Power BI offers a wide range of popular visuals, supplemented with free or paid-for custom visuals, but what if that wasn’t enough? What if you needed a very particular visual, customized for your needs and you have no programming experience?
The Charticulator tool, a project from Microsoft Research, is designed to help you out. As an online tool, it allows you to create custom visuals for use in Power BI from plain text files like CSV. This no-coding, drag-and-drop environment replaces the traditional importing of files coded in HTML, C-Sharp or in R.
The Charticulator Basics
The Charticulator website offers a gallery with sample charts and videos showing their creation. Next to this, it also offers a ‘Getting started’ guide to help you get familiar with the basic concepts used inside the Charticulator environment (https://charticulator.com/docs/getting-started.html).
The most important concepts are listed below:
A mark is used to decide on the shape that will eventually show a certain aspect of your data. For example, when using the Rectangle mark, you could construct a bar chart to show certain attributes like the volume of sales against time.
Picture 1 - Marks
A Glyph is the representation of one record of your data.
Picture 2 - Glyph
You can add different layers to your visualization. You start by drawing a plot segment (in 2D or a line), and define the axes in the attributes pane, which we will come back to later. After adding the basis, you can add different shapes (also known as marks) to define how a Glyph will look like in the end.
Picture 3 - Layers
- Preview of the Visual
The preview of your visual is shown on the left of the Glyph, to provide a bigger picture of how the Glyphs will be combined into your visual.
Picture 4 - Preview
Every element in the layers pane has some characteristics that need to be defined. For example, the plotting area has an X- and a Y- axis that need to be defined, in which order they need to be shown and so on.
Picture 5 - Attributes
For each mark, it is also possible to define characteristics, like the width/height/color of a certain mark.
Picture 5b - Attributes
In practice, getting started with the Charticulator tool is not that difficult. There are two ways to integrate the tool into Power BI.
- First, one can access the tool via the Charticulator Website. After creating the visual, you export it, like you would do for a Power BI custom visual and import it back into the desktop version as a file.
- Another way is to get the tool working inside the Power BI desktop itself. You can go to the ‘Get more visuals’ in the visualizations pane and add the ‘Microsoft Charticulator’ visual to your report.
Picture 6 - Getting started
After choosing one of the above, you can start thinking about and creating your visual.
- First step:
The first step is of course to get to know the basics of the environment and think about what visual you want to create.
- Second step:
After deciding on the design of your visual, you can launch the Charticulator tool. When using the Charticulator web tool, this means providing a sample dataset to create your chart, which should be a csv file. When applying the tool in the desktop version, after adding the Charticulator custom visuals to your visualisations pane, you just need to add the visual, select the fields you will want to use and press ‘Edit’ as shown on the picture below.
Picture 6b - Getting started
- Third step:
After pressing the ‘Edit’ button, you are ready to start creating your custom visual. You get the option to use a standard template or to start from scratch.
Picture 6c - Getting started
After choosing either one of the options, you will enter the editing environment, in which you can add marks with certain attributes to construct your Glyph and consequently your final visual.
An Example of a Charticulator Visual
In order to give you a basic understanding of how the tool works, we will start by creating a simple column chart. For more advanced visuals, the Charticulator website offers excellent demos and guides.
In this example, we want to visualize the Quantity of each product sold, comparing among different cities, without losing sight of the value of the goods that were sold.
Picture 6d - Getting started
We start by defining the attributes for the plot segment. What data fields would we like to see on which axis, how to sort and how to align them? We can adjust some of these options directly inside the preview pane, and some of them only/also in the attributes pane.
Please note that this tool is not as intelligent as Power BI itself, it acts like a visual, so when selecting the fields that you want to include, they will always be considered, even when they are not added as an attribute of the Glyph.
In this example, we put the Category of the products sold on the X-axis.
Picture 6e - Getting started
Picture 6f - Getting started
After defining the plot segment attributes, we can start with adding a basic shape to the visual, the Glyph. As discussed above, we can do this by adding a mark (Rectangle/Ellipse/Triangle) to the glyph. By adding a field to the height/width attribute of the element, the visual will start to represent our data.
We opt for a rectangular shape. We define the height of the glyph as the sum of the Quantity of the goods sold, while the width of the rectangle gives us an idea of the unit price. This means that the volume of the rectangles represents the value of the sold products, which we also added as a tooltip.
At the end, we add a legend, to show the difference among cities.
Picture 6g - Getting started