Formatting elements: Font (Nifty tricks)

There are a lot of things you can do with fonts, and a lot of things you can accomplish with them. You can make things prettier, of course (or you can make it hideous, if you go too far), but you can also convey useful information. For example, compare the following two lists. Which one is easier to read?

Groceries
Deep Roots
Oatmeal
Milk
Butter
Ramen
Potatoes
Apples
Bread
Earth Fare
Tea
Yogurt
Kashi cereal
Harris Teeter
Orange Juice
Groceries
Deep Roots
Oatmeal
Milk
Butter
Ramen
Potatoes
Apples
Bread

Earth Fare
Tea
Yogurt
Kashi cereal

Harris Teeter
Orange Juice

While this is a trivial example because you’re not likely to go to the trouble of using a spreadsheet to write out your shopping list, this same sort of font changes can help convey information in tables.

There’s also a trick I use fairly frequently, when dealing with large tables with many unimportant, identical values. It you have too many irrelevant values, the relevant ones can be drowned out. For example, imagine a table comparing various low-cost screencasting programs. When filling it out, you want to either put a Y or a N in every cell – if you just skip the N cells then if you come back later you can’t be certain whether it didn’t have that ability, or you just didn’t check it. So the table could end up looking something like this.

Program Audio Help Captions Callouts Video Edit Audio Edit
uvScreenCamera N N N Y Y N
AviScreen CLASSIC N Y N N N N
uvScreenCamera Y N Y Y Y Y
CamStudio.org Y Y Y Y N N
Wink Y Y Y Y Y Y
Jing Y Y N N N N
Debut video software Y N N N N N
Screencast-O-Matic.com Y N Y N N N
Screentoaster Y Y Y N N Y
BB Flashback Y N Y Y N N

That table’s pretty busy, and it’s hard to see the Y entries. However, you can use conditional formatting to hide the “N” values by changing the font color to match the background color. That way the values would still be there so you know you had definitely checked it, but they wouldn’t be visually cluttering up the table.The result would look like this.

Program Audio Help Captions Callouts Video Edit Audio Edit
uvScreenCamera Y Y
AviScreen CLASSIC Y
uvScreenCamera Y Y Y Y Y
CamStudio.org Y Y Y Y
Wink Y Y Y Y Y Y
Jing Y Y
Debut video software Y
Screencast-O-Matic.com Y Y
Screentoaster Y Y Y Y
BB Flashback Y Y Y

Alternatively, you might care most about which programs don’t have one or more functions you consider essential. For example, if you know you won’t be able to make it through the entire recording without stumbling over your words, you might not want to even consider any program that doesn’t allow you to edit the audio after you’ve recorded it. In this case you could hide the Y entries instead, making it easy to spot and eliminate the programs with N entries in the “Audio Edit” column. The result would be something like this.

Program Audio Help Captions Callouts Video Edit Audio Edit
uvScreenCamera N N N N
AviScreen CLASSIC N N N N N
uvScreenCamera N
CamStudio.org N N
Wink
Jing N N N N
Debut video software N N N N N
Screencast-O-Matic.com N N N N
Screentoaster N N
BB Flashback N N N

In this example there happen to be equal numbers of Y and N entries, but if there are significantly more of one than the other, then it’s usually best to hide the more common one.