Note: Data Dialogues is an occasional series that looks at what works well—and what doesn't work so well—in the world of data visualization. The series aims to foster a positive and constructive discussion.

Oh, the poor, maligned pie chart. The chart type that gets pushed around and bullied on the data-viz playground more than any other. Randal Olsen of /r/dataisbeautiful ran a Twitter poll asking, “Do you think pie charts should be banned from #dataviz?” Scientific or not, nearly two in five responded affirmatively:

That’s amazing if you stop and think about it. Almost 40 percent of respondents, likely mostly data viz enthusiasts who follow Olsen, think that pie charts should never, ever, ever be used. Hilariously, Andy Kirk of Visualising Data asked whether we should also run a poll about whether those people should be banned, and Irvin Almonte’s response was sheer genius:

The answer: It depends. Say it with me: IT DEPENDS.

Pie charts, in certain instances, can actually be more effective than bar charts at showing specific part-to-whole comparisons. And if the part-to-whole relationship is far more important to your message than comparing, uber-accurately, between categories, and if there are a very small number of slices, go ahead, give thought to using a pie chart. Don’t be intimidated by pie-chart haters. There, I said it.

For more of Ben's ideas and works, check out his blog, DataRemixed, and his Tableau Public page.

Read Other Posts in the Data Dialogues Series


Pie charts can be good if used in the right context. For example compare 2 metrics.

I use apple pie charts only for:
a) compare only 2 mutually exclusive measures
2) put a pie chart on a map; better option will be to place small tree maps, but this idea is still not implemented by Tableau's product managers

If the message is that A is half the pie, then a stacked bar chart would work just as well as the pie to represent that. It's a good thing the message isn't about B - D; I'd have no clue how to compare those segments in the pie, whereas this is very clear in the column chart.

You can't completely eliminate pie charts. When presenting data, you have to know your audience. Pie charts are something that most people can easily understand, so if your data lends well to a pie chart, then use a pie chart. If everyone understood data, there would be no use for data visualization as we could just show groups of numbers to everyone. But showing people a complicated viz that they don't understand is just as pointless as showing them raw data. So if you know when to use a pie chart effectively, there is no reason to eliminate them entirely.

72%. I think most people would easily comprehend a pie chart that shows a little less than ¾ than trying to figure out exactly how much is 72% of the whole. (Note that I said most people, not people who understand data.)

If the left bar chart was stacked you would get the equivalent, and superior, message to the pie chart for comparing part-to-whole.

I agree that pie charts are a useful comparison of simple proportions. I also like to use them as buttons (Action Filters). Start a viz with a pie chart and blow out the viz when the user clicks a slice.

Subscribe to our blog