If you’re like me, you love the idea of charts and can think of dozens of useful applications for them, but when it comes to creating them, the frustration starts.
Charts often ease decision making. They’re a nice change from staring at rows and columns of numbers. They add some style and pizazz to your documents or presentations. However, creating complex charts in Excel can be intimidating, so it’s easy to end up settling for simple charts which require a lot of work to maintain.
Charts help shorten the decision-making process, as we can immediately see our results and where we need to make changes. The difficulty in handling data and charting is that you constantly have to go back to the chart and update it for new data.
Well, no more! I’m going to show you three easy steps to creating charts in Excel that self-update. All you’ll have to do is add data to the spreadsheet, and the chart will automatically graph it. You won’t have to depend on others to manipulate or mess up the chart, and you won’t have to do all that extra work either. You don’t need any Visual Basic skills, but you do need to understand the basic fundamentals of Excel charts.
1. Set Up a Spreadsheet
To create a self-updating chart, we first need to set up a spreadsheet that can supply the data we require. The formatting of this document is important because we need to be able to add more data on an ongoing basis.
Lay out your information and make sure that each column has a header. For my example project, I’m creating a chart that tracks sales of each Harry Potter novel at a bookshop.
The kind of chart that we’re making works best if you can extend new entries into new rows below. In my example, as new sales data is recorded, you would add it to the spreadsheet starting in row 11.
Lay out your information, double-check that every column has a sensible header, and you’ll be ready for the next step.
2. Create a Table
In Office 2016, tables have advanced. Rather than just making your data look neat and tidy, they help you group information together. The end goal here is to create a table that feeds data to a chart. Linking these two elements together allows the chart to check for newly added data in the table.
To create a table, select all the data you want to turn into a chart. Then head to the Insert tab and select Table — alternatively, you can use the shortcut CTRL + T.
In the Create Table dialog, you can tweak the cells included in the table. Tick the box labeled My table has headers, then press OK.
Your data should undergo the following change of appearance:
With that change made, we’re ready to work on our chart.
3. Insert a Chart and Add Data
Select the whole table and head to Insert > Charts to choose what kind of visualization to use. The correct chart will depend on what kind of data you’re working with. For my example, I’m using a line graph. This allows me to compare several different columns worth of data in one chart, and it works very well with automated updates.
Now is a good time to make any formatting changes or visual tweaks. Once that’s done, we can test out adding new data to the chart. Next, we need to test whether our self-updating chart actually works. Fortunately, this is by far the easiest part of the process.
To add more data, simply add another line at the bottom of your existing chart. Since my Date column dictates the values on the X-axis of my chart, I’ll start there. Date formatting can be a little tricky, so I’ll drag the bottom right corner of the cell down to populate the cell automatically. Of course, I could do this manually — I’d just have to lay out my date in the same format as preceding rows.
You may see a dialog warning you that the table inserted rows into the worksheet — this is absolutely fine. Your chart should have already updated to include the new entry on its X-axis. Assuming that’s correct, you’re safe to start adding new data to the table.
Above, you can see that I added a sales count of 10 for each book to prompt the chart to update. You can now use the chart indefinitely, simply by adding more rows to the table. However, you may have to tweak its size and formatting to present all the data properly, depending on how much you’re planning to add.
Make Excel Work for You
One of the most powerful aspects of Excel is the fact that various aspects of spreadsheets can be automated. This might be something as simple as creating a basic self-updating chart, or something more complex, like diving into Visual Basic.
By putting in a little effort up-front, you can save plenty of time later on. Challenge yourself to learn something new in Excel, and it will pay off tenfold in the long run.
Do you need help setting up your table and linking it to a chart? Or have you found a particularly potent use for a self-updating chart like this? Whether you’re asking for help or offering it up, why not join the conversation in the comments section below?
Originally written by Paul Coffman in October 2009.