What is a pyramid chart?

A pyramid chart is a simple and easily understood chart used to show hierarchies, workflows, or simple, singular datasets. They can also be called triangle diagrams, and for obvious reasons: their shape is triangular, which is divided up into horizontal sections. These charts are used to compare a single data set, show proportions, or illustrate a hierarchy or directional workflow.

One example of a pyramid chart that everyone knows is the food pyramid, with fruit and veggies in the bottom layers, carbohydrates and protein in the second, and fats in the top section (or some variation of that order).

Pyramid charts have been used for a long time—perhaps the most famous historical pyramid chart is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, created in 1943. This chart has five levels of needs that you must attain before stepping up to the next level, finally achieving self-actualization, which is an example of a simple process flow pyramid chart.

When should a pyramid chart be used?

In business, the pyramid chart has quite a narrow range of use. Generally, it is used in presentations when there is a need to show a hierarchical structure. It is used to show:

  • Steps that have been taken towards a task, such as measuring data, which provides information and informs decision making
  • Simple market shares, sales, investment quantities, or other figure-based data
  • Business management positions or other roles in a hierarchy

One example of a quantity pyramid chart would be if a company was looking at an overall number of sales values in states where they have branches, with each layer representing a branch of the chain. In this chart, the layers are of varying thicknesses depending on the percentage contribution towards overall sales. A bar chart could be used instead, but a pyramid chart is generally considered more attractive and easier to read.

An example of a pyramid chart displaying steps towards a task might be a sales and marketing pyramid, which gives an example of the process for sales. Starting at the bottom and working upwards to the top, these steps could look like:

  • Doing your homework and researching your potential leads
  • Setting your goals for the client
  • Making strategic decisions about how you approach them
  • Building awareness of your brand with the leads
  • Generating leads
  • Nurturing leads
  • Creating first-time clients
  • Ensuring repeat clients

An example of a hierarchical chart could be as simple as one illustrating a family, with grandparents at the top, parents in the middle, leading to children, and then grandchildren in the bottom layer.

Pyramid chart best practices

Pyramid charts should follow these best practices:

  • Data needs to show hierarchical structure, quantity, or size
  • It must be able to be ordered progressively
  • There should only be one topic or data set

First, choose the topic, and name the pyramid. Then, choose the subcategories, taking care to be selective. Otherwise the chart could become cluttered, crowded, or complicated if too many subcategories are chosen.

Then, choose a value and status for the subcategories. Organize these in a hierarchy with the most important, largest, or first action at the bottom and the smallest, least important, or final action at the top.

Finally, divide the pyramid into sections and label them with the subcategories and order you decided, choosing colors or images in the layers that reflect the topic.

Advantages of pyramid charts

The following are some common advantages to using pyramid charts:

Pyramid charts are incredibly simple and easy to understand

Pyramid charts are used to deliver one simple message. Both visually and using text, they get the message across without the need for any extra explanations or imaging. This makes them incredibly effective and simple to interpret.

Pyramid charts show hierarchies

There are not many graphical ways to show a hierarchy. In this way, pyramid charts are quite unique and fill a specific niche.

Disadvantages of pyramid charts

There are two main problems with pyramid charts, which will be discussed in more detail below:

Pyramid charts need small data sets

Pyramid charts need to remain very simple. Adding extra layers or steps to the chart can very quickly make it cluttered, rendering it useless. The creator of the chart must work to keep it at its essence.

Pyramid charts can be deceptive

The widest section may have the biggest area, but the width does not necessarily equate to the biggest influencing factor. Width only shows a hierarchy, while the height shows a size or influence. So, visually, the total area of the layers may make one aspect look more important than it really is.

Alternatives to pyramid charts

Below are some common alternatives to pyramid charts.

Population pyramid charts

While these do resemble pyramid charts, they are unrelated. A population pyramid chart is a geographical tool where data relating to a population is graphed to show the distribution of age and sex in relation to a particular topic. In almost all scenarios, there are more babies than elderly, and the numbers decrease as the chart goes up, creating a pyramid shape. However, despite having a similar triangle shape, these are very different from pyramid charts.

Inverted pyramid charts

If you flip the pyramid on its point, you have an inverted pyramid chart. These display the same information as pyramid charts but emphasize the reverse order. For instance, instead of a chart showing the CEO as most important and therefore at the top, and the customers at the bottom, the inverted pyramid has this reversed, with the customers at the top and the CEO at the base.

Funnel charts

Most commonly used to demonstrate a sales funnel, a funnel chart shows a progression of steps. Similar in shape to an inverted pyramid chart, it generally goes from the top—prospects and cold leads—downwards through the funnel, with the sales prospects getting warmer and more likely to buy as they descend. Finally, in the last step in the funnel, the leads turn to customers.

While the shape of a funnel chart is similar to that of an inverted pyramid chart, they serve vastly different purposes and are unrelated.

Donut or pie charts

While a donut or pie chart does not show a hierarchy, it can, much like a pyramid chart, be used to show a single set of data. It is another very simple tool that easily, graphically indicates one set of information, usually a distribution of sales, market share, or similar.

Mekko, Marimekko, bar Mekko or mosaic charts

These chart types can show the relative importance of something. However, unlike the simplicity of a pyramid chart, which shows one set of information, a Mekko, Marimekko, or mosaic chart can show multiple data groups. They do this by having bar charts where width and segments of height show relative importance, often alongside product types, segments of population, or regions. These are far more complex than pyramid charts.

Sankey diagrams

A Sankey diagram shows a flow of values or workstreams. These are multi-level and far more complex than simple pyramid charts but can be stripped down to display that same basic level of information. If a set of workflows are too complicated for a pyramid chart, a Sankey diagram could be the alternative to use.

The future of pyramid charts

While the applications of a pyramid chart are narrow, they are incredibly effective when used correctly. If good chart-making practices are followed, they are ideal for showing simple concepts, workflows, and single data sets that need to show a percentage or quantity of an overall group or comparison.

However, if there is any data set that is large, has multiple factors, or does not have a clear reason to necessitate a pyramid chart, such as to illustrate a hierarchy, then other chart types will be far more effective.

Pyramid Chart

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