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Column or Bar Chart in PowerPoint?

Should you use a column or a bar chart in PowerPoint?


Product/Version: PowerPoint

So what's the difference between a Column Chart and a Bar Chart? Purists may call them both bar charts and some charting folks may also find many, many differences between them, but broadly speaking, a bar chart is a column chart that’s rotated 90 degrees, and what a difference those 90 degrees make! It's amazing that so much can change with such a small adjustment.

Column charts depict data from bottom to top vertically, on a horizontal axis
Figure 1: Column charts depict data from bottom to top vertically, on a horizontal axis

Bar charts depict data from left to right horizontally, on a vertical axis
Figure 2: Bar charts depict data from left to right horizontally, on a vertical axis

So essentially what changes is not the chart, but the perspective with which we humans look at those charts. By rotation standards, 90 degrees may not be huge but by perspective standards, it can be amazing. And since we are speaking about perspective, let us travel on that path for now, and explore what really changes?

First of all, as human beings there are some things that we comprehend better from bottom to top, and others that we understand better from left to right. And what are those concepts? This list will help us more:

Bottom to Top:

  1. Sales and Sales Projections
  2. Growth and Growth Projections
  3. Profits (and Losses)
  4. Trends

Left to Right:

  1. Time
  2. Project Management
  3. Student's Performance
  4. Stock Market Performance

Typically the concepts that the human mind understands better from bottom to top are best served by column charts. And similarly concepts that we understand better from left to right are served by bar charts.

However this is just a rule of the thumb, and can only be a starting point to decide which type of chart your data deserves. Once you have thought about this basic rule, you still need to explore if your data deserves an exception to this rule.

There are more thoughts to consider, these guidelines will help you introspect further whether you should us a column chart or a bar chart:

  • Remember that since column charts are typically thin, they cannot really display longer labels on the Axis to describe what each column represents. Bar charts on the other hand have no such issues and can easily sport longer axis labels for their descriptions. You can learn more in our Longer Axis Labels: Why Bar Charts Are Better Than Column Charts? tutorial.
  • When in doubt, make a copy of your chart slide, and then change between a column chart and a bar chart. Explore which chart type represents your data better. PowerPoint makes it so easy to change your chart type, the quickest way is to change from one to another, and then press the Ctrl+Z and Ctrl+Y keys alternatively to Undo and Redo, this will allow you to view the changes minutely. If you are using PowerPoint on a Mac, use the +Z and +Y keys instead.

    Note: Want more keyboard shortcuts? Get a copy of our PowerPoint Keyboard Shortcuts Ebook.
  • Do you plan on using a Trendline? In that case, you will find that Trendlines work best with Column Charts.
  • Does your chart data contain negative values? Negative values do work better with Column Charts since we humans perceive anything that shows below the base level (axis) as being negative.

In the end, each data type is different, and the audience whom you are going to present this data will also be different. So if in doubt, create more than one chart type to represent your data, and then decide which one works best for you!

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