Sparklines: Tiny Graphs to Show Lots of Data

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Sparklines are a great little idea. We all know that a good picture is worth a thousand words. Similarly, sometimes there’s no substitute for a graph of some data. Sparklines are an attempt to get the power of graphs into a tiny, convenient form that can be inserted where they are needed: stripped down, free of fluff, and the size of words.

You may already be familiar with them: haven’t you ever seen a list of stocks, which show the trading symbol, the stock’s current price, but also a tiny graph showing the recent history of the stock so you can see which way it’s price is moving? Here's a poor mock-up:

Sparkline Stock Example

Sparkline Stock Example

If you haven’t heard of these before, check out this excerpt from Beautiful Evidence by Edward Tufte. This link will beautifully explain what Sparklines are and how they ought to be used: Sparklines: Theory and Practice

…you back? Let’s discuss how to make them. I understand that Sparklines are going to be added as a feature in Microsoft Excel 2010. But what if you do not have that? Well, there are still many options. I’ll suggest three easy choices that can get most people started, assuming you own an older copy of Microsoft Excel:

Simple, Flexible, Costs Money:

There are commercial programs you can buy. Bissantz’s sparkmaker is a popular one, and they have a free 30 day trial. It is highly customizable, and very easy to use. Basically it installs a special Sparkline “font” into MS Office and then manipulates this font to generate graphs within Office programs like Excel and Word. You can turn the sparklines into images if you prefer.

When the trial ends, you can still use the program, but you lose some options and some flexibility.

Simplest, Limited, Free:

TinyGraphs Excel Add-in. This is a free program that will add “Tiny Graph Buttons” to your copy of Excel, allowing you to quickly turn COLUMNS (not rows) of data into line, bar, or area graph sparklines. If that is all you need, this is the perfect option.

It basically uses Visual Basic code to quickly use Excel’s own graphing functionality to make really small graphs via Excel. Because it’s using Excel’s default capabilities, you know it’s going to look OK when the file is sent to other people and that the graphs will adjust if you change the data.

A little complex, Flexible, Free:

Sparklines Development Blog. The tools from this site give you a lot of power to make sophisticated Sparklines within Excel, and it’s free. Go to the downloads area on the right, install the add-in, and study the manual for a minute or two -- just read up on the function you need. It’s not that hard; just about as tough as learning any other function in Excel. And there’s a wealth of options here, including advanced statistical charts and "heat maps" that show data over a grid. Donate if you find it useful.

If you have trouble installing the add-in, you can also download “template files” which have all the coding built into the background of a single Excel file.

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One Response to Sparklines: Tiny Graphs to Show Lots of Data

  1. Anonymous says:

    That Sparklines blog plug-in is great! So many options. Thanks

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