Illustrator has a lot of strengths as a program for creating vector graphics. Many designers don’t realize Illustrator has a secret weapon (ok it’s not really a secret, more like an under utilized feature) in the Chart tool. Today I’ll show you three ways to be more awesome at creating charts in Illustrator.


The Chart Tool Doesn’t Get No Respect

Why don’t more people use it? Since it was first introduced several years ago, other areas of Illustrator have been streamlined while the Charts tool has languished in all its clunky glory. It is confusing to use and has a UI that is not at all intuitive. Once you know how to use it though, it is an immense time saver.


Why Even Bother Designing Charts in Illustrator?

  • Color themes – you can create one chart and make all the other charts off of it
  • Excel import – you can import and from Excel spreadsheets or other spreadsheets
  • Edibility – It saves you a ton of time to be able to copy or reuse a chart or set of colors and graphic styles. This is huge when you have a big report to illustrate with 20 charts or sets for infographics
  • Vector format that is resizable. Remember that chart you made for that infographic online? Now they want to use it on a 3 foot banner at the trade show. This is no sweat when you have a vector format graphic
  • Accuracy of info. 17% is actually 17%. No guess work on the accuracy of the size of bars or pies or other things showing data.

A large part of mastering Illustrator or any other software is learning the shortcuts and time saving tools.


Way 1: Import from Excel

You can import data from Excel into Illustrator for your charts. This is a great time saver especially when you are working with clients or colleagues. Here’s how to do it:

Open up Illustrator and pick the type of chart you want to make. Let’s make a pie chart.

adding a chart and sizing it in illustratorYou will get a handle of crosshairs as if you were drawing a shape. You can draw a rough size or just click on the art board and it will bring up a size dialog box. Enter the size you want it to be and click ok. Not big enough? You can resize it later with the Transform tool very easily.



copy data from a spreadsheetNow let’s import a spreadsheet. Right click on the chart and choose data from the option menu. I find the import tool works better for bar graphs than pie charts, so just copy the data from your spreadsheet then paste it into the data window.


copy and paste results in a chart like this

In a previous blog post, I mentioned how formatting the data affects how the chart is processed and displays. The labels go in the row above the data row for pie charts. Our sample spreadsheet is not set up like that, so we will need to make adjustments.

Click the transpose button. It is the second button in the data window to the right of the input field. There we go, all better. Now we have a usable chart.

using the transpose tool in illustrator









We will still need to color it and decide about displaying numbers, but we now have an editable graph that we can adjust size, color and effects on. Once we have it looking the way we want, we can easily reuse it for other pie charts or go back and edit the data.


Way 2: Create a Chart and Enter Data Manually

I’ve covered how to create a pie chart in a previous post and am working on a guide that covers other types of graphs and charts as well. This method works fine for small charts or if you have to format the data a specific way for it to process the chart correctly. The steps are the same in Illustrator as Way 1, except you will enter the labels and data in by hand.


Way 3: Draw a Chart using a Spreadsheet or Other Reference

Many designers use the shape or pen tools to draw their charts. For simple projects it is quicker, but in the long run that is not sustainable. When I have done this, I always use a spreadsheet chart or other reliable source to make sure my data is represented accurately. My big caution to you here is to make sure your data is shown accurately when using this method. It is very easy to get the sizes of individual chart items wrong when you go back and make edits since you don’t have live data to work with. The good reasons to do this are speed and flexibility of styling and text layout for small or quick projects. It is not evil or bad to do it this way, just a smart use of limited time.

So how can you do this? Bar charts are super easy, just use the rectangle shape tools or pen tool to draw the size you need for each item, then use the line tool to make any tick marks or chart lines. You can also use any other vector object to represent items by size or quantity. For example, in our pets in households example, Dogs could be larger than cats, rabbits larger than birds, or there could be four and a half dogs. The pathfinder tool is your friend here if you need to make pie charts.


What questions do you have about creating charts in Illustrator?