Guidelines for Using Charts and Graphs
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Today's readers expect to see professional graphics in professional documents. The good news is that graphics can be quickly and easily produced. The old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is true! However, graphics should not be placed in a document without a good reason and should be designed and placed in accordance with certain principles.


  • Graphics, illustrations, visual aids: parts of documents or oral presentations that are not text.
  • Tables: illustrations that place numbers or words in columns, rows, or both.
  • Figures: all graphics other than tables, including charts, maps, and photos.
  • Charts: figures that display data in visual form, such as line graphs.
  • Technical drawing: a type of figure that represents a physical object.

  1. Graphics make concepts easier to understand.
  2. Color, fonts, and graphics can help the reader comprehend an idea.
  3. Graphics support and emphasize ideas.
  4. Graphics generate interest and attract attention.
  5. Graphics are important and powerful when integrated with text.

Many fonts are available today. If you are unfamilliar with this term, consult your printer manual. Fonts are generally grouped into two categories: serif (with "feet") and sans serif (without "feet"). Some fonts are inappropriate for professional writing, but there are many options. these guidelines will help you make the right choices:
  1. Find out what the reader or company wants or expects.
  2. Consider what will be clear and readable.
  3. Take into account the available space.
  4. Think about the purpose of the document.
  5. Consider the tone you want to use.

Color is expected by today's readers, but it is more expensive and can not always be justified. Take into account the following guidelines when deciding to use color:
  1. Colors should relate to the topic in appropriate ways.
  2. Colors should enhance the company logo.
  3. Dark or textured backgrounds should be used sparingly.
  4. All colors should be tested as to what they will look like when produced in the final report form.

You should observe these guidelines when using any graphic:
  1. Know the purpose of the graphic.
  2. Check to see that the data are correct.
  3. Always refer to graphics in the text.
  4. Consider where to place the graphic in the text.
  5. Place graphics vertically.
  6. Keep graphics simple and uncluttered.
  7. Place titles, source documentation, etc., with the graphic.

Note: Consult the External Links section for weblinks to sites that contain examples of all of the following graphics.


  • Informal table: data in rows or columns.
  • Formal table: data in a grid with horizontal rows and vertical columns.

  1. Use informal tables to extend or expand your text.
  2. Use formal tables for complicated data separated from the text.
  3. Use white space.
  4. Place titles, headings, etc., where needed to explain data.
  5. Be especially careful with financial data.

Pie Charts
This graphic shows relationships between the parts and the whole.
  1. Limit pie "slices" to no more than 6 or 7.
  2. Work clockwise from largest to smallest "slice."
  3. Use pie charts for money and percentages.
  4. Keep it simple.
  5. Label carefully.

Bar Charts
This graphic shows simple comparisons, especially changes in quantity.
  1. Limit the number of bars.
  2. Be sure comparisons are clear.
  3. Adjust bar widths and space between them to make them equal.
  4. Arrange the order of bars carefully.
  5. Make creative choices.

Line Charts
This graphic is used to show trends or changes over time, such as price changes.
  1. Show trends with line charts.
  2. Place line charts where they can get attention.
  3. Make line charts that are accurate and clear.
  4. Avoid putting numbers on the line chart itself.
  5. Do not place too many lines on the chart.

Schedule Charts
This graphic is a special kind of chart showing when certain activities will be accomplished. Tasks and times are highlighted and also mentioned in the text.
  1. Only main activities should be included.
  2. Activities should be listed in sequence.
  3. Labels should run in the same direction.
  4. New formats should be devised as needed.
  5. A realistic schedule should be used.

This graphic depicts a process, usually with boxes and shapes that represent activities.
  1. An overall view of the process is all that is needed—not every detail.
  2. The number of shapes should be restricted.
  3. A legend should be provided when needed.
  4. The sequence of steps should run from top to bottom or from left to right.
  5. All shapes should be clearly labeled.

Organizational Charts
This graphic shows how a company or organization is set up.
  1. Use rectangles connected by lines to represent top-level positions in the organization.
  2. Use dotted or solid lines to join boxes.
  3. Show mid-level and low-level positions using a circular design.
  4. Use varied shapes with care.
  5. Use creativity.

Technical Drawings
This graphic accompanies instructions, sales documents, etc. TYechnical drawings may be more useful than photographs because they show very specific views.
  1. Select the proper amount of detail.
  2. Label parts carefully.
  3. Select the best view.
  4. Use a legend when there are many parts.

It is possible to distort or otherwise misuse graphics. Following are some common ways to misrepresent data:
  1. Don't use a bar chart improperly; be sure height of lines corresponds to the actual increase or decrease.
  2. Don't place data such as expenses in a confusing sequence.
  3. Don't misuse a pie chart by omitting percentages or moving in a direction other than clockwise/largest to smallest, or including too many "slices."

The following chart shows how a circumstance may be matched with a graphic that will best illustrate it:

1.a comparison of three brands of personal computers according to price, standard features, and special featurestable Company X spent its earningspie chart
3.the number of units of Product Y produced during four quartersbar chart profits over a 5-year periodline chart
5.changing prices of Product A and Product B over the past yearbar chart
6.census information from the governmenttable
7.allocation of the time spent on a projectpie chart illustration of a broken cartontechnical drawing
9.population of the U.S. by geographic divisionspie chart
10.number of tasks completed for each month for one year by three employeesschedule chart
11.system for handling mail in Company Yflowchart a company's income dollar was earnedpie chart

The above notes were adapted from Chapter 11/Graphics, pages 397-451, by William Pfeiffer, Technical Writing: A Practical Approach, Prentice-Hall, 2001. Read this chapter for examples and detailed explanation.