Create a dashboard overlay — ENTIRELY in Tableau

Brittany Rosenau
6 min readAug 2, 2023
No Figma, no Powerpoint, just Tableau

Instructional overlays are a great tool for adding context to a dashboard. But when I’m trying to get something out the door, the last thing I want to do is spend time learning a yet another new tool, or spend time editing and re-editing images every time something changes.

I wanted to find a way to create overlays entirely in Tableau — that way none of my images would be outdated, and I wouldn’t need to hand off multiple files to the next analyst to maintain.

I asked the community on twitter for Ideas, and got lots of inspiration, which led me to the technique I’ll demonstrate- building an overlay entirely in Tableau using 1 show/hide container, 1 sheet, and built in annotations.

For this exercise, I’m using my Fruit Snacks dashboard, and a sample data set of coordinates to create a grid. Skip to the bottom for a link to the workbook!

Step 1 — Create your overlay sheet

  1. Create a new sheet
  2. We’re going to use a rectangle grid of points -I’m pasting in some generic x y coordinates to create a rectangle. You can use your own dataset to make a more or less dense dataset, or start with my data set here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1ur31QDqnAL0w5j5P_WO1UfAa9CIeIMMNEHnCpNaVtVs/edit?usp=sharing

(Note: You don’t have to use a full grid — you can use a single point as long as your sheet is set to entire view instead of standard. You can even skip adding a new data source, and use a placeholder calculated value like MAX(0).)

Array of dots on a grid

3. Format your worksheet so that all gridlines are gone, and hide the axes. You’ll need to make sure that your axis rulers and zero lines are set to “None”.

Format pane in Tableau

(Don’t forget to turn off the tooltips!)

Step 2 — Set up your Overlay Container

  1. Drag a floating container (horizontal or vertical, does not matter) onto your dashboard. Size it to the area you want your annotations to appear.
Gif showing how to click and drag a floating container onto a dashboard

2. Add your overlay sheet by shift clicking, dragging and dropping the sheet into your floating container.

Adding the overlay sheet into the floating container

3. Hide the title of the sheet. Format your worksheet so the background is transparent.

More formatting

4. Select your floating container, and click the “Add Show/Hide Button” option. Drag the show hide button to wherever you want it on your dashboard.

Add a show/hide button

5. Recommended, but not required — for your floating container, format it so that there is a background color with some opacity. This will make your container semi transparent, which can be helpful as you add annotations.

Adjust the opacity

Step 3 — Annotate!

Now comes the fun part — adding your callouts. We’ll be using the native annotation function in Tableau. Make sure your show/hide container is ‘showing’, as we’ll be annotating that overlay sheet.

Annotating a point

Annotating a point lets you create an annotation that has a text box and a line. It is tied to whatever point you specify in the sheet.

  1. Right click on your overlay sheet, click Annotate, and click Point.
Annotate point

2. A dialogue box will pop up — delete the default text, and add your own.

super cool text box

4. Your annotation will appear on the sheet with default formatting. Grab the green squares to reposition the annotation line and box where you want it to go.

an annotation!

5. Right click you annotation and select “Format” to bring up the “Format Annotation Pane” on the left. By adjusting the formatting, we can get an annotation that looks like this:

Formatting on the left, results on the right

Annotating an area

Annotating an area does not give you a leader line — but still gives you a text box that you can format.

  1. Right click anywhere on the sheet, and select Annotate, Area
annotate area

2. Insert whatever text you’d like. In this case, we’ll add a unicode right arrow because we want to show users where to click to close the overlay.

more super cool text

3. Let’s format this one a little differently.

This formatting gives us a rounded button look

Annotating a mark

Annotating a mark is tying an annotation to a specific data point on your sheet. This ties your annotation to a specific point on our annotation grid.

  1. Right click on a mark, select Annotate, Annotate Mark
Annotate mark

2. You know the drill — edit your annotation, and use formatting to edit the look of your callout. Annotating a mark, you can choose to include a leader line or not. This time, let’s use the line and add an arrow.

This formatting lets us point the arrow directly at our predefined grid point

Step 4 — Cleaning up the details

Let’s do some final clean up items to add some polish.

  1. Turn off our dot grid — in our overlay sheet, turn make the dots ‘disappear’ by adjusting the opacity of the marks to 0%
Make the shapes transparent

2. Edit the show/hide button — the default button for show/hide is an x and a ‘hamburger’ aka 3 lines in a stack. Most users usually associate this with opening some sort of menu, so let’s switch the icon to something else. Click “edit button”

Edit button

3. Adjust the button as you see fit. For example, you can use a different icon instead of the hamburger lines for the overlay.

Example of different button image

Closing thoughts

I don’t think there’s any one best way to create dashboard overlays, but I hope you found this at least interesting, and at best helpful. Some pros and cons of this approach:

Pros:

  • Entirely in Tableau — no need to buy a new tool or maintain files or documentation in other tools
  • Flexible — annotations can be edited and moved around easily
  • Up to date — no fussing with images means your background image will always be fresh because it’s the actual dashboard

Cons:

  • Adds another data source to a dashboard
  • Not as many formatting options as other tools
  • Grid trick could lead to a little confusion if people wonder why their mouse wants to click on the transparent dots

And of course, as promised, click here for the link to the dashboard: is the link to the dashboard: 50 Fruit Snack Packs-Overlay Edition. Feel free to download it, crack it open, and use it as inspiration for your own overlays!

https://public.tableau.com/app/profile/brrosenau/viz/FlavorDistributionacross50FruitSnackPacks-OverlayEdition/50FRUITSNACKPACKS-OverlayEdition?publish=yes

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Brittany Rosenau

Design Nerd | Analytics Professional | 6x Tableau #VizOfTheDay | Iron Viz Finalist | Tableau Public Ambassador + Featured Author