When a bar is boring, buy everyone a round of tequila shots.

LOL ok that might work for your favorite neighborhood pub but your bar chart is gonna need something else.

But first let me just back up to say:

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a bar chart.

Bar charts are easy to read, for most people. Being easy (in this case, but not at the neighborhood pub) has its advantages.

Bar charts are also familiar, for most people. Easy + familiar means your audience doesn’t get hung up on decoding the chart. They just move right on to the thinking you’re prompting and the discussion you’re hosting. That’s awesome, right?

Bar chart that says voters of color are more concerned about physical violence at polling places than white voters. Source: Axios. Black voters, 32%. Hispanic, 30%. Asian, 30%. White, 19%.

However, I know you run into situations where the trusty bar just isn’t cutting it anymore.

Your boss is asking you to make the data viz more exciting (and you tried giving it a tequila shot but nothing happened).

Your data makes sense as bar charts but a whole report full of bars is making your eyes cross. You wanna shake it up a little.

You’ve just learned about a new chart type and you wanna show off your chops.

Whatever the reason, here are some decent alternatives for a single series (that’s just one set of bars, versus a cluster of bars side by side) bar chart.

Try a lollipop.

Lollipop chart that says voters of color are more concerned about physical violence at polling places than white voters. Source: Axios. Black voters, 32%. Hispanic, 30%. Asian, 30%. White, 19%.

Lollipops focus on what would be the end of the bar, but it’s kinda still essentially a bar chart. A good move if you aren’t trying to freak out your audience with too many big changes.

Try a dot plot.

Dot plot that says Roe v Wade and Baby Formula Shortage were healthcare issues most recalled by votes in 2022. Source: Morning Consult. Supreme Court overturns Roe v Wade is represented by a dot with 71 inside. Baby formula shortage is 60.

Dot plots ramp up a lollipop a little more and have the added advantage of a flexible x-axis. Whereas bars should start at zero, because we’re decoding by looking at length, you don’t have that issue with a dot plot.

Is it actually change over time?

I see this confusion often. If the labels are years, maybe this should be a line chart. But one series in a line chart can look kinda lonely, so try a line + area chart.

Line and area chart titled Active Shooter Incidents have become more common in the last 20 years. Source: Pew Research. The line zig zags but increases to 2020 where it is at 40.

This better tells a story about trend.

Highlighting just one bar?

Go for a pie, why doncha?

Pie chart that says Women make up more than a quarter of all members of the 118th Congress. The highest number in history, but not close to 50%. Source: Pew Research. The pie wedge for women is 28%.

Just group up all the other categories into one wedge and put your focus wedge in an action color.

Backpedal to the bar and add color.

Bar chart titled Many of the highest impact carbon emission-reducing behaviors are not mentioned often in science textbooks. Source: Wynes and Nicholas (2017). The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions. The top bar is color-coded to indicate moderate impact. It is recycling, with 7 mentioned in an analysis of 10 Canadian science textbooks.

If you’ve got some meaningful subgroups in your bar, color-code them. Now it’s no longer a bar chart, it’s a **~~colorful~~** bar chart.

We teach how to make all of these in my Certification Program and in the Data Viz Academy, of course.

Sometimes this bar chart rumspringa lands you a new mate and other times you go through all those other options just to discover your original bar chart is perfectly fine.

How will you decide which option is best? Listen to your audience and picks what engages them with the data (not the chart type – with the data itself).

If you’ve got two series in your bar chart, you have even more options. Check out Ama Nyame-Mensah’s ideas here. She’s a Tableau and R coach in our Certification Program and she’s full of good suggestions.

Learn something new?

Share this helpful info with a friend who needs an extra perk today or post it to your social where your third cousin can benefit, too.