I first published this article at EntreResource.com
We can do a lot of fancy tech tricks with spreadsheets, but at the end of the day, spreadsheets serve one real purpose: to clearly display data. Fortunately, even if you know next to nothing about spreadsheets, these simple tips will ensure you always create beautiful, professional looking sheets. Your boss or clients will be impressed, I promise.
For this blog post, we'll work with this really terrible looking spreadsheet and slowly improve it step by step.
I promise, it will look way less offensive shortly!
#1 Correct Your Alignment
For most of us, the natural tendency is to center our text in the cells. However, we should avoid doing it.
By centering some text and not others, you make the content uneasy on the eyes. Ironically, centering some elements makes the full document seem unbalanced.
Spreadsheets are for skimming over, so making them easy to read is critically important.
Fix: Give your data a strong, left alignment to text and a right alignment to numbers.
#2 Distinguish Your Headings
Make your headings obvious and separate them from content that follows them. However, be sure that you don't overdo it with excessively large or multi-colored fonts.
#3 Use Fewer Colors
Fight the urge to use anymore than 3 colors. When possible, use a color palette template or any alternating colors that come with your spreadsheet program (there will be many).
Never go for the dark background, light text approach. These are difficult on the eyes and aren't easy to read.
#4 Leave "Row 1" and "Column A" Empty
It's amazing how giving the data some room to breath quickly makes your spreadsheets look better instantly.
#5 Remove Borders and Use Light Zebra Stripe
Borders seem like a good idea at first but almost always end up being unnecessary. Your spreadsheets will look better if you pass on borders, especially thick one larger than 1px.
A subtle zebra stripe pattern for alternating rows will make it easier to read across long lines of data and down long columns. I recommend sticking to white and then a very light grey or something else that is very subtle.
#6 Use Calibri or Arial Font
Don't try to force too much pizzazz into a spreadsheet with a fancy font. Not only does this often make your sheets look bad, but it can also be problematic when sharing your spreadsheets with other users who don't have that font installed.
#7 Center Your Title
If your sheets have titles, consider centering them over the width of the content.
#8 Format Row Height and Column Width
You want your data to fit snuggly. When possible, opt for uniformity in size of row heights and column widths, but don't be afraid to manually tweak them if data looks bunched up or hard to read.
#9 Strategically Freeze Header Rows or Columns
If you have large amounts of data but want to keep the headers visible while scrolling, consider freezing them so they remain "sticky" when scrolling.
#10 Organize Workbooks with Colored Tabs
This is a little utilized feature that makes your workbooks easier to browse through. Assign a color to each sheet tab if you have more than 2 sheets in your workbook.