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If you are wondering about alternatives to Pie charts you may use, here is a detailed reference, with a short checklist for every transition to an equivalent or similar chart type. At the end, we share a cheat sheet infographic you may use for your projects.

We limited this post to a typical single-series Pie chart with a small acceptable number of slices, having all values already sorted in descending order. Other specific Pie chart types, with just two slices, or with multiple side-by-side or nested pies, may be considered separately in another post.

Do you Really need a Pie?

It might sound weird, but a simple table – the table you usually already have – may be more readable than your Pie Chart.

A table is nearly always better than a dumb pie chart; the only thing worse than a pie chart is several of them, for then the viewer is asked to compare quantities located in spatial disarray both within and between pies. Given their low data-density and failure to order numbers along a visual dimension, pie charts should never be used.

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information – by Edward Tufte, 1983

If you still need the Pie, here are some quick best practice guidelines:

• Show only data in a “part-whole” relationship with a Pie chart. In our main example, we have considered a basket with different fruits. There is nothing else in the basket, so we may consider these fruits, with their specific quantities, make up the whole basket, the basket is the “whole”. Add more apples, or take away a few plums, and all our proportions will very likely change.
• Provide your data sorted in descending order, with highest value first.
• Show just a few slices. Collect your smallest and least important slices into a last “(other)” slice.
• Always fill your pie clockwise, with the first slice at 12 o’clock.
• Percentage values are better suited for data labels in Pie charts than actual quantitative values.
• All percentage values displayed on a Pie chart must sum up to 100%. When you round them up or truncate them, to the closest integer value – as we did in all our pie charts here – last number must be also eventually adjusted for the 100% sum.
• Numeric data represented on a pie is usually labeled with some friendly descriptive category text, to uniquely identify each slice.
• Put data labels inside each slice, when possible. If outside, you could use small short straight or broken lines to link them with their related slice.
• Avoid a separate legend for Pie charts, as they would require your eyes to go back and forth between the legend and the pie for each slice.
• Avoid plenty of contrasting colors, and use gradients instead, with darkest color for the highest value.

From Pie Chart to Bar Chart

Bar Charts are best suited to be used as alternatives to Pie charts, most experts say. However, you somehow lose the “part-of-the-whole” concept Pie charts are still best known for. It’s possible, but unnatural, to show percentages as data labels for bars as well; that’s why here below we switched to actual values instead:

• Bar charts show either horizontal bars, or vertical columns, also known as Column charts.
• Each slice is translated into a horizontal bar, with each slice angle reflected now by the bar’s length. Or column’s height, when showing vertical columns.
• It’s highly recommended to avoid bars that do not start from zero, as they can be misleading. The bad part is for large values it’s harder to compare the tops, to see the differences.
• Unlike Pie charts, Bar charts may also represent zero and negative values.
• Avoid multi-color single-series Bar charts like the one above. Use colors only for highlights or with an additional category.

Lollipop Charts are Bar charts with very thin bars and bubble markers on top.

• Unlike the full rectangular bar style, the lollipop style reduces clutter, and highlights the actual top values by their markers.
• The thin lollipop bars may get a different dash or dot style, just like the Line charts. They may be also completely removed, in which case we actually transition to a Scatter Plot.
• Just like for Bar charts, vertical columns or horizontal bars for single-series charts are not best suited to show percentages, so we show actual values instead.
• Multi-color single-series Lollipop charts like this one should be avoided. Use colors for categories instead.

Dot Plots are another different display style for Bar charts, in which rectangular bars are split up into small dots.

• This style was used in the past and it’s kind of obsolete today.
• Dots may appear in vertical columns of horizontal bars.
• Multi-color single-series Dot Plots like this one should be avoided. Use colors for categories instead.

From Pie Chart To Stacked Bar Chart

Stacked Bar Charts are the closest linear equivalent to Pie Charts, in terms of both one-to-one mapping and layout. They may be the best alternatives to Pie charts. A single-series Pie chart with N slices is actually equivalent with N series of Full 100% Stacked Bars, each with one single value. This will create one single pile of rectangular segments.

• Each Pie slice translates into its equivalent piled segment from the 100% Stacked Column chart. Each slice angle translates into the equivalent segment’s height. Or segment width, for horizontal bars.
• In your mind, bend the top and bottom margins of the Stacked Column chart, until they are joined together on the left side: you got a Pie chart!
• Human mind can better estimate rectangular dimensions than angles. This is why the Stacked Bars are better pie chart alternatives.
• 100% Stacked Bar charts also show parts-of-a-whole segments, but we may better understand that everything is part of a whole and nothing was left outside by looking at a closed circular graph.

Skyscraper Bars are styled Stacked Bars, in which every bar on top of another (or at the right, for horizontal bars) becomes narrower.

