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A few months ago, one of my favorite students brought this graph to Office Hours:

(These aren’t the exact numbers, age ranges, or years. But you get the idea.)

She already knew how to make population pyramids in Excel. Population pyramids require Level 4 vizardy skills. Woohoo!

But she wanted to take the population pyramid a step further, and she wanted to show how the population might change over time, especially for older adults.

So, she followed this online tutorial to add those curvy lines. (Yep, it’s made with a combo chart in Excel.)

Bare-Minimum Edits

As usual, we tackled the bare-minimum edits first:

We also tried color-coding by year, instead of color-coding by sex, like this:

We were getting closer!

But we wanted to make sure that the forecasted numbers for 2030 were extremely obvious to viewers. For most of us, this isn’t a chart type that we see every day.

I was hesitant to keep the combo chart. This was an apples-to-apples comparison, so I wanted to use all bars.

(The bars/lines combo seemed more like an apples-to-oranges comparison, which this isn’t.)

Small Multiples Population Pyramids

Here’s a Dataviz Rule of Thumb:

Anytime your graph feels too dense… try creating more graphs.

Small multiples layouts can save the day!

The Traditional Version

We tried traditional and storytelling versions of a small multiples population pyramid.

Here’s what the traditional version would look like inside her report.

You’ll notice the topical titles, color-coding by category (one hue per year), and how the graphs are all one color.

The Storytelling Version

And here’s what the storytelling version would look like inside her report.

This version draws attention to the 65+ age group, which she wanted.

You’ll notice the takeaway title, the color-coding by category (one hue per year), the dark-light contrast (highlighting the residents who are ages 65+), and the annotations.

The Bottom Line

Even with the bare-minimum edits, I wasn’t a fan of the original combo chart. The bar-line combo was suggesting an apples-to-oranges comparison.

Instead, anytime your chart feels too dense (when there are literally lines and bars combined within one chart), try a small multiples layout instead!

We can format the chart as a traditional or storytelling version. In this case, storytelling was a perfect fit because we especially wanted to highlight the 65+ age group.

More about Ann K. Emery
Ann K. Emery is a sought-after speaker who is determined to get your data out of spreadsheets and into stakeholders’ hands. Each year, she leads more than 100 workshops, webinars, and keynotes for thousands of people around the globe. Her design consultancy also overhauls graphs, publications, and slideshows with the goal of making technical information easier to understand for non-technical audiences.

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