Cell & table formatting

I was recently asked for ideas on how to present statistics. It’s a good question because, let’s face it, people don’t like numbers. They want information that’s easy to digest…and, almost more importantly, they want information that LOOKS like it’s easy to digest. Just like the cover of a book, something visually attractive can generate more interest than something plain can, even if the contents are the same.

Assuming you start with some sort of coherent data in a sensible layout, then the way to make a table of information more readable, attractive, and interesting is to format the cells in it. There are six groups of elements you can format in a cell: the background/color/shading, the border around it, the font, the alignment, the height and width, and the type of number that appears in it.

The background of a cell is whatever color (or pattern, or picture) appears behind the text, filling the cell. The newer the program, the more choices you’re likely to have. After all, monitors, printers, and other output devices have been steadily increasing how much detail they can handle!
The border is the lines around the cell. The options generally include the width or thickness of the border, the design (solid line, dashed line, double line, etc.), and the color of the border. You can usually specify different borders for all four sides.
Fonts are generally applied to the entire contents of the cell, although some more recent programs allow you to apply font formats to individual words. In addition to font size, color, style, and family, spreadsheets will often let you change the direction of the font.
(left) (middle) (right)
In addition to the horizontal alignments illustrated above, most spreadsheets will also let you specify the vertical alignment. Whether or not to wrap text that is too long to be displayed in the current column width also falls into this category, as is the ability to merge cells, thus combining multiple cells into a single one so that text can stretch across multiple columns or rows. If you’re familiar with tables in HTML you’ve probably encountered this concept before.
Column width & row height
Although it’s not easy to illustrate here, most spreadsheets let you change the width of the columns, to make them narrower for short pieces of data (checkmarks, for example), or wider for long ones (full names, book titles, etc.)

They also let you change the height of rows, either for more white space or to show text which has wrapped to a new line.

Number format 1 $1.00 100%
Last but not least, spreadsheets let you automatically format numbers in a variety of common ways. Among the options are: number of decimal points to display, whether to have commas (1000 vs 1,000) and/or a currency symbol ($), whether to display as a fraction (1 3/4 instead of 1.75), and whether to display as a date.

I’ll go over each of these elements, and how to format them, in later posts.