A surface chart plots data on a three-dimensional surface, in a similar way that topographic maps visualize elevation. The colors and patterns represent values within the same range. This chart type is especially useful for finding the optimum results when comparing two or more sets of data.

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Surface Chart Basics

Sections

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A surface chart mainly consists of 6 sections:

  • Plot Area: This is where the visual representation of data takes place.
  • Chart Title: The title of the chart. Giving your chart a descriptive name will help your users easily understand the visualization.
  • Legend: The legend is an indicator that helps distinguish the data series. Unlike in traditional charts, the legend in a surface chart displays the colors or patterns for the areas that share the same range of values.
  • Horizontal axis: The axis that includes the categories of the data, also known as the x-axis.
  • Vertical axis: The axis that represents the measured values, also known as the y-axis.
  • Depth axis: The axis that represents the series of the data, also known as the z-axis.

Types

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There are 4 commonly used types of surface charts.

  • 3-D Surface: The default surface chart type where data is displayed from a 3-D perspective. This chart type resembles a 3-D column chart.
  • Wireframe 3-D Surface: This type uses lines instead of filled areas to connect data points.
  • Contour: This is the 2-D version of surface charts. This type represents a “view from above” perspective.
  • Wireframe Contour: The version of the Contour type that uses lines instead.

 

Inserting a Surface Chart in Excel

Begin by selecting your data in Excel. If you include data labels in your selection, Excel will automatically assign them to each column and generate the chart.

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Go to the INSERT tab in the Ribbon and click on the Radar, Surface and Stock Chart icon to see the surface chart types. Click on the desired chart type to insert in section named Surface. In this example,  we’re going to be using 3-D Surface.

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Once you make a selection, Excel will create the default version of the chart. Now, let’s take a look at customization options.

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Customizing the Chart

You can customize pretty much every chart element and there are a few ways you can do this. Let’s look at each method.

Double-Clicking

Double-clicking on any item in the chart area pops up the side panel where you can find options for the selected element. Please keep in mind that you don’t need to double click another element to edit it once the side panel is open, the side menu will switch to the element. The side panel contains element specific options, as well as other generic options like coloring and effects.

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Right-Click (Context) Menu

Right-clicking an element will display the contextual menu, where you can modify basic element styling  like colors, or you can activate the side panel for more options. To display the side panel, choose the option that starts with Format. For example, this option is labeled as Format Data Series… in the following image.

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Chart Shortcut (Plus Button)

In Excel 2013 and newer versions, charts also support shortcuts. You can add/remove elements, apply predefined styles and color sets and filter values very quickly.

With shortcuts, you can also see the effects of options on the fly before applying them. In the following image, the mouse is on the Data Labels item and the labels are visible on the chart.

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Ribbon (Chart Tools)

Whenever you activate a special object, Excel adds a new tab(s) to the Ribbon. You can see these chart specific tabs under CHART TOOLS. There are 2 tabs – DESIGN and FORMAT. While the DESIGN tab contains options to add elements, apply styles, modify data and modify the chart itself, the FORMAT tab provides more generic options that are common with other objects.

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Customization Tips

Preset Layouts and Styles

Try preset layouts or styles to improve visualization of your chart. Instead of dealing with all elements by yourself give a chance to Excel.

You can find styling options in the DESIGN tab under CHART TOOLS or in brush icon of Chart Shortcuts. Below are some examples.

Applying a Quick Layout:

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Changing colors:

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Update Chart Style:

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Changing chart type

You can change the type of your chart any time from the Change Chart Type dialog. Select one of the datasets (series) on the chart, and click on Change Chart Type in the Right-Click (Context) Menu, or from the DESIGN tab. Alternatively, you can change the chart types for all datasets by right-clicking on an empty chart area.

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The Change Chart Type menu contains the same options as the Insert Chart dialog. You can find Wireframe or Contour versions here.

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Switch Row/Column

By default, Excel assumes that vertical labels of your data are the categories, and the horizontal ones are the data series. If your data is reversed, click Switch Row/Column button in the DESIGN tab, when your chart is selected.

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Move a chart to another worksheet

By default, charts are created inside the same worksheet as the selected data. If you need to move your chart into another worksheet, use the Move Chart dialog. Begin by clicking the Move Chart icon under the DESIGN tab or from the right-click menu of the chart itself. Please keep in mind you need to right-click in an empty place in chart area to see this option.

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In the Move Chart menu, you have 2 options:

  • New sheet: Select this option and enter a name to create a new sheet under the specified name and move your chart there.
  • Object in: Select this option and select the name of an existing sheet from the dropdown input to move your chart to that sheet.

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