top of page

How to improve your data visualisation using Illustrator: Part I

Being a researcher means that you’re working with all kinds of data on a daily basis.

But while raw numbers and p-values are great in publications, you may need to rethink your strategy if you want to communicate your findings to a non-expert or layman audience.

Yes, box and whisker plots are cool. But I am 100% certain that my neighbours haven’t heard of those since maths class. 📚

what is a box and whisker plot cat

So how can data and information can be arranged in a more visual and accessible way?

Let’s dive into what data visualisation means and how you can incorporate new visual ideas into your work.

What is data visualisation?

Data visualisation refers to the user-friendly representation of data using common graphs and plots while incorporating infographic design principles. Data presented in this manner allows the audience to easily understand context, conclusions and data relationships quickly and efficiently.

Pie chart compared to a donut chart data visualisation
Let's break that data down.

Why is data visualisation important?

“Working with data shouldn’t be at the detriment of design.”

Good data visualisation grants you and your hard-earned data the following magical traits:

  • Will communicate your work more effectively to your target audience.

  • Will be less likely to scare off the non-experts.

  • Will just look a whole lot ✨prettier✨

Interpreting complex multivariate graphs is unlikely to be on anyone’s favourite hobbies list. Understanding big-picture logic and implications in infographics, however, would be far more palatable for most people. (Disclaimer: stick to regular graphs for grant applications and publications as per any guidelines set)

In this post, you’ll find step-by-step instructions for creating three simple infographic charts. To follow along with each step, you will need access to Adobe Illustrator with some basic knowledge of how the software works. Though, you are also free to use any drawing software that you are proficient in.

Any useful keyboard shortcuts will be indicated in brackets ( ). Command ⌘ (Mac) will be synonymous to Control CTRL (Windows PC).

How to create proportional area charts

A proportional area chart, is used for comparing the relative sizes of data using the concept of area as a visual. Simple shapes like circles and squares are often used in this case.

proportional area chart example

This type of chart works well if your data has a wide variety of values. It is less effective at communicating subtle differences.

In Illustrator, click the Graph tool (hold onto your mouse click) to reveal a drop-down menu. Click the Pie Graph Tool from the options presented.

illustrator tutorial pie chart

Click onto the canvas, which will prompt you to define the size of your chart. For this exercise any size will do.

You should now see a table for you to input some data.

If you fill-in your data from top to bottom in the first column and click the Checkmark, Illustrator will create a circle for each cell of data you input. Each circle’s area will be in proportion to the other data.

Illustrator tutorial area proportional chart

Note that all charts in Illustrator cannot be resized without first Ungrouping them. This will also disable you from editing the data any further, so make sure that the data is final before this step!

To Ungroup, first select your graph using the Selection Tool (V), then click Object at the top of your screen, and hit Ungroup (Shift + Command + G) (Mac) / (Shift+ CTRL + G) (PC).

You’ll see a prompt to say that this cannot be undone, click Yes.

You will need to do this Ungrouping as many times as you have circles (so the shortcut is very handy if your data set is huge).

Illustrator tutorial area proportional chart

Select all of your circles and resize your chart by pulling on the corners of the circles with the Selection Tool (V) while holding Shift to keep them in proportion to each other. You can also move the circles around.

You are now free to decorate your chart with your desired colour scheme. Simply click your circles with the Direct Selection Tool (V), select the Fill (X) of the object, and assign a Swatch.

Adobe Illustrator tutorial proportional area chart

Typing out the data point beside of each circle using the Type Tool(T), and sizing it accordingly helps to communicate the difference in scale.

Adobe Illustrator tutorial proportional area chart

Though, plain circles are a bit boring, aren’t they?

In this case, this fictitious set of data about fruit preferences could be more quickly understood if we made the circles look a bit more like fruit.

Using the Pen Tool (P), I’ve drawn a stem and leaf for each circle to give them the appearance of a fruit.

Adobe Illustrator proportional area chart

And just like that, you’ve given some more life and personality to a simple area proportion chart!

How to create a donut chart

Everybody loves donuts. 🍩

And I’m sure everybody loves pies too. 🥧

Dessert choices aside, how do you turn a pie chart into a donut chart?

Pie becomes a donut data visualisation
I mean, both are pretty good.

First, select the Pie Graph tool like before, except this time type your data on the top row, from left to right. This will create a basic pie chart.

Adobe Illustrator pie chart tutorial

As before, Ungroup your pie chart so we can resize it.

Make sure to ungroup it several times so that each wedge is its own standalone shape.

Adobe Illustrator pie chart tutorial

We now need to punch a hole in the middle of the pie so that it becomes a donut. The width of the punched hole is up to your preference.

Select the Ellipse Tool (L) and draw a circle in the centre of the pie while holding Option + Shift (Mac) / Alt + Shift (PC) to keep it centrally proportioned.

Adobe Illustrator donut chart tutorial

To punch the hole, select all of your objects with the Direct Selection Tool (V) and go to the Shape Builder Tool (Shift + M).

Click and drag around the inner circle you created, which punches a hole in the pie chart, then delete it. The chart will now become hollow.

