Vector Tutorial: Creating A Killer 3D Pie Chart in Illustrator


I was doing some 3D charts for a project when I thought about sharing a similar tutorial here in Graphic Design Free Resources.

In this tutorial we will create visually compelling 3D pie chart from raw data and explore several techniques in enriching graph design and presentation.

Is Adobe Illustrator the best tool for this job? Sometimes. If you only create the occasional graph or you need to build highly creative graphs, Illustrator is absolutely the best tool for the job.

If, however, you need to create and update graphs often, or your creative needs don’t extend much further than flat charts or rudimentary 3D-style graphs, consider using a dedicated graphing application or Microsoft Excel. Illustrator enables levels of freedom, control, and presentation enhancement for graphs that Excel cannot even approach.

As always, prepare your data in advance. Although graphs, more so than any other type of project, typically require changes throughout the workflow, try to hold off on graph creation until the figures and dataset are as close to final as possible.

In four easy steps we’ll enter data, build a 3D pie graph, and add some enhancements to make it more visually appealing:

1. Manually entering data
2. Coloring a pie chart
3. Making the pie chart 3D
4. Labelling 3D graph slices

Graph scenario

GDFR conducted an online survey (we gave away a couple of iPhones as incentive! haha-you wish) and, among other things, asked loyal readers what categories they like most and would like us to put in more freebies. We’ve been provided with the collected responses from that question and asked to create a pie chart so that we understand more our readers’ pulse.

The Tutorial

Before we begin, here’s a look at our final 3D pie chart.


1. Manually entering data

Before making it look pretty, let’s get the data into Illustrator.

a. Begin a new RGB document. Unless you have a specific size in mind, set the size to web default (800 x 600 pixels).

b. On the Toolbox, click and hold on the Column Graph Tool to reveal the other graph tools behind it. We want the Pie Graph tool (see first figure below). With the Pie Graph tool, click and drag out a rectangular area to contain the graph and its legend. When you release, the Graph Data window will appear (see second figure below).

The Graph Data window looks (pretty much) like any spreadsheet application. This is the brain of your charts, where all data, labels, and categories are entered and modified. The cells may hold values (numbers) or labels and categories (text and numbers). Data may be entered many levels deep to create fiendishly complex graphs, but we’re going to keep it simple with just one row of labels and one row of data.

c. Click in the top-left cell, which will load that cell into the cell entry box above, and type “Fonts”, our first data label. Press the Tab key after typing to commit the change and advance to the next cell along the top row. Enter the remaining labels the same way: “Vectors”, “Tutorials”, “Images”, “Brushes”, “Textures”, and “3d Models”. In the end, you should have seven labeled columns along the top row (see figure below).

Naturally, if you’re working on your own graph project, replace my labels (and later data) with your own.

d. Now that the labels are done, let’s enter the actual data from which our pie and its pieces will be drawn. Click each cell under each label and enter their numbers. After all data has been entered, click the Apply button. Behind the Graph Data window you should see something akin to the figure below. Go ahead and close the Graph Data window and save your document.

2. Coloring the Pie Chart

If you’re content with a graph as boring as the chart above, go ahead and stop working now. In this Step we’ll add some color before giving the graph some depth in the next Step (“Making the Pie Graph 3D”).

a. Grab the Group Selection tool ai-group-selection-tool from behind the Direct Selection tool. Click twice on one of the pie sections to select both the slice and its legend. Cool, huh?

b. Now, using the Swatches or Color palette, give it a fill—a solid color, gradient, or pattern—and/or a stroke. If you plan to make your pie three-dimensional in the next Step, don’t give it a stroke. Because of the blessed Group Selection tool, both the slice and the legend can be styled at once without breaking the graph’s link to its data—you can go back and change the dataset at any time.

c. Using the same technique, move around the pie coloring each slice and its legend to your tastes. My colored pie is in shown below.

3. Making the pie chart 3D

Colors are great, but a little dimensionality can often (not always!) give a pie chart more impact, making the data easier to stare at going into that third hour of a 20-minute meeting.

a. The very first thing we need to do is separate the legend-otherwise it too will become 3D (no, it’s not as cool as you’re thinking). So, grab the Direct Selection tool and drag a selection rectangle around just the legend (labels and colored boxes). Copy them with (Cmd-C) [Ctrl+C].

b. Make a new layer, and paste (in front) the copied legend to it with (Cmd-F) [Ctrl+F]. Rename the layer to Legend. This legend is totally disconnected from the graph, so if you intend to make changes to the number of slices in your graph or even to the colors, stop now and come back when your data or colors are finalized. Hide the Legend layer.

c. Back on your first layer, select the graph with the Selection tool, and choose Object > Graph > Data, which will get you back to the Graph Data window.

d. In the Graph Data window, click the first cell in the top row and press Delete on your keyboard to wipe it out. Repeat until you’ve emptied the top row.

e. Select your second row by clicking in the first cell and dragging to the last. Instead of deleting, however, press (Cmd-X) [Ctrl+X] to cut the information. Click once in the leftmost cell of the top row and paste the data in with (Cmd-V) [Ctrl+V].

Click the Apply button and close the Graph Data window. If your graph gets significantly smaller, it’s because there’s still something—maybe just a space—in the second row. Highlight the cells and delete again.

f. Select the graph with the Selection tool. If your graph has a stroke, remove it. Now, choose Effect > 3D > Extrude & Bevel.

g. In the 3D Extrude & Bevel Options dialog below, turn on Preview and begin by choosing a Position preset from the drop-down menu at the top. For most graphs, I would suggest beginning with Off-Axis Bottom and working from there.

