Adrian
4 min readMay 22, 2024

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Graphics We Live By - Part IV: Area Charts

Graphical Representation Series

An area chart or area graph (see A) is a graphical representation of quantitative data based on a line chart for which the areas between axis and the lines of the series are commonly emphasized with colors, textures, or hatchings (Wikipedia). It resembles a combination between line and bar charts. Each data series results in the formation of a region (aka area), allowing thus to identify the overlapping and do comparisons between the lines within the same visual display. This approach works usually well for two or three data series if the lines don’t overlap, though if more data series are added to the chart, the higher are the chances for lines to overlap or for one area to be covered by another (see B). This can easily become more than the chart can handle, even if the data series can be filtered dynamically.

Area Charts
Area Charts

Stacked area charts are a variation of area charts in which the areas are stacked, much like stacked bar charts (see C). Research papers abound with such charts, probably because they allow to stack together multiple data series within a small area, reflecting thus the many variables involved. Such charts allow to track individual as well as intermediary and total aggregated trends.

Stacked Area Charts
Stacked Area Charts

Unfortunately, besides the fact that some areas are barely distinguishable or that distant areas can’t be compared (especially when one area in between has strong fluctuations), the lack of ticks and/or gridlines (see D) makes it difficult to interpret such charts. Moreover, when the lines are smoothed, it becomes even more difficult to identify the actual points. To address this it makes sense to use markers for data points to show that one works with discrete and not continuous points (see further paragraphs).

In general, it’s recommended to reduce the number of data series to 3–5. For example, one can split the data series into 2–3 groups or categories based on series’ characteristics (e.g. concentrate on the high values in one chart, respectively the low values in another, or group the low values under an “others” category) which would allow to make better comparisons.

Being able to sort the time series on their average value or other criteria (e.g. showing the areas with minimal variations first) can improve the readability of such charts.

Moreover, areas under curves can easily hide missing data (see F) and occasionally negative values (which is the case of the 8th example), or distort the rate of change when the charts are wider than needed (compare F with C).

Area Charts Variations
Area Charts Variations

Area charts seem to encode a dimension as area, though that’s not necessarily the case. It seems natural to display time series of different granularities (day, month, quarter, year), though one needs to be careful about one important aspect! On a time scale, the more one moves away from the day to weeks and months as time units, the bigger the distance between points is. In the end, all the points in a series are discrete points (not continuous), though the bigger the distance, the more category-like these series become (compare F with C, the charts have the same width).

Using the area under the curve as dimension makes sense when there’s continuity or the discrete points are close enough to each other to resemble continuity. Thus, area charts are useful when the number of points is high (and the distance between them becomes neglectable), e.g. showing daily values within a year or the months over several years.

According to [2], [3] and several other sources, using the area to encode quantitative information is a poor graphical method and this applies to pie charts and area charts altogether. By contrast, for a bar chart (see G) one has either height or width to use for comparisons while the points are always as bars delimited. Scatter plots (see H), even if they might miss the time dimension, they better reflect the dispersion of the points along the lines delimited by encoding the color (compare H with E).

Alternatives for Area Charts
Alternatives for Area Charts

The more category-like and the fewer data points the data series have, the higher the chances for other graphical representation tools to be able to better represent the data. For example, year or even quarter-based data can be better visualized with Sankey charts (unfortunately, not available as standard Excel visual yet).

Conversely, there are situations in which the area chart isn’t supposed to convey specific values but to get a feeling of areas’ shape, or its simplicity is more appropriate, situations in which area charts do a good job. In the end, a graphical representation’s utility is linked to a chart’s purpose (and audience, of course).

References:
[1] Wikipedia (2023) Area charts ( link)
[2] William S Cleveland (1993) Visualizing Data
[3] Robert L Harris (1996) Information Graphics: A Comprehensive Illustrated Reference

Originally published at https://sql-troubles.blogspot.com. Written May-2024.

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Adrian

IT professional/blogger with more than 24 years experience in IT - Software Engineering, BI & Analytics, Data, Project, Quality, Database & Knowledge Management