Legend and Legend Key in Excel Spreadsheets

Legends live in Excel; find out where!

Excel Chart Legend
Ted French

In a chart or graph in spreadsheet programs like Microsoft Excel, the legend is most often located on the right-hand side of the chart or graph and can sometimes be surrounded by a border.

The legend is linked to the data being graphically displayed in the plot area of the chart. Each specific entry in the legend includes a legend key for reference to the data.

Note: The legend is also known as the Chart's Key.

What Are Legend Keys?

To add to the confusion between legend and key, Microsoft refers to each individual element in a legend as a legend key.

A legend key is a single colored or patterned marker in the legend. To the right of each legend key is a name identifying the data represented by the key.

Depending on the type of chart, the legend keys represent different groups of data in the accompanying worksheet:

  • For a line graph, bar graph, or column chart, each legend key represents a single data series.
    • For example, in a column chart, you might have a blue legend key that reads Age next to it, and an orange one for Name. The blue colors in the chart refer to the age for each entry in the Name series.
  • For a pie chart or circle graph, each legend key represents only a portion of one data series.
    • To use the same example from above, but for a pie chart, every cut of the pie is a different color that represents each "Name" entry. Every portion of the pie is a different size of the whole circle to represent the age differences taken from the "Age" series.

Editing Legends and Legend Keys

In Excel, legend keys are linked to the data in the plot area, so changing the color of a legend key will also change the color of the data in the plot area.

You can right-click or tap-and-hold on a legend key, and choose Format Legend Entry, to change the color, pattern, or image used to represent that data.

To change options related to the whole legend and not just a specific entry, right-click or tap-and-hold to find the Format Legend option. This is how you change the text fill, text outline, text effect, and text box.

How to Show the Legend in Excel

After making a chart in Excel, it's possible that the legend doesn't show. You can enable the legend by simply toggling it on.

Here's how:

  1. Select the chart.
  2. Access the Design tab at the top of Excel.
  3. Open the Add Chart Element menu.
  4. Select Legend from the menu.
  5. Choose where the legend should be placed - right, top, left, or bottom.

If the option to add a legend is greyed out, it just means that you need to select data first. Right-click the new, empty chart and choose Select Data, and then follow the on-screen instructions to choose the data that the chart should represent.