Adobe Illustrator donut chart tutorial

As your donut chart “wedges” have been ungrouped, you can now change their colour and move them around. One idea is to break the wedges apart to create a sort of “pieces of a puzzle” effect.

A puzzle is a great metaphor for representing pieces of a whole, so it works great for percentage-based data!

Adobe Illustrator tutorial donut chart

Add some numbers and labels as you see fit using the Pen(P) and Type(T) tools.

Adobe Illustrator donut chart tutorial

Easy-peasy donut charts. Donut done! ✅

How to create a circular table (ring chart)

I would be inclined to agree… unless it looked really unusual and aesthetically-pleasing. Like, as a round table for example.

Wait, a round table? Do you mean that thing from the King Arthur stories?

Not quite. In this case, this type of chart goes by many names. Circular tables, ring chart - take your pick.

How would you use one? Imagine for instance you wanted to show a table of the human population for the Top 10 most populated countries and wanted to show a world map in the middle.

Let’s start with drawing a large circle in the middle of our workspace. Remember, hit Option + Shift (Mac) / Alt + Shift (PC) to keep it centrally proportioned.

Make sure the Fill is transparent and that there is a Stroke colour (you can toggle between Fill and Stroke using the shortcut X).

Illustrator ring chart tutorial

To create the wedges of our table, first draw a line straight down the middle using the Pen Tool (P).

Then, while the line is selected, go to Object → Transform → Transform each (or Option + Shift + Command + D) (Mac) / (Alt + Shift + Command + D).

Adobe Illustrator ring chart tutorial

In the Transform each menu that pops up, the goal is to create copies of the line we’ve drawn, but which have been rotated slightly.

In this case, if we want to show 10 countries, we’ll need to rotate the line 10 times in a circle.

Quick math would be 360 degrees / 10 = 36 degree turns per line.

Hit the middle “box” icon shown here to ensure that the line rotates from its middle point. I’ve included a zoom-in to show where the icon is.

Then hit Copy.

Adobe Illustrator ring chart tutorial

Then duplicate each line by using Command + D until you have 10 equal wedges.

Adobe Illustrator ring chart tutorial

We’re going to break these wedges down into “rings” by drawing more circles on top of them. In this case, I want:

  • a small circle in the middle to fit a small world map

  • a large circle in the middle for data numbers

Punch out a hole in the middle like we did for the donut chart by selecting all of your objects and using the Shape Builder Tool (Shift + M). Click and drag around the middle circle to join these inner circles.

Adobe Illustrator ring chart tutorial

Keep everything selected still, and use the Shape builder tool(Shift + M) to turn each cell into its own individual shape by clicking each cell once OR by selecting everything and using Divide in the Pathfinder (accessible from the list in Window at the top of the screen if it’s not already on your workspace).

Adobe Illustrator ring chart tutorial

From here, it’s time to fill in the table and add some colour!

In this case, I’ve included a world map (from Google), colour-coded countries and some population data (from 2020) using the Type Tool (T).

Adobe Illustrator ring chart tutorial

Though, this alone does not yet convey a sense of scale.

To show an order from 1-10, I’ve included coloured circles of increasing size with labels on the world map which also gives us an extra layer of information about relative geography.

You can also create these circles in the same way we made the proportional area charts!

Adobe Illustrator map chart tutorial

In addition, I’ve and broken off and enlarged each wedge of the table from largest to smallest to create a“staircase” effect. You are able to move these wedges because of the Shape Builder tool (Shift + M) you applied earlier.

Adobe Illustrator data chart staircase

Play around with scale to ensure everything is still legible. If this graphic were printed at A0-A1, the map details would still be legible. But for smaller print sizes or on mobile screens, you may need a different strategy.


  • having the map enlarged on its own next to the chart.

  • having lines or arrows connect from the wedges to the map in the middle.

Design is all about trial and error, so feel free to experiment! It’s in your nature as a scientist to do so 😉


  • Try creating a proportion area chart with a unique design that’s related to your research topic.

  • Think of an image or symbol you could place in the middle of a donut chart to quickly convey what your data is about.

  • Create a circular table/ring chart with more “rings” in the middle for more data.

Looking to bring your data to life?

We’ve only but scratched the surface of some great data visualisation formats for you to work with. You can bet that there’s a format that will work for you and your unique set of data!

And that’s exactly where we come in.

Animate Your Science can transform your Excel file into a thought-provoking and aesthetically-pleasing graphic for everyone to see. If you have a finalised data set that needs some polish for a poster, publication or presentation, contact us to discuss your custom data visualisation options!

Until next time!


Dr Juan Miguel Balbin

Dr Khatora Opperman

Dr Tullio Rossi


How to Design an Award-Winning Scientific Poster - Animate Your Science Online Course
Video course banner.png
Adobe Illustrator course: by scientists for scientists - Animate Your Science online course
The Ultimate Scicomm Checklist for Researchers - Animate Your Science Free Resource
SWIPE Scicomm Magazine - Read Now for FREE
bottom of page