Conditional Formatting in Excel – 5 Tips to make you a Rockstar

How to be excel conditional formatting rockstarExcel conditional formatting is a hidden and powerful gem that when used well, can change the outlook of your project report / sales budget / project plan or analytical outputs from bunch of raw data in default fonts to something truly professional and good looking. Better still, you don’t even need to be a guru or excel pro to achieve dramatic results. All you need is some coffee and this post to learn some cool conditional formatting tricks.

So you got your coffee mug? well, lets start!

The 5 tricks we are going to learn are,
1. Highlighting alternative rows / columns in tables
2. No-nonsense project plans / Gantt charts
3. Extreme In cell graphs
4. Highlight mistakes, errors, omissions, repetitions
5. Create intuitive dashboards

If you are new to Excel Conditional Formatting, please read the Conditional Formatting Basics article before proceeding.

I have created an excel sheet containing all these examples. Feel free to download the excel and be a conditional formatting rock star

1. Highlighting alternative rows / columns in tables:

Using MS Excel conditional formatting to change background color of alternative rows or columns
Often when you present data in a large table it looks monotonous and is difficult to read. This is because your eyes start interpreting the data as grid instead of some important numbers. To break this you try highlighting or changing the background colour of alternative rows / columns. But how would you do this if you have rather large table and it keeps changing. The trick lies in Conditional Formatting. (Of course you can use the built-in auto format feature, but we all know how the default settings of various Microsoft products are like).

  • First select data part of the table you want to format.
  • Go to Conditional formatting dialog (Menu > Format > Conditional Formatting)
  • Change the “cell value is” to “formula is” (YES, you can base your formatting outcome on formulas instead of cell values)
  • Now, if you want to highlight alternative rows, the formula can go something like this,
    which means, whenever row() of the current cell is even, to change the colouring to odd rows, you just need to put =MOD(ROW(),2)=1 as formula
    Also, if you want to highlight alternative columns instead of rows you can use the column() formula.
    What if you want to change background colour of every 3rd row instead, just use =MOD(ROW(),3)=0 instead. Just use your imagination.

  • Set the format as you like, in my case I have used yellow colour. When you are done, the dialog should look something like this:
    Excel Conditional Formatting dialog box, entering formulas to set the format
  • Click OK.
  • Congratulations, you have mastered a conditional formatting trick now :)
2. Creating a quick project plan / Gantt chart using conditional formatting:

How to create Microsoft excel based gantt chart / project plan
Project plans / Gantt charts are everyday activity in most of our lives. Creating a simple and snazzy project plan template in excel is not a difficult job, using conditional formatting a bit of formulas you can do it no time.

  • First create a table structure like shown above, with columns like Activity, start and end day, day 1, 2,3, etc…
  • Now, whenever a day falls between start and end day for a corresponding activity, we need to highlight that row. For that we need to identify whether a day falls between start and end. We can do that with the below formulas,
    =IF(AND(F$8>=$D9, F$8<=$E9),"1","")
    Which means, whenever, the day number represented on the top row is between start and end we will in 1 in the corresponding cell.

  • Next, whenever the cell value is 1, we will just fill the cell with a favourite colour and change the font to same colour, so that we don’t see anything but a highlighted cell, better still, whenever you change the start or end dates, the colour will change automatically. This will be done by conditional formatting like below:
    Excel Conditional Formatting Dailog, highlight a cell
  • Congratulations, you have mastered the art of creating excel Gantt charts now
3. Extreme In-cell Graphs:

In cell graphing is a nifty trick that basically uses REPT() function (used to repeat a string, character given number of times) to generate bar-charts with in a cell. You can apply conditional formatting on top of them to give the charts a good effect. Here is a sample:
Excel Condtional Formatting along with In-cell Graphs

The above is a table of visits to Pointy Harried Dilbert ;) in the month of January 2008. As you can see I have highlighted (by changing the font colour to red and making it bold) for the cells that have more than average number of visits in the month. I am not going to tell you how to do it, it is your home work :)

4. Highlight mistakes / errors / omissions / repetitions using conditional formatting:

Conditional formatting errors
Often we will do highly monotonous job like typing data in a sheet. Since the work is monotonous you tend to make mistakes, omit a few or repeat something etc. This can be avoided by conditional formatting. I use this trick whenever I am typing something or pasting a formula over a rather large range of cells (for eg. vlookup on annual revenue data of all your accounts, could run in to thousands of rows across multiple states /regions etc.).

Lets see how you can highlight a cell when it has an error:

  • First select the cells that you want to search for errors
  • Next go to menu > format > conditional formatting and mention the formula as: =is error() (see below)
    Microsoft Excel conditional formatting dialog box
  • In the same way you track repetitions, a simple countif() would do the magic for you, or Omissions (again a countif())
  • That it, you have learned how to save tons of time by letting excel do the job for you. Sit back and sip that coffee before it gets cold.
5. Creating dash boards using excel conditional formatting:

As I said before you can use conditional formatting to create intuitive sales reports or analytics outputs. Like the one shown here,
dash board how to using excel

Here is how you can do it:

  • Copy your data table to a new table.
  • Empty the data part and replace it with formula that can go like this (I am using the above table format to write these formulas, may change for your data)
    =ROUND(C10,0) & " " & IF(C9 Essentially, what we are doing is, whenever the cell value is more than its predecessor in the data table we are appending the symbol a–² (go to menu > insert > symbols and look for the above one) etc.

  • Next, conditionally change the colour of cell to red / green / blue or pink (if you want ;) ) and you are done
  • Show it to your boss, bask in the glory :)