Format Word tables to highlight your data

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Most of us know that formatting a table’s data, cells, and borders can potentially help readers grasp what a table is trying to say. But that doesn’t mean we know the best way to make it happen. When you need to create tables that contain essentially text, or when you want to customize a table’s formatting in many ways, Microsoft Word( ; $400 as part of Office 2008) is often easier to use than a spreadsheet program such as Microsoft Excel. Here are some tricks for using Word's table options.

Word table basics

If you have the Standard toolbar visible (View -> Toolbars -> Standard), you can use the Tables button to create a table in Word. Click on it and then drag across the palette that appears to choose the number of cells your table will have. You’re not limited to the 4x5 palette that displays initially; if you keep dragging, the palette gets bigger. Just click on the bottom right when you get to the correct size.

Another option is to select Table -> Insert -> Table. In the Insert Table window that appears, you can type in the number of columns and rows, as well as choose AutoFit behaviors (for example, whether your table cells have a specific width, or whether they adjust to fit to their contents or your window). You’ll also see the AutoFormat button (which we’ll talk about below). When you’ve made your selections, click on OK, and Word generates your table. Click in a cell and start typing to add data.

Formatting options

A basic Word table is pretty boring. It matches your current style (so, for example, the font will be Cambria if you’re using Word’s default Normal style). You’ll see no bold or italic type. Slim black borders lacking color or texture frame the cells. It’s easy to make simple formatting changes. For instance, you can select some cells (such as a header row) by clicking in a cell and then dragging; then click on the Bold, Italic, Underline, or Font Color button in the Formatting toolbar (View -> Toolbars -> Formatting).

Table AutoFormat options: But there’s much more you can do to make your tables stand out. Start by checking out Word’s AutoFormat options for tables. These AutoFormat designs are varied, and are good if you don’t know how you want your table to look and could use some hints. Select the cells of your table, then choose Table -> Table AutoFormat. The window that appears gives you a number of preset formatting options, such as Simple, Classic, Color, Grid, List, and so on. Scroll through the list in the Table AutoFormat window to see the previews. If you find a format you like, select it and click on OK to apply it.

You can use these formats as starting points too. If you only want to use some of a format’s options (borders, shading, font, color, and so on), uncheck those you don’t want to use before clicking OK.

The Formatting palette: If you want more power over every detail of your table, use Word’s Formatting Palette. Choose View -> Formatting Palette, and then expand the Borders and Shading section of the palette. From here you can change borders, as well apply colors to individual cells.

To work with your table borders, select the cells you want to change, and then click on the Type button. Word shows you graphical examples of how borders will be applied: on all sides of a cell, on just one side, or between selected cells. Click on the square in the palette you want to apply border changes. You can also change the colors of your borders, their weight (thickness), and style (solid or dashed lines, and more) by changing the options in other sections of the Borders and Shading section.

One useful way to make data stand out is to change the color of key cells, for example to show losses, in a profit and loss table, in red, or to highlight dates, names or other data. To do this, select a cell or cells that you want to fill with a color, and then choose a color from the Formatting palette’s Fill Color button. Click on that button to see a number of common colors, or click on More Colors to access the standard Apple color picker and choose any color you want.

Formatting Word tables
This table shows games played in a round-robin go competition. I've formatted some of the text in bold and italic to make it stand out. Green cells indicate wins, red cells losses, and beige cells show the top six players.

If you want to create a pattern and mix two colors together, choose one color from the Color button and another from the Fill Color button. Click the Pattern menu and you’ll see the patterns available at different percentages as these two colors combined. These patterns look pretty much like dots of one color on another, and aren’t necessarily attractive, but provide a good way to highlight certain rows, columns or cells when you’re using the colors you combine for the pattern in other cells.

Using Word’s table formatting gives you extra options for highlighting data in tables. There’s a risk of over using it, and making tables with too many colors and other effects, but used parsimoniously it can make your data much easier to read.

[Senior contributor Kirk McElhearn writes about more than just Macs on his blog Kirkville.]

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