How to Create a Bullet Graph in Excel

This tutorial will demonstrate how to create a bullet graph in all versions of Excel: 2007, 2010, 2013, 2016, and 2019.

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Developed by data visualization expert Steven Few, the bullet graph is a modified column or bar chart used for tracking performance against a goal.

Conventionally, the graph contains five main elements: (1) a text label describing the graph, (2) a quantitative scale for evaluating the actual value, (3) three to five qualitative scale ranges, (4) a data marker that displays the target value, and (5) a data marker representing the actual value.

The graph was designed as a superior substitute to meter and gauge charts, especially when it comes to illustrating large amounts of data; it displays more information with less footprint, preserving precious dashboard space.

Depending on the task at hand, a bullet graph can be either horizontal or vertical. However, here’s the rub:

Unless you use our Chart Creator Add-in that allows you to build bullet graphs—as well as other advanced Excel charts—in just a few clicks, you will have to build the graph yourself because it is not supported in Excel.

In this step-by-step tutorial, you will learn how to create this vertical bullet graph in Excel from scratch, as introduced in Steven Few’s Bullet Graph Design Specifications:How to create a bullet graph in Excel

Getting Started

For illustration purposes, let’s assume you run a huge network of digital properties and set out to analyze the ad revenue generated in five states across the US:

Bullet graph original data

Since the table elements are pretty self-explanatory, let’s dive right in without beating around the bush.

Step #1: Plot a stacked column chart.

To start with, create a simple stacked column chart.

  • Highlight the entire table containing your actual data, including the header row (A1:F6).
  • Go to the Insert tab.
  • Click the “Insert Column or Bar Chart” icon.
  • Choose “Stacked Column.”

Plot a stacked column chart

Step #2: Change the axis labels.

Occasionally, Excel can misplace the text labels. We want the states to show on the horizontal axis labels and the ratings to show in the legend labels. To fix that, just follow a few simple steps:

  • Select the chart plot.
  • Navigate to the Design tab.
  • Click on the “Switch Row/Column” button.

Switch Row/Column in Excel

Step #3: Create a combo chart and push Series “Target” and Series “Actual” to the secondary axis.

Some additional tweaking will be needed to get all the graph elements in the right place.

First, right-click on any of the data markers representing Series “Target” (F2:F6) and choose “Change Series Chart Type.

Change Series Chart Type

Once there, do the following:

  • Move Series “Actual” (E2:E6) to the secondary axis by checking the “Secondary Axis” box.
  • For Series “Target,” change “Chart Type” to “Stacked Line with Markers” and push it to the secondary axis as well.

Create a combo chart

Step #4: Delete the secondary axis.

Get rid of the secondary axis as you no longer need it. Right-click on the secondary axis (the numbers along the right side of the chart) and choose “Delete” to remove it.

Delete the secondary axis

Step #5: Create the markers for Series “Target.”

It’s time to set up the horizontal bars that will represent the target values. Right-click on any of the data markers symbolizing Series “Target” and choose “Format Data Series.”

Create the data markers for Series "Target"

From there, in the task pane that pops up, remove the lines connecting the markers:

  • Click the “Fill & Line” icon.
  • In the Line tab, select “No Line.”

Remove the lines connecting the markers

Without closing the task pane, do the following to design the horizontal bars:

  1. Switch over to the Marker tab.
  2. Under Marker Options:
    1. Select “Built-in.
    2. From the Type drop-down list, choose “Dash.
    3. Set the marker size to “20.”
  3. Under Fill:
    1. Select “Solid fill.
    2. Click the “Fill Color” icon to open the color palette and set the color to red.
    3. Scroll down to the Border section and set the border to “Solid Line” and the color to red as well.

Design the horizontal bars

Step #6: Adjust the gap width for the “Actual” columns.

By convention, the “Target” bars should be slightly wider than the “Actual” columns.

Right-click on any of the columns representing Series “Actual” and choose “Format Data Series.”

Adjust the gap width for the "Actual" columns

Now, slim the columns down:

  • Switch to the Series Options tab.
  • Adjust the Gap Width value based on your actual data (the higher the value, the narrower the columns). In this case, I recommend 300%.

Set the Gap Width to 300

Step #7: Recolor the “Actual” columns black.

Jump to the Fill & Line tab and, under Fill, select “Solid fill” and change the color of the columns to black.

Recolor the "Actual" columns black

Step #8: Color the quantitative scale.

Next, color the quantitative scale to differentiate the qualitative ranges—it may be something as simple as traffic light colors.

However, Steven Few emphasized that using distinct hues would make it difficult for the colorblind (roughly 4.5% of the population) to interpret the nuances of the graph, meaning you’d be better off using different shades of a single color instead, going from dark to light.

While in the Format Data Series task pane, select each section of the quantitative scale and recolor accordingly (Series Options > Fill > Solid Fill > Color).

Color the quantitative scale

Step #9: Adjust the gap width between the chart columns.

If the columns look too skinny, you might want to increase the gap width between them to improve readability. To do that, repeat the process outlined in Step #6 (Format Data Series > Series Options > Gap Width).

Adjust the gap width between the chart columns

Step #10: Add the data labels (optional).

As one final adjustment, add data labels showing the “Actual” values:

  • Right-click on the “Actual” column.
  • Choose “Add Data Labels.”

Add the data labels (optional)

Change the color of the labels to white and make them bold (Home > Font) to help them stand out.

Bullet graph in Excel

So that’s how it’s done! Gauges and meters no longer have you over a barrel, as bullet graphs empower you neatly display the same data using half the space.

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Download our free Bullet Graph Template for Excel.

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