Use fill effects to emphasize important values in a chart

Emphasize your point by applying a unique color to a single series element in an Excel chart.

When you speak, you emphasize a point by changing your tone, your stance, your facial features, and so on. When using a chart, you have to rely on visual tools to get your message across. Displaying a single item in a different color is an easy way to draw attention to a point-making value. Consider the chart below. With a quick glance, you can see that December was the best month and June was the worst. In addition, while there were a couple of slow months, most months the site traffic was good (good being subjective to your expectations of course, but for the sake of this discussion, these numbers are good). In addition, hits went way up in December. That's a lot of information at a glance, but what point does it make? It doesn't really, it just shares the data in a visual way. You're left to interpret the story, for the most part. Depending on the point you're making, you can have the chart talk a little louder. For instance, the next two charts share two different messages. Hits were up in December—woo hoo! And... What in the world went wrong in June? (Believe it or not, the June bar is red, you just can't see it very easily -- more on that later.) You decide the message by applying the emphasis, which is an easy task in Excel. First, you'll probably want to de-emphasize everything but the value you want to stand out. The best way to do so is to use a dull or benign color for the other series elements, as follows:

  1. Right-click any bar in the series to select the entire series.
  2. Choose Format Data Series from the resulting context menu.
  3. On the Patterns tab, choose a color, such as light gray, from the palette in the Area section and click OK.
If the chart's plot area is also gray (the default), change the background to white by right-clicking the background and choosing Format Plot Area from the resulting context menu. Choose white from the palette and click OK. Now you're ready to emphasis a single value, as follows:

  1. Click the item in question, which will select the entire series. In this case, select December, the highest value, or June, the lowest value.
  2. Click the item a second time to select just that value.
  3. Right-click the item and choose Format Data Point.
  4. On the Patterns tab, choose an appropriately happy or cheerful color and click OK.
With just a few clicks, your chart shares a bigger picture -- or a more narrow picture, depending on your perspective. Just remember that the color should reflect your message. Something to ponder… Now, about that June-emphasizing bar. It has a problem that's not all that unique. Even though we've applied a meaningful color, red, to convey a message, the bar itself is so small that it's barely visible. What other way might you emphasis an item that otherwise gets lost?