This blog post will look to cover off some thoughts around a recent thread within the community of axis labelling. Naturally, I’ll throw in a few bias opinions but leave the question open for you to make your own conclusions around whether you prefer a chart with a left or right hand Y axis.

Hi all,

How is it going? Life has been a little mayhem recently. I miss those days a little where I could really sit in my relaxed creative mindset space and come up with new ideas for visualisations. I’d quite like to do a big project soon again, I actually really miss the feeder viz time period. That’s not meaning to come off a little negative though, I’m still grateful, lots of good things happening – just itching to get back in the game.

Anyway enough pre-rambling, onto the proper rambling. We will look to go through some of the ideas in the community recently with chart layouts, and will look to throw a few ideas over the top and leave you with the question.

How do you think visualisations should be formatted?

So this was the original visual I came across, from Jon Schwabish. The original article can be found here.

Jon raised the point why we don’t put more vertical axes on the *right side* of our graphs? That’s where we are usually trying to direct people’s attention, right?

And I was sitting here like hmm, that’s not the norm. I could get behind that and rustle a few feathers further. But does it have legs. I want to make it clear that whilst I’m using this chart as a running example for open ended questions, I’m not definitively saying it is right or wrong, and would hate to think the original author to think that too.

So why do I think it works in this case?

  • I agree with Jon on the fact, when we look at trends over time, whilst we get the overall change, often its the more recent time periods we want to look at.

  • Does data ‘relevancy’ matter?

  • How about data recency?

  • The call to action in the visual below is seemingly is on the right hand side.

But does it work in all user cases?

  • On the most part people read left to right, up-down. So an Axis on the left hand side gives context early to the chart. For most chart types it would therefore make sense in many cases to have the axis on the left for that scale factor.

  • Visually therefore where our eyes are pulled to on the page and the order of understanding of the chart plays a part.

For example which order did you read these call outs?

So can it be replicated in Tableau?

Well, not perfectly but let’s give it a think. Lets take a simple total profit visual, split by category.

A quick dual axis and synchronise and we have that right axis. Obviously nothing wildly ground breaking so far.

We can then edit the axis and remove the tick marks and axis label from the left hand axis.

But it does leave this unappealing looking axis gap. Tough to counterbalance when on a dashboard.

Another thought that came up in the twitter thread was the idea of having two axis. A few suggestions were to have the axis match the data. Maybe it is worth having the axis have more tick marks closer to where the call out on the charts are.

I did come up with some alternative labelling ideas using map layers previously in an analytics TUG a few months back. But it takes a chunk of prep and normalising of the data. Check it out here if you’re interested. So where does that leave us?

A less intensive way we could format charts is through reference lines. We can compute specific calculations of a label, and then right align them. This actually solves our issue with the axis as we can remove them completely!!


For this, add a distribution label on the pane and add all the values of the % you want to add. I went for 20% increments up to the maximum values.

Only other formatting needed is to make the fill on none, and label them as values. Go into the formatting pane and right align and it’s done.

I reckon someone might hang me out to dry if I was to suggest that you could completely break tick mark norms by adding more labels in the focussed area this way.

I’ll end on sharing this fantastic chart chat where Jeffrey Shaffer, Steve Wexler, Amanda Makulec, and Andy Cotgreave debate this in a much more articulate fashion. (Skip to the 08.30 mark where they discuss the right hand axis life expectancy chart) Really interesting how they discuss the balance of the axis with the overall page, and if it is to impede on the colour legend / title amongst other things.

Positioning of elements and aspect ratios also came up in conversation and I think those are a nice way to consider balance in design.

If a right aligned axis is good enough for the economist style-guide, It’s good enough for me.