Are you tired of using Excel tables in your reports? Here's a way to add some class to them while learning more about little-known features of Excel.

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In my (out of print) book,Dashboard Reporting With Excel, I recommended that you “steal” ideas for Excel reports from business magazines. I recently had another opportunity to follow my own advice.

A recent issue of Business Week carried an ad for Fidelity Investments. The ad largely consisted of a table showing their investor’s returns. The table consisted of a blue square with overlapping semi-transparent bright green bars.

This figure shows my version of the Fidelity display. Instead of using Fidelity’s colors and data, I used brown and green colors, and I used data about the revenues of three web search companies. The data was provided by Hoovers.com.

This tutorial explains how to create this figure in Excel. Even if you don’t need a figure like this, just creating it will teach you about useful but little-used areas of Excel: the Camera object, grouped worksheets, and transparent AutoShapes.

### Setting Up the Data in Excel

Start by creating a rough version of the simple table shown below.

Enter the three-word title shown in cell C2. To center it in the four columns as shown, select the range C2:F2 and chose Format, Cells. In the Format Cells dialog, specify Center Across Selection for the horizontal text alignment.

In cell B10, enter “Total” followed by three spaces. Then click on the Align Right button on your toolbar to position the label as shown.

Enter the data in every other row, as shown. To expand the row heights, first select the entire rows 2 through 10. To do so, click and drag your mouse pointer from the row header for row 2 through the row header for row 10. Then, when you hover over the border between any two of the selected rows, your mouse pointer will change shape. When it does, you can click and drag to make the rows taller.

After they are about tall enough, select rows 5 and 7 to make them shorter. To do so, select row 5; hold down your Control key; then select row 7. Now, when you click and drag the height of one of the rows, the other row adjusts to the same height.

Select all of the data and vertically align the text to the center of their rows. To do so, choose Format, Cells. In the Alignment tab, in the Vertical list, choose Center.

Indent the three company names slightly. To do so, select the range B4:B8. Choose Format, Cells. In the Alignment tab, in its Horizontal list box, choose Left (Indent). And then specify an Indent of 1.

Don’t worry about the precise row heights or column widths at this point. You’ll be able to adjust them later.

To assign a number format for the data, select the area with the numbers. Then choose Format, Cells. In the Number tab, choose Custom. Then select the “#,##0” format near the top of the Type list.

### Set Up the Second Worksheet

You will create this display using two worksheets that have identical row heights and column widths. You will see why this is important in a few minutes.

To set up the second worksheet, you copy the first one. The easiest way to do that is to hold down your Ctrl key then click and drag the tab at the bottom of your worksheet to the right. When you do so, Excel adds a small image of a document with a plus sign to your mouse pointer. Once you see that plus sign you can release your mouse button to copy the worksheet.

Alternatively, to copy the worksheet, you can right-click on the tab, choose Move or Copy, and then complete the instructions in the Move or Copy dialog.

Name the left sheet Report and the right sheet Data. To do so, double-click the text in a tab to select it. You now can enter the label.

In the Report sheet, select all data and delete it using your Delete key.

You now have two worksheets with identical formats in your workbook. The Report sheet will contain the formatting and drawing objects, but no data. The Data sheet will contain data, but only minimal formatting.

Finally, for future convenience, assign the range name Data to your data range of data in the Data sheet. To do so, choose Insert, Name, Define. In the Define Name dialog, enter the name Data and a Refers-To reference of:

=Data!\$B\$2:\$G\$10

### Set Up the Excel Drawing Objects

Before you can set up drawing objects, you need to make sure that your Drawing toolbar is displayed. Choose Tools, Customize. In the Toolbars tab, make sure that Drawing is checked. Then choose OK.

First set up the brown rectangle object. To do so, click AutoShapes in the Drawing toolbar; in the Basic Shapes menu item, choose the Rounded Rectangle object. When you do so, Excel turns your mouse pointer to a cross bar. Click and drag in the general area of the rectangle shown here.

To position the rectangle, hold down your Alt key then click and drag the rectangle. As you do so, notice that the object jumps from cell to cell. This makes it easy for you to position the top-left corner of the rectangle in cell C2.

After the top-left corner is in cell C2, position the bottom-right corner in cell F11. To do so, select the rectangle; hold down your Alt key, click on the selector circle near the bottom right corner of the object; then click and drag the bottom-right corner into into the bottom-right corner of cell F11.

Similarly, create a second Rounded Rectangle object and position it within the range B4:G4.

Copy the rectangle and paste it three times. Position two of the copies in B6 and B8 as shown. Position the last copy in cell B10. Then click on the last object’s center selection handle at its left side and drag the handle to the right. As you do so, you reduce the object’s width. Position the left side about as shown in the figure.

### Format the Rounded Rectangles

Let’s assign a standard Excel color to the first object.

To do so, select the object, right-click it, and choose Format AutoShape. In the Colors and Lines tab, in the Fill dropdown list, choose the Brown color, which is the darkest orange color. In the Line dropdown list, choose No Line.

