(Note: I wrote this article in about 2004, and I rediscovered it only recently. Because there’s a lot to say about using colors in the modern Excel, this article is high on my list for a complete update.)
Excel offers a default palette of only 56 colors. For most people, most of the time, these are the only colors available within Excel. However, Excel users have much more power over the color of their reports than the default palette implies.
Although it’s true that you can use only 56 colors in one workbook, you can use any 56 colors you want. This fact gives you tremendous power to create reports with virtually any appearance.
Not only can your Excel reports use the colors from your company’s letterhead, but you can set up colors that make your reports more interesting and easier to understand.
To illustrate, this figure is an Excel report of public data from 2001 for Exxon Mobil Corp. This probably looks like no Excel report you’ve ever seen before.
One reason this doesn’t look like an Excel report is that it uses many charts and small tables to present its data. In the months ahead, we’ll discuss the spreadsheet techniques you can use to generate scorecard reports like this.
The other reason this doesn’t look like an Excel report is that it uses colors that Excel doesn’t use…at least not by default. Instead, it uses the colors found in the ExcelUser bitmap at the top of this page.
Your color assignments are stored with Excel’s workbook file. Therefore, you could maintain many different Excel templates, each with its own palette of colors.
The figure at the right shows the palette from an Excel template that I used to create the report shown above. These colors are based on the Paper template offered by Microsoft PhotoDraw. This excellent drawing program was included with Microsoft Office for several years, but the product was killed after Office 2000.
The colors in PhotoDraw’s Paper palette are in the second row. The other colors in the first five rows are variations on the Paper theme. The last two rows of colors in this palette provide a variety of other useful colors.
As with the standard color settings, we typically use the dark colors for lines in cell borders, charts, and drawing objects, and the light colors to shade the backgrounds of those objects.
You could use nearly an infinite variety of colors in your own reports. For example, here are the other palettes that came with Microsoft PhotoDraw. You could, of course, use any palette you want.
Setting Up Your Own Colors
It’s easy to set up a new color in Excel. However, depending on what you are trying to achieve, this process can be time-consuming.
To set up your own colors, first open a workbook in which you want to save the color assignments. Choose Tools, Options. Select the Color tab. In the palette provided, select a color that you want to change. Then click on the Modify button to launch the Colors dialog.
In the Standard tab you can choose from many colors that have been set up for you. Or, in the Custom tab, shown here, you can specify any color you wish.
To choose a color, click on the color with your mouse pointer. The plus-shaped marker shows where you click. You can lighten or darken your selection by sliding the pointer at the right as needed.
If you want to specify a color exactly, you can enter its RGB (Red, Green, Blue) color value in this dialog. Often, you won’t know the RGB value, but you will be able to display an object that has the color you want. In this case, you can use PhotoDraw or many other drawing programs to help you. They have tools that return the RGB color code for any object that you can touch with your mouse.
Repeat the process until you have assigned the colors you want. When you are through, save the workbook as a normal Excel workbook.
Or, to save your workbook as an Excel template, choose File, Save As. Enter the file name that you want. Then, in the Save As Type dropdown list box, choose “Template (*.xlt)”, and choose OK.