How to Make A Brain-Friendly Bar Graph in Google Sheets

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There are thousands of blog posts and videos that show you how to make a bar graph in Google Sheets.

Why choose this one?

Because it will teach you how to create one that’s beautiful and brain-friendly according to neuroscience. And it will communicate your data story quickly, accurately, and intuitively. 

But why is it important to make Google charts and graphs brain-friendly?

Well, a lot of data visualization tools add ancillary visual junk that doesn’t add value to and can interfere with comprehension. All that extra stuff contributes to something called cognitive load, which slows down the consumption of your data.

Fortunately, Google Sheets already uses several data visualization best practices in its bar graphs such as white backgrounds and a 50% gap width between bars. And, it does add a few visual elements that you’re better off without.

I present to you my top-secret, patented* process for bringing some joy-sparking Konmari tidying magic to your Google sheets charts:

The Chart Detox. It’s easy, it’s powerful, and it takes less than 10 minutes of your valuable time.

*not actually patented

This Google Sheets bar graph tutorial post (which has been updated for 2019) dives right into the action, and it works for both horizontal bar graphs and vertical column charts.

If you’re interested in understanding the data visualization principles of the Detox, check out my companion post on building brain-friendly stacked bar charts in Excel and PowerPoint.

Don’t forget to download your free Google Sheets Bar Chart Detox Checklist!

When Should I Make Bar Charts in Google Sheets?

Bar charts, while not terribly innovative, are quite commonplace for a GOOD reason. They are simple to interpret, have zero learning curve, and have little room for inaccurate interpretation.

This makes bar charts universally appealing and, in my experience, an excellent choice for communicating categorical ranking or the order of composition (or parts of a whole).

This process also applies to Google Slides and Google Docs, as they all open a linked Google Sheet to insert a bar graph.

Here’s the Chart Detox in action for creating brain-friendly bar charts in Google Sheets:

How to Make a Bar Graph in Google Sheets that is Brain-Friendly

First, open a fresh Google Sheet. Create a table of data with one column of categories and one column of measures or metrics.

If you’d like, you can make a copy of this a sample data set in Google Sheets by right-clicking on the link to open in a new tab and making a copy.

NOTE: Be sure to format the measures before creating the chart; you’ll see why in a moment.

Click and drag to select the data table like so:

Highlight data table - Bar Chart in Google Sheets - Lea Pica

Then, go to the Menu → Insert → Chart. Google Sheets will automagically select a vertical column chart. Pretty clean for default settings, see here:

Default graph settings - Bar Graph in Google Sheets - Lea Pica

And, there are still several ways we can detox further. NOTE: Once you change the Chart Type, you will lose any formatting customizations.

Double-click to select the chart area and open the Chart Editor menu on the right.

When to use a Bar Graph vs. a Column Chart

IF you’re using a time-based series, proceed to the next step. But IF you’re using categories for ranking or composition, use a horizontal bar chart. This is for two reasons:

  1. Horizontal bar charts prevent long category labels from going diagonal ( a readibility issue)
  2. Left-to-right visuals imply a passage of time to our brains.

To switch, click Chart Style → Bar Chart. Now you have a Google Sheets bar chart that’s ready for cleanup like this:

Bar chart before detox - Bar Graph in Google Sheets - Lea Pica

Next, go to the Chart Editor, click the Customize tab, and go through each menu item:

Chart Style

Keep the background white and choose whatever font suits you (preferably sans serif). Do NOT color the background or enable 3D formatting as these are not brain-friendly!

Chart & Axis Titles

First, select Chart Title and set Title Font Size to 24 – 30. The default font setting is a bit small for readability. We want to maximize readability, especially when pasting as an image into Google Slides or PowerPoint.

Select Chart Subtitle and enter what the chart is displaying, such as “Marketing Channels by Clicks, Q2’19”, like so:

Customize the subtitle with the chart contents - Bar Graph in Google Sheets - Lea Pica

This might seem duplicative of the title, but we’re going to change the title text in a few steps. Hang tight!

Then, set the subtitle Title Font Size to 16.

Last, select “Horizontal Axis” and delete the text from “Title text” to remove (you don’t need it). Repeat to remove the Vertical Axis title as well.

Series

Under Format → Color, change the color of your bars by clicking the Color picker and selecting a gray shade. This creates an emotionally neutral backdrop for your data story. The fourth gray from the left is a great choice (listed as “dark gray 2”:

Set the graph color to neutral gray - Bar Graph in Google Sheets - Lea Pica

Then, Click to activate Data Labels. Select Position → Outside End.

Select Data Label Font Size → 16pt. If the labels stretch beyond the chart area, click to select the chart area and grab the right middle handlebar to bring the labels back inside the viewable area.

Last, select Text Color → match the gray bar color. Your bar graph should now look like this:

After setting to gray and adding data labels - Bar Graph in Google Sheets - Lea Pica

Legend

First, select Position → None. Legends add unnecessary visual noise to charts with single measures.

Vertical Axis

Select Label font size → 14 – 16.

