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How to create dynamic chart legends in Excel

Dynamic chart legend

Chart legends show us what each Series in a chart represents. These legends are often placed in boxes near the chart. However, research shows that separating the labels from the item in this way requires more brain power from readers and detracts from the key message. So, in this post, we look at how to create dynamic chart legends in Excel, which help readers to focus on the key message.

Download the example file: Click the link below to download the example file used for this post:

Watch the video

Watch the video on YouTube

Why does legend position matter?

Based on research from the 1920s, known as the Gestalt principles, we know the human brain will naturally find patterns and meaning from visuals.

One of the key Gestalt principles relates to proximity, whereby items placed close to each other are considered to be related. Therefore we can help readers of our charts by placing labels close to the items they refer to. Look at the two images below; the first image shows the standard Excel legend box, while the second image shows a dynamic label position.

Chart Comparison - Legend vs Dynamic Label

In the second chart, the label is placed close to each line, therefore the brain naturally accepts the label, and does not need to look elsewhere.

Another Gestalt principle relates to similarity. It states that items that look similar are likely to be considered as related. Therefore, using the same color for the label as the line also helps readers to easily understand the chart.

We know charts often have data added to them. Therefore, we need to ensure labels are dynamic and the proximity of the label to the line is retained as data is added. We don’t want to move the label manually, so let’s see how to use Excel’s functionality to achieve this automatically.

Example file

The example file contains the data we are using throughout this post. The source data is contained within an Excel Table (which is the best way to hold data in Excel).

Since Tables have structured references, we need to be a little bit smarter about our formulas.

Example Data - Table

Using the NA() function in charts

The NA() function is not one we often use in Excel. It generates the #N/A error. This may not sound particularly useful; however, NA() has a specific purpose when used within a chart.

In Excel, an empty cell is not rendered on a chart because no value exists. However, if we use a formula in a cell, even if the result of that formula appears to be an empty cell, it is not. Excel calculates the cell and renders the empty value as zero.

Formula not using NA

In the example above, the source data for 31 July in the Actual Label column appears to be empty, but the line is shown on the chart as zero. This is because there is a formula in the Actual Label column:


If there is no value in the Actual column, the formula returns an empty text string, but this is not the same as an empty cell. As a result, the grey line in the chart above is rendered.

To force the chart to recognize the value as empty, we can use the NA() function.

Formula using NA

In the chart above, the formula in the Actual Label column is:


This formula returns the #N/A error, which is not rendered on the chart (i.e., the grey line is not visible for July to December).

Create the chart

That’s enough principles; let’s start working through our example. First, we need to create the chart.

  • Select all the cells in the Date column (including the header), hold the Ctrl key, then select the cells in the Actual to Forecast Label columns (including the headers)
  • Create a standard 2D line chart by clicking Insert > Line chart (drop-down) > Line chart

Let’s delete the items that we do not require. Select each item and press Delete:

  • Chart title
  • Major gridlines
  • Legend

Depending on your scenario, you may decide to delete other items too.

The initial chart now looks like this.

Initial chart

Create a dynamic chart legend for the forecast

Next, let’s create a dynamic label for the Forecast line.

The goal is to create a cell with #N/A for every row in the column, except the last row.

We are using an Excel Table, so we must ensure our formulas react to any new data.

In the first cell in the Forecast column, enter the following formula:


This formula states:

If the date in the same row as the formula is equal to the last date in the Forecast column, then return the value from the Forecast column otherwise, return #N/A.

This ensures that only the last date includes a value; all other rows return #N/A. If we add new data to the Table, the formula copies down and automatically moves the total accordingly.

To add the data label:

  • Select the chart and click the Chart Format ribbon from the menu
  • In the drop-down, in the top-left of the ribbon, select the Label Forecast series
  • Click Chart Design > Add Chart Element > Data Labels > Right
  • Right-click the data label in the chart, select Format Data Labels… from the menu
  • In the Format Data Labels pane, check Series Name and uncheck Value.

