Dataviz showdown: Pie Charts vs. Bar Graphs


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pie broken on the floor

When it comes to presenting non-time series data, pie charts and bar graphs are popular data visualizations. However, there are certain circumstances where one or the other of these visualizations may serve data consumers infinitely better.

Pie charts, for example, are specifically limited to sharing parts of a whole. Although aesthetically pleasing, they can easily become impractical and confusing when angles are not immediately identifiable (aka they work best when showing 25%, 50% etc.), or they are jam packed with multiple variables. These can quickly make pie charts illegible. If you’d like to stick with a pie chart, one solution could be to only display a limited number of top performing variables and group the rest.

It’s safe to say that pie charts have become notorious among data analysts for failing to properly do their job: display information in a way that is easy to understand, so be sure to take care when electing to use them.

pie chart example

Bar graphs, however, are a practical and often preferred method of visualizing comparative data. In fact, unlike pie charts, where an excess of variables will quickly yield the visualization incomprehensible, bar graphs are capable of hosting multiple variables side-by-side, providing a clearer, more comprehensible view.

Bar graphs are ideal for visualizing the relationship between multiple variables. They are also not limited to a single axis, so separate axes can be used to compare data sets with vastly different values, such as total values vs. percentages.

Bar graphs are not only more effective at accurately representing the relationships between multiple variables, they can also be used to compare categories. Grouped bar graphs allow users to visualize variables and categories in a logical order. They are helpful when viewers need to understand the relationship between individual variables or categories.

Alternatively, Stacked Bar graphs highlight sequences by aggregating category values into individual bars. These come in handy when comparing categories against one another, however, it is harder to differentiate the individual value of each variable that makes up the category.

So, if you’re ever in doubt, ditch the pie and go for a bar graph. It will likely help you get your point across with greater speed and accuracy.

Would you like to get more practical tips on data visualization? Download our guide!

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Holly McKendry

Sweetspot Marketing Director. Wakeboarder & travel enthusiast. Communication Studies graduate of Texas State University, San Marcos.

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