• Skyscraper bars or columns are just fancier Stacked Bars, not recommended by most experts. However, some people may still use them in their presentations, so it’s your choice.
• Risk is people may start to compare the segments by both width and height, if they are not told the narrowing is just a styling effect.

From Pie Chart to Line Chart

Line Charts are not just recommended, but almost a must, when you represent variations in time, and not necessarily a part-of-whole concept. Use them as alternatives to pie charts.

We changed on purpose the labels on the charts below, to reflect this different kind of data:

• Whenever your Pie slices do not naturally reflect “whole”, try to use a Bar chart or a Line chart instead.
• Line charts are best suited for an evolution in time, Bar charts for simple categorical no time related data.
• Make sure your Line chart starts from zero on the vertical axis, or it may be misleading.
• Use markers only with a limited number of points.
• Avoid multiple colors for single-series Line charts. Even if you can paint with a different color each segment, it will look confusing.
• You may eventually show your line as a Spline (i.e. interpolated curve line), Step Line or Jump Line.
• You may eventually switch to another type of Cartesian chart from the same family, such as a Scatterplot or an Area chart.

Radar Area Charts are filled-in areas on a spider web circular plot. You can move from a linear Area chart to a Radar Area chart by bending in your mind the right and left edges of the orthogonal plot to the bottom, until they are joined together.

• The advantage of moving from a Pie chart to a Line/Area Radar/Polar chart, rather than Cartesian Line/Area chart, is that we keep the “part-of-the-whole” concept with the circular/radial appearance.
• You may eventually switch to another type of Radar chart from the same family, such as a Radar Scatterplot or a Radar Line chart.
• You may eventually use a fully circular Polar plot, with similar effects. Beware however not all implementations of Polar charts behave just like Radar charts with a different aspect.

From Pie Chart to Proportional Area Chart

Tree Maps (or treemaps) with one single series and no nested categories will simply fill your chart’s surface with rectangles with proportional areas. They look like great cool alternatives to Pie charts.

• Pie slices have different angles, while treemap rectangles have different areas for the related mapped values, no matter what the width and height of each rectangle is.
• Each pie slice has a treemap equivalent rectangle in this regard.
• Treemap rectangles are spread along two axes on chart’s surface, not just one, starting with the upper-left corner.

Overlapping Bubbles are circles, one behind the other, touching at the base line.

• Beware Bubble chart implementations should always compare their surface areas, not radius. A bubble twice higher than an inner bubble does not represent an internal value the double of the other one.
• Each pie slice translates into a single bubble from the chart on the right.
• Just like Pie charts, Overlapping Bubbles must have their values sorted in descending order, with the largest bubble first painted in the back.

From Pie Chart to Doughnut Chart

Doughnut Charts (or Donut Charts) are the closest cousins to the Pie charts. Doughnuts are actually just pies with a hole cut out in the middle, and natural cool alternatives to pie charts.

• Compared to Pie Charts, Doughnut Charts reduce the clutter, as they waste less real estate.
• Doughnut Charts may also show additional textual information inside the empty hole.
• In Pie Charts we compare slice angles, while in Doughnut Charts we compare outside arc sizes. Consider this when you use them as pie chart alternatives.

Variable Size Donut charts will add another additional dimension, to variate not just their arc length for each segment, but also the segment’s radius. For one-to-one equivalence with a Pie chart, you may use segments with constant arc length and vary just the radius.

• Variable Size Donut may look fancy and spectacular, but they may also introduce additional unnecessary complexity for interpreting data.
• Human eye has problems easily interpreting circular slices in any direction. When two variables are involved, try rather rectangular alternatives, such as Bar Mekko and Marimekko Charts.

Block Bar Doughnuts are simple variations of the Variable Size Donut charts, in which each segment is slightly moved to look like it’s coming out from the adjacent segments.

• As for the typical Variable Size Doughnut presented before, Block Bar Doughnuts are just more fancy representations with no actual benefits in making the charts easier to read.
• It must be added that Variable Size Doughnut charts come in three different styles, based on where their inner hole is places. Beside the last two versions presented here, there is also a style that pushes all doughnut segments to align at a common outer margin.

Semi-Doughnut Charts are doughnuts cut in half, with the lower half hidden. But you may use them as well as creative alternatives to Pie charts.

• The semi-doughnut is a popular representation for a simple Solid Gauge, with just two segments.
• Sum of all segments on this half-circle must still be at 100%, which could be somehow confusing.
• On Pie and Doughnut charts, first slice is usually represented on 12 o’clock. While Semi-Doughnut charts must start from minus 90 degrees from the left. Slices must always be filled out to the right, clockwise.

From Pie Chart to Radial Chart

Polar Area Charts (also called Nightingale Rose charts, from their inventor) have all their slices with the exact same angle, and the slices vary in radius instead.

