Excel cell styles – useful feature or waste of ribbon space?
July 3, 2009 6 Comments
I agree with Simon in his article about the usefulness of cell styles in Excel, where he says:
Styles in Excel are one of those things that sound good in theory, but are significantly worse than useless in reality. In an isolated world they may work but as soon as you start copying a pasting between workbooks…then you get a right royal style mess.
Cell styles as a concept seem pretty weak to me. The built-in ones are hopeless; I know hardly anyone (actually no-one that I could name right now) that uses them.
I have recently done some extensive work for a client on a set of templates, themes, etc for the whole Office suite. For the Excel templates I included some cell styles to make it quick to format things in “corporate” colours for headings and so on (as well as default table styles for the same reason). This provides user convenience and helps them create more consistent documents with more of a “branded” feel to them.
As to imposing a regime of “pink means bad” and “orange double underline means linked” (linked to what?), no chance.
Why styles don’t address the real need for good formatting
I teach students on my Excel training courses that formatting of spreadsheets should be used for three purposes:
- to highlight (data outliers; estimates as opposed to actuals)
- to group or associate data together (months in the same quarter or year having a light shaded background say, next group no background; using matching colour for axes and lines in a two-series chart with two different scales)
- to separate data by category or type (line above the first month of a new year; making the title row bold)
These principles of using formats to help interpret the data, rather than help it look pretty tend to get people focussed on the task rather than the appearance. The built-in cell styles only seem to address the concept of highlighting, rather than being useful for grouping or separating. The highlighting they provide seems arbitrary at best, and quite likely to cause headaches with some of the colours involved.
They also apply too aggressively for my liking. For example, if I apply a format to a cell to show that it is an estimate, and someone else wants to style it to say it should be checked (or updated or whatever), my original formatting is irrecoverably lost. Resetting the cell style to “normal” simply applies this instead. By using precise formatting I could control this better – for example my estimates might be indicated by use of italics and a different font colour. I could then highlight this cell to be checked by adding a border or background fill, which can be separately removed later once done, leaving my original font format in place. Or I can change the format to represent an actual rather than estimate figure, but still leave the border to make sure it gets checked.
Cell styles are all-or-nothing, and that does not work for me.
Surely styles help people apply formatting more quickly?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not for people formatting everything by hand, one property at a time. Paragraph styles are a great way to format Word documents (the only sensible way for a consistent approach to layout and formatting). How a document is structured and how it looks are closely tied together, and providing users with an easy way to show heading hierarchies, properly legal-numbered lists and so on is really valuable, and saves a ton of time versus bold, italic, indent-a-bit, font size 24 etc. Re-using the hierarchical structure this gives for things like table of contents or an outline make good sense too. Marketing departments typically like templates as a convenient way to give end users some built-in branding and good design, making it easier for everyone to create documents which look similar, and meet the guidelines they have chosen for colours, layouts, even choice of bullet points. I just can’t see how this sort of model translates to Excel.
Colour schemes do make sense to help “brand” Excel documents with corporate colours for headings and the like, and to make sure that visual elements such as charts or diagrams have a sensible and consistent palette (not necessarily in corporate colours, which may be too saturated or distinctive in many cases).
Cell styles don’t seem to meet any actual need that is not just as well addressed for the majority of users by the format painter tool, and learning to use it properly – I have lost count of the people I see on intermediate or advanced courses who have never double clicked this to lock it on and apply a format to multiple targets, whether in Excel, Word or PowerPoint
Workbooks that have lived for a while in 2003 and been reformatted over time seem to generate loads of horrid pointless cell styles when converted to 2007 (equally PowerPoint files create large numbers of colour schemes so that existing slides can retain their colours while still pretending to be theme-aware). Copying sheets between workbooks seems to compound this (although because I hardly even look at the styles gallery it is hard to know exactly how bad this gets). The style gallery quickly becomes useless, and as Simon highlights, it is tedious beyond belief to sort out. Some kind of proper style manager interface might redeem this. I tend to crack open the zip file and reach for Notepad++ for some XML-hacking – not what I would expect most users to do, or even many power users.
Styles gallery is a waste of space – literally
My biggest gripe with cell styles is that for a feature which is very rarely used it gets given a lot of space. Right now my ribbon is maxed out on my 1920×1200 widescreen. The Home ribbon is 47cm wide, and the styles gallery is showing 10 items in 5 columns taking up 15 cm – nearly a third of the ribbon. The same space could show various groups which many people might find more useful, any of these pairs would fit in the same space or less:
- names and formula auditing
- page setup and scale to fit
- changes (protection) and workbook views
I know some things have been made more prominent on the ribbon to get people to consider features they did not even know were there – conditional formatting and defined names being two of the most underused in my opinion, and I’m very glad to see them given a useful amount of space. But getting people to use cell styles simply won’t set the world on fire, or make spreadsheets more efficient, or easier to maintain, or less prone to user errors. If anything, they distract from good practice and promote eye-candy – will “death by PowerPoint” spread to “death by spreadsheet”?