Gridlines

Under Horizontal Axis, select Major Gridline Count → None. This removes extra line noise and the horizontal axis, which you no longer need if you use data labels. Your chart should look like this:

Remove legend and gridlines - Bar Graph in Google Sheets - Lea Pica

So, this is where your data storytelling power comes in. Right now, you have a blank canvas of observational data. Here are two tools for telling your data story:

  1. Use selective color to emphasize certain data points
  2. Use the chart title as a “Buzzfeed” headline

Telling Your Data Story with Color

First, think about which data point you’d like to call out. Let’s say we want to highlight that Paid Search had the most clicks. Here’s what you’ll do:

Scroll back up to the Series menu and click Format Data Point → Add.

Select the data point you wish to emphasize.

Then, use the color picker to select a nice standout blue like this one (listed as “cornflower blue”):

That specific bar should now be blue and the data label SHOULD have changed as well. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.

See how quickly that data point stands out? Color is a powerful communication tool when used intentionally, not arbitrarily.

I suggest applying this technique to only 1-2 of your data points.

Telling Your Data Story with a Headline

Next, we’re going to use the Chart Title as a headline for our data story (Clicks vs. Marketing Channel isn’t technically accurate anyway.)

Here’s the trick: you will use the Chart Title to describe what the chart actually means, not just what the chart is, like so:

Customize chart title to reflect the meaning - Bar Graph in Google Sheets - Lea Pica

This technique is called a McKinsey title, and it helps grab your audience’s attention with a story AND connect the data dots for your audience without them having to interpret the graph themselves.

Think of it as the Buzzfeed headline for your data story!

I do wish I could selectively color certain words in the Chart Title, like matching “Paid Search” to the blue in the data bar. That creates extra connective tissue between your headline and your data. At time of writing, it isn’t possible to color individual words.

In the meantime, you can color the entire title to match the emphasized data point:

Color the title to match the data point - Bar Graph in Google Sheets - Lea Pica

Finally, click and adjust the chart area so that the category Y axis labels are neatly left-aligned with the title and the chart almost stretches to the bottom, like so:

Align graph with title and bottom - Bar Graph in Google Sheets - Lea Pica

Now, I have one more cleanup suggestion but it is a matter of preference:

Abbreviating Large Numbers in Google Sheets Graphs

I prefer to abbreviate large numbers in charts, i.e. thousands → k, millions → M, etc. I abbreviate enough to maintain distinction without getting distracted by commas and digits.

But at time of writing, I did not find a way to customize the format of data labels in the Google Sheets bar chart itself. I found a way around this by changing the format of the source data.

Since the sample data values are above 1,000, I abbreviated with a “k” to one decimal place.

To do this, change the source data number format by highlighting the data cells, going to Format → Number →  Custom Number Formats and entering #,##.0,”k” in the field. The sample number should show as “1.2k”, like so:

Abbreviate large numbers with custom formatting - Bar Graph in Google Sheets - Lea Pica

Click Apply. Now the chart looks even cleaner with abbreviated labels.

Here’s the final product:

Final brain-friendly bar graph - Bar Graph in Google Sheets - Lea Pica

And, voilà! That is how to make a bar graph in Google Sheets that is brain-friendly.

You are the proud new owner of a beautifully clean and clutter-free bar chart that ALSO communicates your data story quickly, clearly, and accurately.

Pssst…Hey Google, if you’re listening: please add a data source footnote field to the chart to complete the visualization! For now, you can use a small text box overlaid on the chart.

To make learning this process even EASIER, I’ve created a free printable Google Sheets Chart Detox Checklist for bar and line graphs! It includes a link to a Google Sheet with sample data and a detoxed chart for you to reference again and again.

Click below to request your copy:

Lea Pica Google Sheets Bar Graph Detox Download

Data Visualization Features I’d Love to See in Google Sheets Bar Graphs

If I had my way, I’d be able to do the following when I make a bar graph in Google Sheets:

  • Remove the chart border
  • Remove the axis titles with a toggle button (rather than deleting the text)
  • Change the color of individual words in the Chart Title
  • Add a data source footnote field
  • Change the format of data labels to abbreviate large numbers
  • Reliably change the color of the data label along with the data point
  • Export or save the chart as an image

For these reasons, PowerPoint and Excel are still my gold standard for presenting simple charts and graphs because of their high degree of design flexibility and impeccable resolution.

And, it’s great to see how Google is already ahead of the curve on data visualization best practice compliance and how they’re always improving!

Final Thoughts on Brain-Friendly Bar Graphs in Google Sheets

Anyone can learn how to make a bar graph in Google Sheets. With just a few simple steps, you’ll make bar graphs that communicate your data story in a compelling way that inspires ACTION.

Let’s raise the bar together, shall we?

Namaste,

Lea Signature

PS – Before you go, don’t forget to snag your free Google Sheets Bar Chart Detox Checklist!

 

Did you use the Chart Detox to learn how to make a bar graph in Google Sheets? Show me in the comments!

Lea is a digital analyst and marketer turned Data Storytelling Evangelist. She trains thousands of digital practitioners and consultants in the art and science of impactful data presentation through her blog and podcast, The Present Beyond Measure Show. Lea is also the creator of The PICA Protocol™, her practical prescription for healthy, actionable data stories that inform decisions, spark ideas, inspire action, and make YOU indispensable.