5 Steps to Better KPI Graphs

Last Updated: Tuesday, March 8, 2016 by Laura Chisholm

Well designed charts are the key to getting your message across succinctly. Keep your message clear and simple – avoid cluttering your chart with unnecessary items. Make sure that your reader knows the message that you want to give.

1. Backgrounds can distract

Make sure that the background in your chart does not detract from your message. Often gridlines can distract the eye and make your chart seem busy and cluttered. Colours are important here also. Don’t pick a gaudy chart background, plain black or white backgrounds work best

This chart has 5 background colours.

There is no apparent reason for this. It has no explanation of why the background changes after 10 units on the x-axis. The eye is actually is drawn more to the colours than the graph of the data.

2. Titles and labels communicate the message more clearly

Make sure your title tells the reader what you are measuring. It seems obvious, but it’s amazing how often it’s forgotten ! The chart above is an example of this – we have no idea what is being measured here. Target Dashboard has a new title feature which will dynamically pull data into your chart title to give a headline number that is highlighted.

We can go from this

To this



The actual sales for the current month is highlighted in the title and this will dynamically change as sales grow, or the month moves to the next

To keep our chart clear and simple, we could even remove the legend Sales Value that is on the bottom. The title tells the reader that we are measuring sales, so in this case the legend is unnecessary. Legends are a must have when you have more than one data item being shown.

3. Use two axes

Make sure that your chart axes are clearly labelled. Again it seems obvious but it is so important. Your reader needs to know the scale that you are using. If you are measuring two items that have vastly different scales, the smaller item can be swamped by the scale of the bigger item, so it’s always worth considering adding a 2nd y axis on the RHS of a chart.

You can go from this

Where we cannot see the detail of the profit line, to this

There is much more detail, and we can see what is actually happening with the profit as it is measured on a different scale to the sales value.

It’s generally recommended to put your legends at the bottom of a chart. This leaves the maximum area available for the chart. Target Dashboard does this automatically for you.

4. Too much data is bad

Don’t try to put too much information into one chart. It may save space, but it can easily confuse your reader and cause an important trend to be missed. This is our chart from above for sales v profit % with added information on cost, profit value and targets added



It looks very busy and confusing – what message is it trying to show ?

It would be better to split this into various items such as a gauge to measure actual v target, the profit value versus %, or cost v profit. It will give a much clearer picture of the state of the business overall.


5. Pick your chart wisely

Always try to pick the appropriate chart for your data. Pie charts and donut charts may look pretty, but they can be difficult to read. Multiple categories with values that are similar will trick the eye of the reader into thinking that there are no differences. Often a bar chart, with a bar for each of your items in a category will convey the message more easily




These two charts are show exactly the same data, but in the bar chart we can clearly see that one of our sales team is outperforming his colleagues.

Gauges and bar indicators are really useful to measure achievement against a target, or give a snapshot of the latest status of one of your KPI’s