This displays the name of the Series, which is currently Forecast Label.

  • Right-click on the chart, click Select Data
  • The Select Data Source dialog box opens, select Forecast Label in the Legend Entries (Series) box, then click Edit.
  • In the Edit Series dialog box, point the Series name to cell $C$1 (which is the Label we want to apply).
  • Click OK to close the Edit Series box, then OK again to close the Select Data Source box.

The chart now has the correct label for the forecast line.

Chart with Forecast Label

Create a dynamic label for the actual

Now, let’s create a dynamic label for the Actual line.

We want to create a cell with the #N/A error for every row in the column, except the row with the latest value entered.

In the first cell of the Actual column, enter the following formula:


MAXIFS([Date],[Actual],”<>”&””) calculates the latest date where Actual is not blank.

The remainder of the formula states:

If the date in the same row as the formula is equal to the maximum date containing a value, then return the value from the Actual column otherwise return #N/A.

Now apply the same steps as above to add the data label for the Actual line.

Chart with Dynamic Labels

Complete the formatting

From here, it’s all about formatting:

  • Select suitable colors for each line
  • Use the same colors for each data label (consider bolding the font to make it easier to read)
  • Change the width of the plot area to ensure the labels fit
  • Finally, let’s make the date axis fit correctly:
    • Right-click on the date axis, select Format Axis… from the menu
    • In the Format Axis Pane, expand the Number section
    • In the Format Code field, enter mmm to show three letters for each month (alternatively, enter mmmmm to show only a single letter for each month, or mmm-yy to show month and year). Then click Add.

The final chart looks like this:

Final chart with dynamic labels

Try it out

When we add more data into the Actual column, the label moves accordingly.

Also, because we have used a Table, if we add more months to the Table, all the formulas copy down automatically.


Creating dynamic labels takes a small amount of extra effort. However, because we’ve applied the Gestalt principles, we know it provides significant benefits to the reader as it is easier for them to see what each line relates to.

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About the author

Hey, I’m Mark, and I run Excel Off The Grid.

My parents tell me that at the age of 7 I declared I was going to become a qualified accountant. I was either psychic or had no imagination, as that is exactly what happened. However, it wasn't until I was 35 that my journey really began.

In 2015, I started a new job, for which I was regularly working after 10pm. As a result, I rarely saw my children during the week. So, I started searching for the secrets to automating Excel. I discovered that by building a small number of simple tools, I could combine them together in different ways to automate nearly all my regular tasks. This meant I could work less hours (and I got pay raises!). Today, I teach these techniques to other professionals in our training program so they too can spend less time at work (and more time with their children and doing the things they love).

Do you need help adapting this post to your needs?

I'm guessing the examples in this post don't exactly match your situation. We all use Excel differently, so it's impossible to write a post that will meet everybody's needs. By taking the time to understand the techniques and principles in this post (and elsewhere on this site), you should be able to adapt it to your needs.

But, if you're still struggling you should:

  1. Read other blogs, or watch YouTube videos on the same topic. You will benefit much more by discovering your own solutions.
  2. Ask the 'Excel Ninja' in your office. It's amazing what things other people know.
  3. Ask a question in a forum like Mr Excel, or the Microsoft Answers Community. Remember, the people on these forums are generally giving their time for free. So take care to craft your question, make sure it's clear and concise.  List all the things you've tried, and provide screenshots, code segments and example workbooks.
  4. Use Excel Rescue, who are my consultancy partner. They help by providing solutions to smaller Excel problems.

What next?
Don't go yet, there is plenty more to learn on Excel Off The Grid.  Check out the latest posts:

4 thoughts on “How to create dynamic chart legends in Excel

    • Excel Off The Grid says:

      – You selected “Above” rather than “Right” for the label type
      – You need to move the plot area slightly so there is room for the label

  1. Ernst-Albrecht says:

    A very nice idea.
    For the Excel versions before 2016.

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