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How to Use Colors in a Spreadsheet

Colors are awesome. Colors add personality. Colors bring about life and vitality. And colors are just plain fun!

Plus, colors can make your spreadsheets that much better! The only question is – how?

Less is More

I know. I know. I just opened up this article by discussing how wonderful colors are, and now I’m about to tell you that less is more. It doesn’t make any sense at all. Or does it?

When it comes to using colors within your spreadsheet, there is definitely a point when too much color is simply too much. If everything is highlighted with some crazy color, then all we really end up with is a psychedelic mess.

There are certainly some rare occasions where this is what you want, but most of the time, it’s better to tone things down.

The thing about color is that it is easy to recognize, and it really grabs our attention.

The problem is that if everything is calling for our attention at once, we will have no idea where to focus.

This is why it’s important to take care of using just the right amount of color. Add color to the things that really matter. Add color to accentuate the important details. Add enough color to make a statement but not so much that you’re shouting at your audience.

All this to say – color is powerful, and sometimes too much power is not a good thing. But the right amount of power can really drive an important point home.

From Bright to Highlight

The intensity or brightness of the color we use can sometimes be just as important as the amount of color we decided to include. This follows along the same lines as before.

If we use a small amount of color, but all of the colors we use are bright, then we are still shouting in the eyes of those facing the screen.

Bright and intense color captures the attention more than any other. If you really need to guide someone’s focus to something, you make it bright.

That’s why all of those road workers wear either neon orange or neon yellow. It draws your attention to them so that you won’t hit them with your car.

These same principles apply to spreadsheet.

If there is a certain number or a certain calculation that you want to be sure to see, then by all means, fill that cell with a bright and intense font and color.

Single Highlighted Cell

However, the important thing to remember is not to overdo it.

If you make everything bright and if you make everything intense, then what’s really important will become lost in everything else.

Multiple Highlighted Cells

Color Your Tabs

Now that we’ve discussed the importance of amount and intensity, we can move on to talking about more spreadsheet specific uses for color itself.

Those tabs you have at the bottom of your spreadsheet make it easy to jump from worksheet to worksheet. The only problem is that it can become tedious to navigate through these tabs when you have too many of them.

This is where color can help you focus on what’s most important.

Take advantage of the fact that color grabs your attention and add it to the tabs that are the most used or the most important. This will make it easy for you to pick out what tab you need just in the nick of time.

Colored Sheet Tabs

Grasp the Big Picture

When you’re looking at a densely populated spreadsheet (a spreadsheet with way too many numbers or pieces of information), it can be hard to get a grasp of the big picture or to see what’s really going on.

This is a great scenario in which color can really help.

Most spreadsheets have a feature known as “Conditional Formatting.” This is basically a feature that allows different cells to apply different types of fonts or colors to cells that meet a specific criteria or set of rules.

Excel Ribbon | Add Conditional Formatting

In our case, we can use conditional formatting with our dense spreadsheet to identify only those cells that need our attention.

In this way, we can take a bird’s eye view of our entire spreadsheet and immediately identify which parts of it need our focus. The best part is that we are able to do this without having to go row by row, cell by cell, to figure out what’s most urgent or important.

Conditional Formatting Example

Facts vs Formulas

Have you ever faced the problem where you’re looking at a spreadsheet and trying to figure out which cells are calculated and which cells simply contain text or numbers?

To handle this issue, I recommend a simple yet clever use of color.

Simply color the cells that contain formulas a different color than everything else. Add in a light blue or light purple for instance.

Colored Cell With Formula

By adding a subtle splash of color in this way, we can immediately identify which cells are producing a result and which cells can be changed freely without destroying formulas that were previously built.

Although a simple solution, this can save you from making many mistakes down the line.

As you can see, color is powerful and can be extremely useful.

Add a bit of color to really make your spreadsheet stand out, but don’t add too much to the point where you can’t bear to look at it in the first place.

Color is a wonderful thing, and if you can use it wisely, you can create a true digital masterpiece.

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