your eye first? Or are you intentional with your choice? I’d hope you’re the latter. But if you’re the former, no problem. I’m here to help you get it right.

So in what cases do you decide which to use between the Bar Chart & the Column Chart?:

  1. Use A Bar Chart when the Categorical Label is Lengthy;
Column Chart

Figure 1: column chart

When the categorical names are lengthy; like in the figure above, it’s preferable to make use of a Bar Chart instead of Column because the former provides more space & eliminates clutter.

The visual then becomes easy for the audience to examine without the need to squint their eyes or bend their heads while trying to read the labels.

A bar chart

Figure 2: bar chart

  1. Use a Column Chart when the Dataset Contains Negative Values;
bar chart with positive and negative values

Figure 3: bar chart with positive and negative values

If there are negative values in your data and you’d like to use one of the 2 charts, the best option for this is a Column Chart.

A Bar Chart is also suitable (particularly if color-coded) except that not everyone (me included) is quick to navigate between the left & right direction. It is not as quick & clear as navigating between the upper & lower direction where upper clearly means positive & lower, negative.

Column chart with positive and negative values

Figure 4: Column chart with positive and negative values

  1. Use a Column Chart to Show Trend Over Time;
 bar chart for trend

Figure 5: bar chart (bad for trends)

If for some reason you are not interested in using a line/area chart to display the trends in your data (e.g. from Jan – Dec), a column chart is more fitting for this than a bar chart because it gives the same feel as a line chart & also many people are more familiar with reading trends from left to right rather than from up to down.

column chart for trend

Figure 6: column chart (better for trend)

  1. Use a Bar Chart when the Categories in the Data Are Many;

…as it is easier (and more familiar) to scroll down when exploring the data than to scroll sideways.

scroll down vs side

Figure 7: scrolling down vs sideways

Although if you can, try to limit the number of categories displayed in your chart (i.e. show only important ones) & then use the other factors mentioned to figure out which chart is most appropriate for you.

NOTE: Unless you have a continuous data used to show trends, it’s good practice to always arrange your data in order (ascending or descending) to allow for quick understanding.

Hey there! Thanks for stopping by. I'm Zainab Balogun, a lover of big data, a part-time writer and artist & a full time bookworm. Check out my blog on Medium & My LinkedIn Profile

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