You can format the other objects in one step. To do so, you first select them. The Select Objects tool makes this easy to do. To launch the tool, click on the arrow shown here, which is on your Drawing toolbar. When you do so, your mouse pointer takes the shape of the arrow shown.

Now you can click a cell in your spreadsheet and drag the selection grid to surround the four rectangles that you need to format. When you release your pointer, Excel selects all objects that are entirely within the selection grid.

To dismiss the Select Objects tool, press the Esc key.

With the other four selected (the ones that are dark green), begin as you did before. Right-click any of the selected objects, choose Format AutoShape. In the Colors and Lines tab, in the Fill dropdown list, choose the Dark Green color. In the Line dropdown list, choose No Line. Also, however, slide the Transparency slider to 50%. Then choose OK.

You have one more adjustment to make.

The rounded corners of your brown rectangle probably will be much larger than the ones shown above. To make the rounded corners smaller, click on the object. When you do so, you’ll see a yellow handle in the top-left corner of the object. Drag the yellow handle up and to the left to make the corners smaller. (You could drag the handle down and to the right to make the rounded corners larger.)

Your five objects now should look somewhat like they do in this figure, but your colors will be different.

Excel’s Camera object returns a picture of the range that it references. It works great for this application.

(Warning: Do not use the Camera object to display charts. A bug in Excel could resize your charts if you point a Camera object at them.)

You can use Camera objects without using the Camera icon. But if you intend to use the Camera tool a lot (which I do), you can set up its icon on one of your Excel toolbars. To do so, choose Tools, Customize. In the Commands tab, select Tools in the Categories list. In the Commands list, scroll about 60% of the way down the list, where you’ll see the Camera icon:

Click and drag this icon to any convenient toolbar in Excel.

To set up the Camera tool for this report, first create a Camera object on your Report sheet. To do so, temporarily enter any character in cell A1.

To create the object with the Camera tool, first select cell A1. Click on the Camera icon, then click on any nearby cell. When you do so, Excel drops a live picture of cell A1 wherever you clicked.

To create the object without using the Camera tool, copy cell A1 and then select a nearby cell. Hold down your Shift key and then choose Edit, Paste Picture Link. When you do so, Excel copies the Camera tool object to the active cell.

Select the Camera object if necessary. Notice the formula =\$A\$1 in the formula bar. To get the Camera object to display the data in the Data sheet, this formula needs to reference the range that contains those numbers, which is named Data.

To modify the formula, select it in your formula bar and enter:

=Data

When you press Enter, the camera object should display a picture of your data from your Data sheet.

Now you can erase the character you entered in cell A1 of the Report sheet.

### Format Excel’s Camera Object

Initially, the next step might look like you’ve made a mistake. You need to move the Camera object into position on top of your colored rectangles. To do so, first select the Camera object. Hold down your Alt key. Then click and drag the object so that its top-left corner is positioned in the top-left corner of cell B2.

If you used the Camera tool to create your Camera object, the object will obscure your colored rectangles, and it will have a border line. To remove those settings, right-click the object and choose Format Picture. In the Colors and Lines tab, set the fill color to No Fill and the line color to No Line.

Because the rounded rectangles have a dark color, the black font doesn’t show up very well against them. You therefore need to change the font color to white.

To do so, first select the data range. To do so quickly press the F5 function key to launch the Go To dialog, type Data in the Reference box, then press Enter.

With the Data range selected, assign a white font using the Font Color icon on your Excel toolbar.

Now, when you activate the Report sheet, you should see your report’s white fonts displayed on top of your colored rectangles.

It’s likely that the rows and columns in your figure need to be adjusted. Here’s a trick that allows you to do it easily:

Select your Report sheet; hold down the Shift key then click on the Data tab. When you do so, both sheets will be selected. Also, in the title bar, Excel displays “[Group]”. Now, any adjustment you make to the Report sheet also will be made to the Data sheet.

That is, when you click and drag to adjust the rows and columns in your report, you also adjust the rows and columns in the Data sheet. Normally this wouldn’t be important. But because we’re using the Camera object, we need to keep the positioning of the two sheets exactly in sync, and this trick will do it for us.

If you need to select one of the rectangles for any reason, you might run into two problems.

First, notice that Excel won’t let you select one of the rectangles when both sheets are selected. Therefore, if your Report sheet is active, select the Data sheet (or some other sheet in your workbook) to ungroup your worksheets. Then select the Report sheet again. Now you can activate the objects on your Report sheet.

Second, because the Camera object covers your colored rectangles, you probably will have a difficult time selecting them with your mouse pointer. To do so easily, you can use the Select Objects tool. As described above, use it to encircle only the objects that you want to select.

One final adjustment that you might want to make is to apply different colors to the figure. To illustrate, here’s the same figure in blue and gray. Whatever colors you choose, keep in mind that you can adjust their intensity by adjusting the degree of transparency for any of the five colored objects.