What is a Legend in Excel | Complete Guide to Understanding Legend

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Excel charts allow you to visualize data in a graphical format that can provide greater insight into trends and relationships. An important part of customizing charts in Excel is working with the legend, which identifies the various data series plotted in the chart. The legend makes it easier for readers to interpret the data being displayed.

In this post, we will explain what legends are and how they are used in Excel charts and graphs. Whether you’re new to Excel or an experienced user looking to better utilize chart legends, this post will help you understand the role legends play when presenting data visually in Excel.

What is an Excel Legend

An Excel legend is a box that identifies the patterns, colors, or symbols associated with the data points in a chart. The legend shows the name of each data series, trendline, or other chart element so you can easily tell them apart. Legends are typically displayed to the right or top of a chart. But you can customize their placement as needed.

The key benefits of Excel Legends include:

  • Clarifying which colors and patterns correspond to which data series. This helps differentiate multiple data sets, especially in busy charts like line and scatter plots.
  • Indicating the names of data series is crucial when you have multiple overlapping series on a single chart. Well-labeled legends keep things clear.
  • Identifying trendlines and forecast lines, which may not be self-explanatory without a legend tying them to the source data.
  • Explain special chart features like error bars, drop lines, boxes, and other non-standard elements. Legends help annotate these advanced additions.

Without a legend, it would be very difficult to decipher some of the more complex chart types that use colors, patterns, and specialized features to convey information. The legend ties everything together into an understandable package.

Importance of Legends | When Legends Offer the Most Value

While legends work on most chart types, they provide the most value in these situations:

Line and scatter plots rely heavily on legends to distinguish data series plotted with different colors and patterns. The same goes for combo charts containing these two chart types – their dotted lines and scattered marker points become indecipherable without helpful legends.

Charts with many data series also benefit from clear legends. When you plot lots of overlapping lines or groups of columns/bars, a legend avoids viewer confusion by tying each data set to a color and label.

Small data markers like the bubbles in bubble charts or the tiny dots of large scatter plots depend on legends to match them to their corresponding data series. Viewers can’t decipher patterns in unlabeled plots containing thousands of microscopic points.

Advanced chart elements like trendlines, error bars, drop lines, and boxes require legends to explain what they represent. An unlabeled trendline has no context until the legend ties it to a data series.

Printed or standalone charts without surrounding data need legends to enable interpretation. A chart copied into a report or presentation relies solely on labeled legends since viewers lack access to the underlying Excel data.

In short, anytime colors, patterns, specialized features, or separation from source data would make a chart hard to interpret, a well-crafted legend saves the day.

Unique Legend Options for Specific Chart Types

While most chart types share general legend options, some types have additional specialized capabilities:

  • Column and bar charts can display their legends horizontally, which fits neatly above or below stacked bars.
  • Line charts, scatter plots, and other marker charts can use tiny line-shaped legend icons instead of rectangles, mimicking the chart design.
  • Since pie and doughnut charts lack axes and corners for legends, they can place legends inside the actual pie/doughnut plot area. The legend fits right alongside the slices.
  • XY scatter plots can list the axis labels in the legend rather than on the axes themselves, consolidating the chart labels.
  • Bubble charts, with their inherent use of third data dimensions, can include percentage values or custom text alongside the standard legend labels.
  • Stock charts tend to involve multiple disjointed series for volume, high, low, close, etc. Their legends can summarize the series in statistical formats like averages.
  • Combo charts, which combine two or more chart types with different data series, can assemble those disparate icons into a single unified legend.
  • Even 3D charts like surface and ribbon charts can place legends within their 3D scene rather than flat alongside the 3D view.

Interactions Between Legends and Chart Components

Legend customization doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Legends relate and interact with other aspects of your charts:

  • Legend order mirrors the series order shown in the Select Data Source dialog box
  • Altering legend text synchronously updates the corresponding data series names in the chart’s source data table
  • Hiding a data series makes its legend entry disappear too, since the legend relies on that data
  • Changing legend positioning also shifts spacing with axis labels, chart titles, plot area borders, etc.
  • Font, color, and other legend text formatting may need to match data label text for visual consistency

So legend modifications inevitably impact other chart elements and the underlying data. Always keep the big picture in mind.

Tips and Tricks for Optimal Legend Placement

Legend positioning is a make-or-break customization for many charts. Here are some pro tips for placing legends exactly where you want them:

  1. Don’t be afraid to overlap legends with plot area borders and even the plotted data itself. This lets you maximize space in crowded dashboards and small canvases. Just be sure key data points remain visible.
  2. For ultra-fine legend positioning, use the X and Y offset settings. These nudge the legend coordinates in tiny increments, helping center legends or align them to other objects.
  3. Capitalize on unused real estate inside plot area boundaries, especially on gauge charts, doughnut charts, 3D charts, and other types with open space. Legends placed inside remain clearly visible yet avoid compromising the data.
  4. Center legends horizontally and vertically whenever possible. This looks clean for minimalistic charts and dashboards. But don’t violate the principle above by obscuring critical data points.
  5. Align legend placement with the overall layout of a chart. For example, put legends at the top of vertically oriented charts and at the right of horizontally laid out charts.
  6. Dashboard charts may require legends specifically positioned for usability and quick visual scans by viewers. Place them purposefully to serve dashboard goals.
  7. Always check legend visibility and positioning when printing Excel charts. Pages breaks or cropped print margins can cut off poorly-placed legends.

Troubleshooting Tricky Legend Situations

Legends are like old reliable partners for Excel charts. But occasionally, you’ll encounter quirky legend behaviors:

Missing Legends

Legends inexplicably missing from charts are easily restored via the Add Chart Element menu. Just re-check the Legend box.

Outdated Legends

Legends failing to update when data changes likely point to issues with the data source. Verify the chart references the correct series and cells.

Trouble in Formatting

Inconsistent font colors and icons could stem from prior piecemeal formatting. Try clearing formatting and starting fresh.


Legends consuming too much space or overlapping key chart elements may require reducing font sizes, legend margins, icon sizes, etc.

Unexpected Legend Placement

Unexpected legend placement changes can happen when toggling options like text wrapping and column layout. Inspect the advanced settings.

Most legend quirks can be tamed with systematic troubleshooting:

  • Clear all prior legend formatting to zero-base the options
  • Confirm the chart data source is properly set
  • Check for hidden data series throwing things off
  • Review advanced legend settings for unintended toggles

With the right combination of adjustments, you can usually get a misbehaving legend back on track.

Excel Legends: Make Them Work for You

As we’ve seen, legends unlock tons of customization opportunities for clarifying and enhancing Excel charts. But they require active effort – legends won’t configure themselves.

Take time to explore the formatting, placement, layout, and advanced options at your disposal. Legends are one of those subtle chart elements that become incredibly useful once you mold them to your specific needs.

Whether you’re designing charts for dashboards, reports, ad-hoc tasks, or external presentations, smart use of legends can help you efficiently convey meaning to chart viewers through intuitive visual communication.

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