Click and drag any face, side, or corner of the track cube to change the graph’s rotation in three-dimensional space, or adjust the values in the X-, Y-, and Z-axis measurement fields. The measurement fields accept angles from negative 180° through positive 180°. Changing either the track cube or the axis fields will update the other. The blue face of the track cube is the front surface of your graph.

Changing the Perspective measurement field will distort your graph to create the impression of distance-use this sparingly as it will introduce distortion of your pie that may render the relative size of the pieces difficult to ascertain.

If you’re happy with the thickness of your graph and its lighting, just click OK (see figure below). Otherwise, play with the Extrude Depth to get the thickness you’d like. Changing the Bevel can give you rounded, beveled, or scalloped edges. After rotating the X-, Y-, and Z-axes to 31°, -19°, and 4°, respectively, and leaving all other options at their defaults, my pie graph looks much more interesting than it did flat.

Clicking the More Options button will reveal advanced lighting options where you may choose a shading type and modify the light(s) and shadows created from the extrusion and rotation. When you’ve finished setting the options for 3D Extrude & Bevel, click OK (for additional tutorial on 3D Extrude & Bevel, see our previous post on “Creating a Realistic 3D Beverage Can“.

h. Turn on your Legend layer. Look at those color key swatches. Are they too big? They were for mine (see below), so I resized them in one swift motion. Unless you’re making a pie chart for the elderly, you may want to do the same. With the Selection tool, select all the colored rectangles. Then choose Object > Transform > Transform Each.

i. In the Transform Each dialog, turn on Preview in the bottom right, then change the Horizontal and/or Vertical scale to suit your graph. Unlike scaling via the Transform palette, Transform Each will scale each object within its own space rather than treating the individual paths as a group and transforming them relative to one another-which would force you to manually realign each block to its text label after scaling.

j. Style the type of your labels (if desired), and save your document. It now looks good. Figure below shows my final pie graph. How did I get the labels on the side? Keep reading; we’re almost there.

4. Labelling 3D graph slices

For a little extra clarity of data presentation, try applying labels directly to your pie pieces-or columns, rows, or whatever in other chart types-in addition to your legend.

a. Off on the pasteboard or on a new layer, click with the Type tool to create a point type object. Now type in your first legend label. With the pie graph we built, the first item would be “Font”. Style the type as you like, but make it a color that contrasts with the color of the pie pieces.

b. Hold the Cmd/Ctrl key and click away from the point type object to deselect it. Now click again with the Type tool and make your second label. Repeat this until you have separate point type objects for each of your pie pieces.

c. One at a time, drag your type labels into the Symbols palette to create new symbols from each of them. I heartily recommend you rename the new symbols to something meaningful like Label – Fonts, Label – 3D Models, and so on. After creating symbols, delete the original path type objects.

d. Select the 3D graph with the Selection tool, and, on the Appearance palette, double-click the 3D Extrude & Bevel attribute to reopen the 3D Extrude & Bevel Options.

e. Turn Preview back on (annoying, isn’t it, that Preview turns off every time you come back?), then click on the Map Art button. In the Map Art dialog, the Symbol drop-down contains the label symbols we just made. Top right is the surface to which they will be applied. The arrows allow you to navigate between all the faces created by 3D Extrude & Bevel. Dominating the dialog is a preview of the object’s surface. A light surface in the current view indicates a face that is visible with the current rotation of the graph; a dark rectangle denotes a surface that is not currently visible.

f. If you peer around the Map Art dialog, you will see on the 3D graph a red outline revealing which surface is currently shown in the Map Art dialog. Using the arrows, move through the surfaces of your graph until you reach a visible side (see figure below).

g. From the Symbol drop-down, choose the correct label for that slice. It will instantly appear in the main part of the Map Art dialog, and, if you remembered to check Preview in the 3D Extrude & Bevel Options prior to entering Map Art, your graph should update as well to show the placement of the label.

h. Is the label where and how you want it? Note that the symbol instance in the Map Art dialog has a bounding box. Use the bounding box to move, resize, and/or rotate the label until it fits your graph where and how you’d like. To rotate, hover your cursor just beyond a corner control point. When the cursor becomes a curved, double-headed arrow, click and drag to rotate (Shift-drag to constrain to increments of 45°).

i. Again using the arrows, move through the 3D graph’s surfaces, applying the labels where needed. If you may at some point rotate your graph, go ahead and apply the labels to surfaces hidden now that may become exposed during a rotation. Doing it now will save on accidental omissions later. Just before you click OK, turn on Shade Artwork-or don’t, as you prefer. Labels add an extra touch to my pie chart, as you can see in our final 3D pie chart below. Incidentally, the pie chart shadow I created is a blend, not the Drop Shadow live effect.

Once again here’s our final 3D pie chart.


  1. Graphire 18 February, 2010 at 09:57

    Hi Jamie. As mentioned in the tutorial, the shadow effect was created using the “blend” tool in Illustrator. You create two oval shaped objects. A small black oval on top of a bigger white oval. You select both and apply the blend effect using the “Blend” tool.

    Thanks for asking. Have a great day.

  2. job ballard 17 June, 2010 at 18:52

    I have always seen the that graph icon… nice to finally know to use it, also cool that you are top on the search:”killer chart design.”

  3. Emmett Moxley 27 July, 2011 at 19:53

    Just wanna say thank you for the data which you simply have been sharing. I discovered your web page and genuinely appreciate what you’re doing.Thanks for nice sharing.

  4. Fritz 19 October, 2011 at 05:58

    Sweeeeet! I’m a wizard at photoshop but horrible with Illustrator. Thanks for taking the time to make this. It was exactly what I was looking for. Awesome pie charts ftw

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