Quick Fixes: Running Total Charts

Tim Lafferty

More posts by Chloe
Tableau Chart


Best Practices: Running Total Chart

A few tips for creating effective running total charts in Tableau

Generally speaking, I’ve never been a fan of running total charts. Before I began exploring the vast capabilities of Tableau, most of the running total charts I’ve encountered seemed muddy and hard to decipher at best (see the below example). After learning how to properly display running information, this chart has become one of my main go-to charts for displaying performance over time.

In this Quick Fix article, we’re going to talk about ways to make your existing running total charts stand out. I will be using the Superstore Sample data from Tableau’s built-in data sources.

For a step-by-step instruction on building the initial Running Total chart, check out this article.

1. Make the lines a neutral color

The last thing you want to do is overwhelm the end-user with a dozen aggressively-colored squiggly lines across the screen. Choose a neutral color that is still visible but can easily be hidden in the background. Personally, I use shades of grey but I’m not known for having a creative sense of colors.

2. Create classification calculations

We now need a dynamic calculation that identifies the current month, the previous month and the other remaining months (10 months in our case since I’m using the last 12 months)

3. Apply the new calculation to the Color field

As a rule as rule of thumb, I keep the historical months the neutral color (grey in my case), the current month a strong shade of <color> (in my case orange) and the previous month a lighter shade of <color>. If you use two conflicting colors for the current and previous months, it creates a bit of focal confusion.

4. Apply the new calculation to the Shape field

You don’t want a massive size discrepancy between lines, but enough to ensure that both the current and previous months stand out more than the other 10 months. Play around with the sizing, but keep in mind that the size differences should be complimentary to the color differences – not over-powering.

5. Have a clear color legend

Anybody that I’ve taught or that follows me knows that I don’t like traditional legends. If I can get away from the cookie-cutter legends of charting software, I will do so 100%. In the case of a running total chart, I like the idea of having your legend right beneath the title. This provides a cleaner look and keeps all the important text grouped closely.

End Result

The end result should be something resembling the image above. If done correctly, the end-user can see the following clearly:

  • Current month’s pace vs previous month’s pace
  • Current month’s pace vs historical months’ pace
  • Previous month’s total performance vs historical month’s total performance
  • Current MTD measurement

Any suggestions, corrections or questions? Feel free to comment!