How to make a spreadsheet readable

My volunteer committee at Delisle Youth Services was pleased with how I improved the formatting of our Balanced Scorecard spreadsheet.

Here are some tips to make readable spreadsheets, when you’re distributing your MS-Excel or other spreadsheet files to other people:

Text and Numbers

  • Use a consistent, plain, font throughout. Avoid fussy fancy fonts.
  • Show the hierarchy of your organization with headings in a larger bold font, the main content in regular font, and explanatory notes in smaller italics.
  • A regular font size of 8 to 12 points is readable for most people.
  • Ensure your content is placed consistently: at the top, middle or bottom of the cells, and at the left, middle or right of the cells.

Lines and Shading

  • Maximize contrast.  Use black text on white or the lightest shading.  Use white text on very dark shading.  Avoid text on mid-tones.
  • Use shading to convey meaning, for example:  shaded cells are headings, white cells are to be filled in.
  • A heavy grid distracts from your content.  Turn off the gridlines for display and printing.
  • White space is the cleanest way to help readers distinguish rows of information.  Insert blank rows between groupings.  Widen row heights.
  • If horizontal border-lines are necessary, use the lightest weight available (such as 1/4 point in grey, instead of the default black 1/2 point.)  Consider putting lines only between major groupings of rows, not every row.
  • Remove most vertical borders.  Delineate columns with white space, the edge of text blocks, and the ends of horizontal borders.
  • Use caution when shading tables in alternating stripes.  The shading may be too dark for high-contrast with text.  Shaded stripes may compete with more informative shading elsewhere on the spreadsheet.

Design for Printing

  • Set up the page layout so the spreadsheet will print nicely without requiring the recipient to fiddle with it.
  • If you have many columns, choose a large paper size in landscape orientation, and adjust to print 1 page wide.  Use narrower columns and word-wrap to keep the font size readable.
  • Set up information that prints on every page (title, tab name, headings, page number, etc.) in the header, footer, or print-title rows.
  • Print out your spreadsheet in black & white, to make sure your colours come out as distinct shades of grey, with high contrast.


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