Pie charts have many problems.
Among them:

  • Hard for humans to visually distinguish between slices of similar but different sizes.
  • Nearly impossible to effectively label with more than 5-7 pieces or a few very small pieces.

But pie charts do have one major design benefit:

  • Occupies a predictable amount of real estate on the page/screen.

What is an alternative to a pie chart that continues to occupy a predictable amount of real estate?

  • A bar graph could be a possibility. The bars could get to the point where they are too thin, though. – MrZander Oct 30 '13 at 19:39
  • How about a pizza chart – Alvin Wong Oct 31 '13 at 3:30
  • For general inspiration see visual-literacy.org/periodic_table/periodic_table.html# is a good starting point. Which is best depends on what you want to emphasize in the data. From memory, the book by Robert Spence on visualisation got into which to choose when. – rlb Oct 31 '13 at 8:40
  • I've edited the title to be more specific and there are some very good answers. Can this question now be reopened? – GollyJer Nov 5 '13 at 15:56

The closest, but much improved, alternative is a waffle chart. It mainly solves your first problem: it is much easier to estimate the difference in area at a glance. It also has the benefit of predictable amount of real estate, if you consider the available area to be 100% and partition it accordingly. It even has the advantage of not necessarily being circular - especially if you are comfortable with anamorphic cells, you can create it with any side ratio you want.

How good it solves the second and third problem is mainly a matter of what the actual data looks like. But it is still a good alternative.

The main problem is that most chart generating software tools don't support it yet. I think there was a hack in R which involved using a calender representing library and other such ugly things.

Example pie chart

See also this question on CrossValidated. They give another example, and also offer dotplot charts as a second alternative.

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  • I've never seen this before. May I ask you where/how do you create this kind of chart? I haven't seen it in Word or Excel for that matter. – vascomakker Oct 31 '13 at 11:01
  • @vascomakker as I mentioned above, I don't know of any library which can create it automatically. I haven't seen many exmaples of it in the wild, mainly some XKCD charts which are drawn manually. – Rumi P. Oct 31 '13 at 11:34
  • Oh sorry, I didn't saw that. Well that's unfortunate, I'm just gonna wait untill Microsoft delivers that option... could be a long time though :\ – vascomakker Oct 31 '13 at 13:41
  • Here is a tutorial for a very simple waffle chart in Excel: teylyn.com/percentage-charts-with-conditional-formatting – teylyn Nov 1 '13 at 8:11

Pie charts, or any radial chart, is not always bad. The NY Times and the Economist have often used donut charts (with varying results, in all honesty) and sometimes managed to address effectively the issues you describe by splitting the chart in small multiples.

If your data can be grouped into categories, then you might want to consider a bullet graph. A bullet graph could be described as a reduced bar graph.

enter image description here

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