Formatting elements: Alignment (About text shrinking)

An alternative to text wrapping is text shrinking. You can do this manually by changing the font size, but if you need to do multiple cells in multiple sizes that can get really tedious really quickly.

Fortunately many spreadsheets offer you a way to automatically shrink the text to fit horizontally. It won’t expand text to fit, and it won’t shrink the text if it’s too big vertically. It’s also important to remember the you can choose text wrapping or automatic shrinking — you can’t choose both.

The shrink text to fit setting is the one that lets you automatically adjust the size of the font to force the text to fit in the cell. If the text is just a little bit too wide for the cell then it will shrink the font just a little bit. If the text is WAY too wide then it will shrink the font until it looks like a string of tiny dots to the average eye.

Unless you’re careful in how it’s used, I personally find that it distracts the eye more than carefully applied cell margins, wrapping, or other options. There are three times people generally use this option.

Quick & dirty “make it fit”. If you just want all the information to fit, and don’t really care how smooth the result is, you can use this option. This can yield results that look like this:

It looks weird, but it’s readable.

Single column headers. If you only have one column of values, or a few column headers of similar length, then it can end up looking pretty good. For example, if you only wanted the values from the first two months the table above would look just fine. That’s because “January” and “February” have pretty similar lengths — January is 7 letters, and February is 8.

Column entries. If you have a lot of text column entries of of vaguely comparable length, then you can use “shrink-to-fit” to make them all fit in a slightly narrower column than they might otherwise need. The effects of this can be fairly subtle. For example, take a look at this list of U.S. Presidents:

Can you tell at a glance which ones were shrunk? If not, here’s another sampling, all with the first name “William”.

If you look carefully at the first name, you can tell that Taft and Harrison have both been shrunk, because the William in both of those are are shorter than the ones in Clinton’s and McKinley’s. But it’s not very obvious, is it?