Pie Charts: What Works and What Doesn’t


Infographics are about visualizing complex data and making it digestible and understandable. Even the simplest graphs can display information accurately – pie charts and bar graphs made in Excel are just as accessible as any chart on an infographic, so why bother cranking up the design on your infographics?

An important aspect of creating an infographic is making sure that your design is shareable. This is the difference between an infographic and a viral visualization (an infographic that leans more on eye-candy and niche statistics than traditional infographics do). Most of the infographics that are shared online are viral visualizations, and one of the reasons why is that they are more interesting to look at.

The infographic element that is perhaps the most difficult to creatively visualize is the ever-so-common pie chart. Here’s an example of a traditional pie chart. (Note: The data is imaginary survey data created for the purpose of this post.)

Conventional pie charts are simple as they are, but on great infographics they seem to have a little something extra. For this one, I dressed it up with a unique color palette and an attractive font (Knockout, one of my favorites). This is great for a simpler, B2B infographic, but it could use a little something more if I wanted to use it in one of my viral visualizations.

This chart has been reworked in the style of one of the infographics from our portfolio. Shrinking the smaller sections of the pie charts adds a level of depth to the graphic and makes the larger pieces more prominent, leaving more of an impression. The trick with this one is to balance the slices of the pie. This trick makes the chart a bit more interesting without completely abandoning a clean, simple aesthetic.

The hollow or “donut” pie chart is one of my favorites. It’s a bit more unique but still very simple. Leaving the white space in the center of the pie chart also creates a few more design opportunities – many designers will put accompanying copy inside of the graph, or call out the data with the percentages or an icon. There are a ton of possibilities here! I recommend this technique if you are overwhelmed with data that is best represented with pie charts–it allows your design to stay consistent and cohesive without being repetitive.

This final example is a bit more complicated, but when it’s done right it can work very well. We see it on a lot of viral visualizations. You still get your point across, but you leave a lot of workable white space and it is more visually interesting without being confusing. Notice all of the pieces begin at the same point–this chart is more of a hybrid of a bar graph and a pie chart. It works very well if you have to work with several data points.

All of these tricks can be done very easily. If you’re using Adobe Illustrator, make all of your charts using the chart tool and rework them after the fact–this way you don’t have to eyeball the data and your graph can stay accurate. Examples three and four can be done quickly using the “minus front” tool – a huge time saver!

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