• Just like for the Variable Size Doughnuts charts, you may vary this graph in both slice angle and slice radius, in which case it will rather be called a Variable Size Pie Chart.
• Rose charts are still popular and look spectacular, but they may introduce additional unnecessary details people may start to interpret. There could be a tendency to look at and start comparing the angles, when in Polar Area charts they are all the same and irrelevant.
• It’s as hard for the human eye, if not harder, to compare and estimate differences between slice radius, as for slice angles, especially when they have close values and are not adjacent.

Radial Column Charts are like Polar Area Charts, but with gaps left between the slices.

• To visualize how a Radial Column chart is created, translate first your Pie chart to a single-series vertical Column chart. Then bend in your mind the left and right margins of the orthogonal plot, until the two are joined below. The columns also stretched at the bottom, and got larger on top.
• The modern tendency nowadays is to replace the Radial Column Charts with equivalent Circular Bar Plots, which show a hole in the middle, and use it eventually for the axis labels. They may also be used as pie chart alternatives.

Radial Bar Charts are like parallel horizontal bars that you bend down from their right end. The longest bar – usually the outside bar – is displayed at 270 degrees, and the other bars have their length adjusted to keep them proportional.

• Just like Bar charts, it’s easier to see differences between close values than on the Pie chart.
• Unlike Bar charts, Radial Bar charts look fancier, but they may introduce unnecessary complexity in reading the chart.

From Pie Chart to Matrix Chart

Dot Matrix Charts are like full 100% stacked dots on both horizontal and vertical directions. They look like walls of N rows and M columns of dots. But they may be used as better cool alternatives to Pie charts.

• It may lead to too much clutter to show data labels over the matrix, so the chart may require a legend.
• Largest values, represented as successive dots, are filled-in from the upper-left corner to the right, then one row down, to the bottom.
• Very close colors, as here before, may be not very well suited, as there is no line to separate the dots.

Waffle Charts are close cousins of the Dot Matrix charts, in which the dots are replaced by rectangular bricks. Waffle Charts can be also used as interesting creative alternatives to Pie charts.

• As for the Dot Matrix, it may lead to too much clutter to show data labels over the waffles, so the chart may require a legend.
• Unlike the Dot Matrix, largest values, represented as successive bricks, are filled-in from the lower-right corner to the left, then one row up, to the top.
• Very close colors, as here before, may be not very well suited, as there is no line to separate the bricks.

From Pie Chart to Funnel Chart

Funnel Charts use churn data and may also show percentage values. But, unlike the Pie charts, the “whole” is just the initial 100% value. You may switch from a Pie to a Funnel chart, when you actually used the Pie chart with the wrong kind of data in the first place, as here below:

• This example was left on purpose with the sum of all percent values to 100%. This may lead you to the idea you need a pie. In Funnel Charts however, only the initial top value is a portion from a whole. Familiarity here is 31% of all possible clients, but Consideration is not 25% of them all, but 25% of those with Familiarity. Awareness is also 21% of those with Consideration, not 21% of them all. And so on…
• Whenever the sum of your percentage values is not 100%, do not use a Pie.
• There are different types of Funnel charts, which can make the reading of this chart type difficult as well. Funnels may show top segments with either variable height, or variable area. Funnel Bars show horizontal bars with variable width.

Pyramid Charts are like upside-down funnels, and you may in theory switch from a Pie chart to a Pyramid chart just like you did for a funnel, when you used the wrong data for your pie in the first place:

• Pyramid Charts should only be used today for textual data, to show steps or phases of a process on segments with equal height. Consider only moving to a Pyramid Diagram from a Categorized Pie Diagram.
• Pyramid segments may vary in height or area, which makes then hard to read.

From Pie Chart to Word Cloud

Word Clouds may seem like very unusual alternatives to Pie charts, but if you count words from a text for your pie data, it may actually make sense. Rendering the most frequently used words with the biggest font may be more visible than the largest pie slices used for them in the Pie chart.

A typical “Lorem Ipsum” text has the most frequent word “lorem”, as in this simplistic example below:

Alternatives to Pie Charts Cheat Sheet

Use and share the infographic below as a cheatsheet whenever you think about switching from a Pie chart to another chart type. I’d appreciate any comment on these pie chart alternatives. Please spread the word, let more people know about it, and send them eventually to this post for more details.

Categories: Data Visualization

Cristian Scutaru

I designed and implemented the Data Xtractor suite, with Model Xtractor, Query Xtractor, and Visual Xtractor as separate modules. I am a software architect and developer with over 30 years professional experience. I’ve been working with relational databases for almost three decades and I was constantly unhappy with the relative limitation of those tools used to connect directly to a platform, and instantly extract and display data in flexible ways.