Push PowerPoint charting options to the limit

This article is by Rebecca Renner, President of Creative Minds, Inc., a 10-year-old graphic design firm that specializes in PowerPoint presentations and print collateral. Rebecca has more than 20 years of graphic design experience, including 10 years in corporate communications, handling writing and editing projects in addition to presentation and print design. She enjoys working closely with clients to help them meet their communication goals.

Rebecca Renner

Rebecca Renner

It’s easy to get frustrated with the limitations of PowerPoint’s charting tool. Creating charts solely using PowerPoint can result in data and graphs that are flat and dull. As a result, many a presenter has turned to Adobe Photoshop to create more robust charts.

Photoshop’s main appeal is its ability to create a chart image and make easy changes to any color, shape, size or opacity setting. In addition, Photoshop’s layers can provide much-needed depth to chart objects. If you use Photoshop, the end result is often a gorgeous chart. But despite the beauty of the design, Photoshop-authored charts have one major downfall — once the graphic is imported into a slideshow, it’s impossible to edit the chart’s data in PowerPoint.

Consequently, a last-minute change to slideshow’s chart requires that you go back into the original Photoshop-created document, edit it and resave it in Photoshop, then drop it back into PowerPoint. This process can be time-consuming, cumbersome, and frustrating when chart data has to be changed often. Is there a happy medium between the cookie-cutter charts of PowerPoint and the elegant creation tools of Photoshop? At the moment, presenters have two other options:

* Use third-party charting tools for PowerPoint
* Take advantage of PowerPoint’s own charting tools

The Third Wheel

There are several third-party programs, such as CrystalGraphics Charts plug-in, that can create a good- looking chart for use in PowerPoint, and most have the ability to edit the data later. This, of course, requires the receiver of the PowerPoint file (or anyone else who might need to make last-minute changes) to have the third-party charting software loaded on their computer to be able to edit the chart. Thus, the chart created with any of these tools has the same constraints as the PhotoShop-produced chart.

The other option, to explore PowerPoint’s fill effects, is one worth considering.

Clean Fill

Within PowerPoint, the charting mode gives the option to use the Fill Effect to fill a chart with a gradient, pattern, texture or picture. Most people simply use a color fill or, perhaps, a gradient fill. This is one of the many reasons a chart created solely in PowerPoint can look dull and flat. Also, the pattern and texture fill options usually never display well so these effects rarely, if ever, get used. But the picture fill option can spruce up a chart in some unique ways.

By filling a chart with a picture, it is possible to create a chart that rivals the sleekness of a Photoshop-created image. Granted, with this method there will be some pixilation on a pie chart, but it’s a small sacrifice for the ability to re-edit data later.

Within this fill effects option there are two ways to fill charts. You can fill the entire chart with one image, or fill any individual chart item with an image. No matter which option you choose, it’s important to carefully consider the image to be used. It’s not a good idea to use an image of a recognizable object, person or place because images will be scaled, skewed or distorted within a chart shape. Often this has the same result as using a poorly displayed pattern fill — it doesn’t benefit the look of the final chart.
More Filling Please

Once an image is selected, placing it within the chart is relatively easy. Here’s how:

For this example, we will fill a pie chart. Begin by creating a pie chart with data. To do so, choose Insert > Chart from the menu to bring up the chart creation menu and spreadsheet. After you’ve create a chart and placed it on the slide, double-click on the chart image to enter the chart edit mode. Once in chart mode, double-click again, but this time on the pie itself; the Format Data Series menu will appear. Select Fill Effects, then choose the Picture tab. Click Select Picture and browse to the target image on your hard drive. Click Insert, then OK, then OK again. This fills each individual piece of the pie chart with the same image. (See Figure 1.)

Pie chart filled with a chosen image

Figure 1

Figure 1: The image selected to fill the pie, and the end result. The whole pie chart isn’t filled by one image; rather, each piece of the pie is filled with a scaled copy of the same image. (The image used is actually 400 x 400 pixels, but it could have been smaller or larger. Regardless of its size, PowerPoint will scale an image to fit.)
Different Images for Different Pieces

In the second example, we’ll fill each pie piece with a different image. Follow the previous directions to get into the chart edit mode. Then, instead of double-clicking on the whole pie chart, single-click several times on one of the pie pieces until that piece only is selected. Then double-click; the Format Data Point window appears. Continue as before to add your image of choice. When this pie piece is filled, follow the same steps to fill each of the other pieces. (Figure 2 shows the three images we used to fill the pie pieces.)

Each pie piece filled with a different image

Figure 2

Figure 2: By using complementary images (left), this chart allows each individual piece to stand out.

The third example shows why a recognizable image shouldn’t be used to fill a chart or chart item, and how the image is scaled to fit into the piece of the pie. In Figure 3 the tiny image on the left is used to fill the largest piece of the pie. Note that although scaling makes the image fit the entire area, it also skews the image so that it’s almost unrecognizable.

Filling with object images not recommended

Figure 3

Figure 3: Note the distortion of the object as it’s scaled to fit the chart. Using object images within charts is not recommended.

In the fourth example, we’ll see how this fill effect works with bar charts. As in the first example, create a bar chart with data, then fill the bars with the same image. In Figure 4, compare the image on the right with the actual look of the three bars. Note how each of the bars is filled with the entire image, but the image is scaled to the dimensions of the bar. Bar 1 is the closest to the original image because its dimensions are the closest to being a square.

Fill effects on bar charts (one image)

Figure 4

Figure 4: All the bars are filled with the same pattern, but the scaling is different within each one due to height (dimension) differences.

Figure 5 shows the same bar chart, but each bar is filled with a separate image.

Figure 5

Figure 5

Figure 5: Same chart as Figure 4, but uses differences in both scale and color.

Figure 6 shows other fill options for bar charts. After creating and placing a bar chart, go to Fill Effects and find the Picture tab. From the Format menu within the Picture tab, the selected image can be stretched or stacked or you can even stack a number of images (actually using a combination of stretching and stacking).

Figure 6

Figure 6

Figure 6: Look to the Format section within the Picture tab to create stretching and stacking effects that also may benefit a chart.

Figure 7 shows these three options in action. The red bar on the left illustrates Stack and Scale To. Note that the image used is actually squeezed and stacked because our “units/picture” value is less than 1.0 (we used a value of 0.7). The two bars under Stack show the differences between an effective stack vs. an ineffective stack. The image of our texture doesn’t work using the stack effect, but the dollar bags do. The final bar on the right simply shows Stretch . This example is the most effective use of our textured image.

Figure 7

Figure 7

Figure 7: The four bars show the Format section in action and the effects of stretching, stacking, and both.
Some Final Points

Can you use these fill effects with 3-D charts? It can be done. We don’t recommend it, however. 3-D’s additional dimension often produces an effect that doesn’t look good for the overall chart. Using these effects with 2-D charts is usually more effective. Finally, don’t be afraid to play. Take the time to see what fill effects might work for your charts and what images you want to have on hand for last-minute changes. The end result is the ability to create a quick and easy chart that looks as professional as one created with Adobe Photoshop, but is editable from inside PowerPoint.

Copyright 2007 Creative Minds, Inc.

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