An example column chart built with icons
An example column chart built with icons

How to use icons in bar charts

Here’s another way to use icons to build a simple infographic: by using stacked icons to create bar charts. This works best when the icons represent something tangible.

If you just have very simple data, you can quickly draw the chart by hand.

Infographic comparing employees with childcare responsibilities to employees wanting to work from home

But if your data is going to change or is a little more complex, let PowerPoint do the heavy lifting for you.

Step 1: Select your icons and colour them. You can’t change the colour later. I recommend starting with the inbuilt icons. Or there is a list of icon websites here. Select a solid icon to give more visual weight to the bars, rather than an outline style.
Step 2: Convert to Shape. Select the icon, go to the Graphics Format tab and click Convert to Shape. This will remove any padding around the icon. If this produces multiple shapes then Group them together.
Step 3: Create your chart. Use a bar chart or column chart. 
Step 4: Copy the icon to the clipboard. CTRL+C.
Step 5: Select the data series. If you are using one icon for all bars in your series, click once. If you just want to set icons for one particular bar, click again.
Step 6: Select the bucket part of the Format Data Point pane.  If the pane is not open, right-click on the data bar and choose Format Data Point first.
Step 7: Select FIll and then Picture or texture fill
Step 8: Picture source: Clipboard
Step 9: Choose Stack and scale with. Depending on your data, specify how many units each icon represents. In most cases, you’ll just put 1 here, but it could be 10, 100 etc.
Step 10: Fix the ratio. At first, you are likely to have a squashed or stretch icon. To fix that you have a couple of tools. You can change the size of the whole chart itself, and you can change the width of the data bars by adjusting the gap between them. You may need to do both, and stop when the icons look more or less correct, and the chart is an appropriate size for your slide.
Bar chart indicating resources requested from business to support programme

This approach works best with icons that are pretty ‘square’ i.e. roughly as tall as they are wide. Make sure you pick icons that will be easily understood by your readers. And create a key if there might be any ambiguity. Remember that your axis labels might already work as a key.

Don’t use too many different icons. That would risk confusing people before they have a chance to grasp your key message. So if you do use this approach, keep it really simple.

Since the charting engine used in Excel is the same as the one in PowerPoint, you can stack icons in spreadsheets as well.

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September 8, 2021

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