Excel cell styles – useful feature or waste of ribbon space?

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.

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