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How to Make a Graph in Adobe Illustrator

You can use the vector-based software normally reserved for designers and artists to make and edit charts.

Most of us create graphs with actual graphing software. Maybe it’s Microsoft Excel. Maybe it’s R. Whatever it is though it’s usually specialized for analysis. What if you want to make a graphic for a publication or a presentation that’s polished and fully customized? Adobe Illustrator gives you the control you need to do this. It’s not graphing software. It’s illustration software, but once you get the hang of things, Adobe Illustrator can be a valuable tool in your visualization arsenal.

In the rest of this post, I’ll go over the steps to make the above graph in Illustrator. I used the U.S. immigration data from our recent contest.

Familiarize Yourself with Toolbox

Adobe Illustrator has a large toolbox, but for your basic graph, you only need to familiarize yourself with a few of the available tools — selection, direct selection, pen, type, and graph.


The selection tool lets you place focus on a group of objects; direct selection lets you choose individual objects like a line segment; pen tool lets you draw straight lines; type tool is used to put words in your graphic; and finally the graph tool lets you make different types of graphs.

Don’t worry, these tools will make more sense as we go through the examples.

Read the Data Into Illustrator

Start a new Illustrator document, and select the graph tool. Left click and drag. A rectangle appears that sizes according to how far you drag. This is initially how big your graph will be. You can always change it later so no need to fret about it. You’ll immediately see a grid once you let go of the mouse button (shown below). That’s where you put your data. You can manually enter data points like you would in Excel, but it’s easier to cut and paste data from Excel into the grid in Illustrator.

Input data

In this example (remember, we’re dealing with the immigration data), the first column is Europe, second column is Asia, so on and so forth. Click on the check in the top right corner of the grid box. The default grayscale bar chart will show up.

Change the Default Graph

We don’t want a bar chart though. We want a stacked area graph. Close the grid box, and then right click on the graph (currently a bar chart). Select Type. This will give you the following menu.

Graph type

Select the icon for area graph, and your graph will change accordingly:

Default stacked area

Okay, now we have our base. It’s time for the fun part now — customization. You could leave it like this, but the whole point of using Illustrator in the first place is to make a publication-level graph. Otherwise, we’d be better off using Excel. Onward ho.

Customize the Graph

Right click on your graph (now an area chart), and click on ungroup and click on OK:


The reason for this is because the graph is initially created as a group, or single entity, but what we really want to get at is the individual elements like the axes and labels. You can modify individual elements without ungrouping, but it’s easier if you do this way. So ungroup. After that, some elements will still be grouped together (e.g. the polygon shapes), but like before, you can right click and select Ungroup. You’ll know right away if some elements are groups or not when you select an element with the selection tool. Try using the direct selection tool to select individual elements without ungrouping.

Once you’ve got that down, you can pretty much do whatever you want to the graph. I chose to add some color, change the font and font size, and extend the axes all the way across.

Changed colors

Annotate the Graph

I usually leave annotation to the very end, because I like to place labels in a way that doesn’t bring clutter. Use the Type Tool to add text. Select the tool, click where you want to add text, and, like you’d expect, Illustrator will prompt you for some wordage.

Here’s the finished product. I added a title, some lead-in text, removed the top grid line, and added years to the x-axis.


Of course, I could have added more history to the graph, optimized the colors, size, dimensions, etc., but that’s out of the scope of this tutorial. What I hope that you take away from this tutorial is that Illustrator offers you a lot of flexibility that other pure graphing solutions don’t. So if you’ve got a report or paper to publish, then you might want to consider cleaning up with Illustrator.

There’s a reason almost all of The New York Times’ graphics pass through Illustrator at some point in its life cycle. It’s a little tricky at first, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll see it’s well worth the effort.

Here is the Adobe Illustrator file for the above graph, if anyone is interested.

For more examples, guidance, and all-around data goodness like this, pre-order Visualize This, the upcoming FlowingData book.

About the Author

Nathan Yau is a statistician who works primarily with visualization. He earned his PhD in statistics from UCLA, is the author of two best-selling books — Data Points and Visualize This — and runs FlowingData. Introvert. Likes food. Likes beer. Follow him @flowingdata.

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