Layout in Excel

The next few posts will focus on layout. While layout was previously discussed in some detail (listboxes and forms), we are yet to dive into overarching layout ideas and approaches.


Spreadsheet layout should be planned before even opening a workbook. However, Excel does provide the flexibility to modify layouts as you progress through your projects. In fact, it may be helpful to just start with a basic framework, then refine details as you reach the last portions of your project. Issues such as changes in scope or scope creep may also throw those original ideas out the window.

In terms of a spreadsheet’s aesthetic layout, there are some general rules you should follow to make spreadsheets seem appealing and less intimidating. The first part of this series spoke at length about techniques for better spreadsheet navigation. An effective navigation system is an aesthetic anchor that makes your spreadsheet much more user friendly. The second part of this series touched on topics related to form design and displaying data. This part of the series will dive deeper, going into color indicators and challenges with monitor resolutions.

Mimic Desktop Software

It’s a good practice to design your spreadsheet application as if it were a piece of desktop software or web-based application. Most professional software follows design standards, and users should be fairly familiar with these features. For example, most users understand that radio buttons only allow the selection of one item, while checkboxes allow multiple selections. Some Excel developers may employ a different approach, such as a dropdown menu to specify whether users can select all or none. This approach is somewhat unorthodox and may not be familiar to users.

Think Like A User

Every decision you make regarding functionality and design asthetics should be done while thinking from a user’s perspective. Too often, developers take the path of least resistance. If there’s a task you do not know how to implement, countless resources on the web (like this blog!) exist to help you out. Don’t be afraid to spend 30 minutes seeking a solution to a basic problem. If many basic problems are released in your production version, the user experience might be poor.

Layout Exercises and Guides

10 Tips for Great Spreadsheet Aesthetics and Design

The aesthetic design of a spreadsheet, when done right, can add significant benefits in terms of usability and functionality.

Conditional Formatting in Excel

Conditional formatting is a built-in Excel feature that—with proper implementation—can provide very useful and responsive feedback to users.

Protecting Layout and Formulas

While one of Excel’s strengths is the ability to create and modify a spreadsheets layout and features, the ability to protect spreadsheets before release to users provides more of an application feel.

Other Resources

Nielsen Norman Group: Top 10 Application-Design Mistakes

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