Spreadsheet Presentation

When you first use Microsoft Excel, your primary concern is to keep a lot of numbers into a single file. You may also use spreadsheets to analyze data. If asked to identify an advanced user, most people would define an Excel expert as someone who can use the package to perform complex calculations.

To a certain extent, that is true. The logic involved in writing Excel formulas is similar to that required for computer programming. However, if you start to think in those terms, you can forget the great advantage of Excel. Fundamentally, it is designed to present data. That’s why the package has a chart wizard. Yes, it can be used as a calculator, but it can also be used as management reporting software. Therefore we should consider not just the substance, but also the visual appearance of our spreadsheets.

If asked to draw a spreadsheet, most people would draw a simple criss-cross of horizontal and vertical lines on a white background. On Windows 95, that may have looked cutting edge but, on Windows 7, everything’s become rounded and shaded. As an Excel consultant, I would nearly always get rid of gridlines. You can do this by unchecking the Gridlines box from Tools->Options->View->Windows Options on early versions of Excel, or from View->Show/Hide on Excel 2007/2010.

The only reason for having gridlines is to identify cells in the same row or column. This is extremely important e.g. within a table. I would certainly recommend adding internal borders to the tables in your spreadsheet. The difference between borders and gridlines is that you can manage the formatting of borders to ensure they are aesthetically pleasing.

Another trick of the consulting trade is to remove row and column headings. One reason Excel feels somewhat dated is that it says A, B, C, D at the top of the sheet, and has a list of numbers at the side. You can remove these by unchecking the Headings box next to the Gridlines box. When developing formulas, it is extremely useful to see the headings because they will quickly tell you which column is which. Therefore, I would only recommend making this change once you have built your file.

The two changes I’ve recommended above will make your on-screen sheet look just like the printed version. Our next concern is to ensure your experience of Excel matches your experience of other programs and the worldwide web.

This means you should use an up-to-date font and color scheme. Since Office 2007, Microsoft has moved away from Arial and Times New Roman fonts, instead preferring users to use Calibri. If you have an old spreadsheet, it may still be written in an older font. I would recommend selecting all the cells in your spreadsheet and setting the font to Calibri. Much as Microsoft has invested a lot of time in graphical menus, the main reason Excel 2007 looks modern is because it uses modern fonts.

Color is also of interest. On the internet, it is very unusual to see a completely white website, Google being a notable exception. Most websites draw attention to content by lightly shading any peripheral space. You can see this on a site like Wikipedia and, it is so subtle, you may not have noticed it. Microsoft Word certainly uses a blue surround to highlight the main content. So why not color your entire spreadsheet light blue/grey, and make any tables white?

These simple tips are far more important to spreadsheet development than being able to write macros and formulas. You can create the best spreadsheet in the world but its presentation is the first thing your manager will notice.

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