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Turn a Boring Bar Graph into a 3D Masterpiece

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This post is part of a series called Infographic Design.
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In this tutorial, you'll learn to plot an accurate bar graph using Adobe Illustrator's Graph Tool. We'll also render the graph to give it additional visual appeal. Successful completion of this tutorial requires an intermediate knowledge of Illustrators tools. Let's get started!

Republished Tutorial

Every few weeks, we revisit some of our reader's favorite posts from throughout the history of the site. This tutorial was first published in October of 2008.


Step 1

Double click on the Column Graph Tool (J). The dialog box that opens up will give you several options that you can tailor to your liking. We have decided to keep all the options standard. If you don't want to change any options, simply click OK.


Step 2

With the Column Graph Tool selected, click and drag on your Artboard to draw where the graph will fall. Enter the information from left to right. The units of measure on the left side will be automatically adjusted depending on what values you enter into your graph. Click the check box in the upper right corner when you are finished.


Step 3

Our final outcome will require the graph to have depth and perspective, but the numbers on the side will only have perspective. In order to accomplish this, we will need to apply the 3D setting to the numbers and the graph separately. Duplicate the graph and numbers. Keep one copy off to the side. Ungroup the graph so that you can delete the numbers from the side. You will get an alert dialog that tells you graphs cannot be edited once they are ungrouped. Click OK.


Step 4

Delete the numbers from the side and give your graph a light grey fill and remove the thin black outline.


Step 5

Select the graph and go to Effect > 3D > Extrude & Bevel... Enter the variables shown below to achieve the look I've detailed. Feel free to experiment with different angles and perspective to make it look like you want it to. Make note of the values you enter, as you will need to use them again in a later step.


Step 6

Go to Object > Expand Appearance.


Step 7

Go to Object > Ungroup. You may have to repeat this step several times to fully ungroup all the pieces.


Step 8

Illustrator has built-in gradients that you can choose from. This makes it very convenient to pick colors that look good without much effort. To open the gradients swatches go to Window > Swatch Libraries > Gradients > Brights. Select each segment of the graph and give it a gradient fill.


Step 9

Notice that I have chosen to give the green column a slightly darker color where it meets the yellow column. This will give the impression of the side of the green column being in shadow.


Step 10

We'll give the columns a reflection by using the Pen Tool (P) to draw a shape with no fill that cuts through the graph.


Step 11

Select the shape you just drew as well as the face of each column that the shape cuts through. Click Divide in the Pathfinder (highlighted below.) Go to Object > Ungroup to ungroup your objects. Delete the unnecessary shapes around the edges.


Step 12

Adjust the gradient on the face of each column to replicate the reflection shown below.


Step 13

Make a drop shadow by drawing a rectangle by hand that matches the angle of the columns. Give the rectangle a blur by going to Effect > Blur > Gaussian Blur.


Step 14

Place your drop shadow behind the graph. Below is what your artwork should look like right now.


Step 15

Add extra interest to the graph by giving each edge of the graph highlights. Simply use the Pen Tool (P) and make thin lines that are slightly wider in the center and taper down to a point.


Step 16

Make whimsical sparkles by drawing an ellipse using the Ellipse Tool (L), then distorting the ellipse by going to Effect > Distort & Transform > Pucker & Bloat... Enter a negative number and click OK.


Step 17

Rotate the sparkles and place them in moderation throughout the illustration. Give some sparkles less Opacity by using the Transparency Palette.


Step 18

Add a haze around each sparkle by drawing a white ellipse using the Ellipse Tool (L) and giving it a blur by going to Effect > Blur > Gaussian Blur.


Step 19

Retrieve the copy of the graph that was off to the side and use only the numbers now. Since the graph will be 3D and have perspective it will be imperative that we extend the lines across the columns so it's easy to read the graph when it's complete. Using the Pen Tool (P) draw a line across each number and give it a Dashed Line with a 10 pt Weight.


Step 20

Draw another dashed line but this time give it a Weight of 1 pt.


Step 21

We'll make the other 4 lines that extend from the numbers 30 through 120 by selecting the two dashed lines you just drew and going to Object > Blend > Blend Options... Under the Spacing drop down menu select Specified Steps and enter 4 (where 4 is the amount of numbers on the left side of my graph that do not yet have dashed lines extending from them) and click OK. The second image below shows the result you will end up with.


Step 22

Enter the values you used to create the 3D column, with the exception of entering a number for the Extrude Depth. This number should be 0. If once you add perspective to your graph and some of the lines are not showing up (see last image in this step for an example) simply use the Direct Selection Tool (A) and select an endpoint of the line that extends from the number 0 and increase it's weight until all the lines become visible.


Step 23

Reposition the graph over the columns using the center line highlighted below as a guide to insure the graph is perfectly positioned.


Step 24

Adjust the transparency of the lines on the graph to give it a little more visual appeal.


Step 25

Add Some type below the graph to complete the design. If you have been using your own 3D variables throughout this tutorial simply experiment with rotating the cube in the 3D Extrude & Bevel dialog until it matches the angle and perspective of the columns. You can continue to adjust the angle and perspective even after you click OK. To make adjustments once you have clicked OK, go to the Appearance Palette and double-click on the effect you want to edit.


Final Image

This is what your final graph should look like. Now, the next time you need to include a boring graph in one of your designs you'll be able to add some extra emphasis and get people to really pay attention to those numbers!

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