Chart and graph software (not Excel)
February 16, 2005 8:21 AM   Subscribe

I am looking for software that will generate charts and graphs that isn't Excel. [MI]

Our company's business is data and I need to find a new tool to help visualize it. Our online query engine uses some great software to generate charts and graphs on the fly. What I need to find is a desktop tool that can take data and easily create varying types of charts/graphs. The trick is that is has to be able to load a standard template that defines bar colors and other formating. We will be using this for presentations and the creation of charts/graphs for inclusion in printed materials.

We use Excel for quick and dirty charts but so far nobody has been able to figure out how to easily apply the styles we need --when I use that supposed feature in Excel it's always a bit off and so each chart has to be tweaked. We produce dozens and dozens of these on a weekly basis. For high quality print work my creative director builds these by hand. That doesn't scale at all.

Can anyone recommend a tool they have experience with? Needs to run on a Mac, ideally also on a PC. Not terribly price sensitive.
posted by donovan to Computers & Internet (16 answers total) could be worth checking out, though I freely admit I've no idea about the templating and data-massaging bits. It does save everything as xml files by default, which should be easier to find additional tools to beat them into shape than the more usual closed-program types.
posted by Drastic at 8:49 AM on February 16, 2005

gnuplot can plot/graph/chart just about anything and is very flexible in terms of formatting. It also lends well to automatic graph generation by scripting, and you can predefine graph styles in configuration files. However, like much open source technical software, it has a very steep learning curve. Try it as a last resort.
posted by zsazsa at 9:10 AM on February 16, 2005

Alternately, try posing your question to John at J-Walk Blog. He's written books on using Excel and may be able to tell you how to make Excel do what you want.
posted by Doohickie at 9:33 AM on February 16, 2005

R can do that, but user-friendly it ain't. You'd basically write a script that would construct the graph and then apply it to your data object(s). I don't use it for graphing much, but a colleague who does a lot of time-series work uses it to generate a whole passel of diagnostic and prediction plots automagically every time he runs a model; they're all consistent and pretty nice-looking. R runs on anything and is free; if you want to spend money on the same thing you can buy S-Plus.

If you don't care about price, you could also look into the graphics capabilities of other mainline statistical packages. Stata, SAS, SPSS.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:33 AM on February 16, 2005

Adobe Illustrator has a pretty cool chart/graph tool in it. It has the added bonus of being able to use an object you draw as a bar in the chart.
posted by glyphlet at 9:35 AM on February 16, 2005

I use R. It's fantasticly capable, very difficult to use, and the online manuals are absolutely useless if you don't already know R/S. If you want to go the R route, be sure to get a good book--I like Introduction to S & S-PLUS by Phil Spector.

Other desktop graphics software to look into are DeltaGraph and SigmaPlot.
posted by grouse at 9:45 AM on February 16, 2005

Crystal Reports might be what you're looking for. There are a few examples on the product info page.
posted by misterioso at 9:55 AM on February 16, 2005

There are a couple of ways to go.

Though seen more as a statistical tool, I've heard SPSS is decent at producing reports, plus it's available for the Mac.

Another product I've used in the past to generate reports like this is Crystal Reports. The development platform for Crystal is PC only, however you can program a web interface to view the output.
posted by SteveInMaine at 10:07 AM on February 16, 2005

Do you have a programming department you can pawn this off on? Perl and other languages (but especially Perl, maybe PHP) have access to awesome tools that can take data from a database and quickly make graphs.
posted by shepd at 10:16 AM on February 16, 2005

Why not just do some macros to tweak the style? As far as I can tell you have access to every single setting possible, although I have never done this exact thing, so... Matlab has always been my go to graphing solution, but it isn't much easier than learning Visual Basic for Excel.
posted by Chuckles at 10:28 AM on February 16, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks for the feedback. What I'm looking for would really be a tool for quickly producing graphical displays of data (mostly very straighforward bar/pie charts and line graphs) that a designer could use. The purpose is to streamline the production of published reports, etc as the data has already been crunched and any standard reports are created on the server side. So this would be used by a talented designer not a statistician or an engineer (they're busy doing other things so I don't want to go down the SPSS/SAS/Matlab route).

I'm following up on Doohickie's lead to see if I can find a way to make Excel behave. And need to do some due diligence to see if, for example, there are plug ins to things like Illustrator for handling data. Any other ideas?
posted by donovan at 10:41 AM on February 16, 2005

Use embedded charts in Powerpoint. It's what we use at work - we have an off the shelf presentation that has all the standard charts: bar, pie, stock, etc, pre-formatted, each on a different slide.

Generally, we do the crunching in Excel, then take the output, format it correctly, and paste as values into the embedded chart table. Just re-label, and ta da! Formatted just the way we likey.
posted by sachinag at 12:36 PM on February 16, 2005

You may want to check out Powerplugs from Crystal Graphics. It's a plug-in that works with both Excel and Powerpoint, but it can also run as a standalone product. You can format graphs and save them as templates, so that might help you with your automation.

I've only tried creating a few charts with it, and never tried automating, so I can't vouch for it, but it seems like a possible solution.

Unfortunately, it's Windows only...
posted by tuxster at 12:41 PM on February 16, 2005

You may also want to check out Sigmaplot. It's quite user friendly, but only windows. Maybe via virtual PC on the mac?
posted by dhruva at 3:43 PM on February 16, 2005

Check out

I think it very effective and quick way to get people to understand the data you are trying to present
posted by Sunil at 6:51 PM on February 16, 2005

KaleidaGraph is awesome, costs about $100 (I think) and works great. Only does 2-D (no 3-D surfaces or contours) but you can set everything (font, color, size, axis thickness, number and size of ticks,...), exports to Word or Powerpoint easily and you can set styles for each type of graph (histogram, line, pie chart), has spreadsheet functions. I wouldn't even consider any other graphing program if I didn't occasionally need to make 3-D plots (matlab for me). For both Mac and PC.
posted by 445supermag at 9:29 PM on February 16, 2005

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