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Tiny Charts Help Others to Visualize Your Data

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Professor Edward Tufte described sparklines as "data-intense, design-simple, word-sized graphics." They present a historical trend of data in the space of a typical word. Microsoft quickly jumped on the bandwagon and added three types of sparklines to Excel 2010. In this article, Bill "MrExcel" Jelen helps you understand sparklines and how they can benefit you.

Professor Edward Tufte wrote about sparklines in his 2006 book, Beautiful Evidence. He described them as "data-intense, design-simple, word-sized graphics." The idea is to present a historical trend of data in the space of a typical word. Microsoft added three types of sparklines to Excel 2010.

Consider the data set in the following figure. Take a few seconds and scan the data. Can you easily spot which products are trending up? Trending down? Staying flat? It is pretty tough with just a range of numbers.

Now, look at the same data with the addition of some sparklines in column B. It is now easy to see which products are trending up, down, or staying flat.

The sparklines in column B have the highest month marked in green and the lowest month marked in red. These settings can be achieved using the Sparkline Tools in Excel.

Adding Sparklines to a Worksheet

Follow these steps to add the sparklines shown above:

  1. Insert a new column B to hold the sparklines.
  2. Select C2:K10.
  3. From the Insert tab of the ribbon, choose Sparklines, Line.
  4. The Data range will be filled in because you pre-selected the data. Select B2:B10 as the Location range.
  5. Click OK.
  6. The initial sparkline will be plain. As long as the sparklines are selected, the Sparkline Tools Design tab of the ribbon will be available.

  7. In the Show group, select High Point and Low Point.
  8. This will add plain black markers at the high and low point of each sparkline.

  9. From the Marker Color drop-down, choose High Point and then choose green.
  10. From the Marker Color drop-down, choose Low Point and then choose red.
  11. Sparklines will fill the size of the cell. Make column B wider. Make rows 2 through 10 a little taller (about 18).
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