Formatting elements: Backgrounds (About)

Backgrounds, also known as fill, color, or shading, can be a great formatting element in a table, and can really make it a lot more visually appealing and easier to read, but if misused they can have the opposite effect. So before getting into how to set backgrounds in various programs I’m first going to take a little while to discuss what you can, can’t, and might be able to do with backgrounds in spreadsheets, as well as what you should, shouldn’t, and must do.

What you can do with backgrounds in a spreadsheet.

  • You can set the background of a cell to a solid color.
  • You can set multiple cells to the same background at the same time.
  • You can set a sequence of cells to a sequence of different background colors (for example: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple) by setting each one individually.

What you might be able to do with backgrounds in a spreadsheet.

  • You might be able to set the background of a cell to a pattern or gradient from one color to another.
  • You can might be able to multiple cells with different backgrounds to create various attractive effects, including a rainbow spectrum, by setting each one individually.

What you can’t do with backgrounds in a spreadsheet.

  • You can’t insert pictures or graphics as the background of a cell.
  • You can’t set a single pattern to cover multiple cells. For example: if you want a pair of cells to be white on the left edge of the left cell, and fade to black on the right end of the right cell, you can’t just highlight both and tell it to use that gradient. If you do, they’ll both be white on the left and black on the right.

What you should do with backgrounds in a spreadsheet.

  • You should consider using backgrounds to set off distinctive information such as row/column headers, sums, etc.
  • You should consider using backgrounds to make large tables easier to read by alternating row colors.

What you shouldn’t do with backgrounds in a spreadsheet.

  • You shouldn’t use most of the patterns that are available, in any cell that contains information. They can obscure the text.
  • You shouldn’t use the same background on the whole table. That’s like taking a highlighter to the entire page in a book. It loses its meaning.
  • You shouldn’t use busy patterns of backgrounds. For example: you can make a checkerboard out of your table by putting a dark background on ever alternate cell. You can also wear hot pink pants and an orange plaid blazer to your next job interview. I don’t recommend either course of action.

What you must do with backgrounds in a spreadsheet.

  • You must be careful to check the visibility of your font on your background. Black text on a dark blue background will be virtually unreadable.
  • You must remember that if you send the table to someone else, they might print it in greyscale. Red text on a medium-green background might be very visible in color, but fade into the same shade of grey when printed.