Just because I adore graphs doesn’t mean that I shun tables. I insert the occasional table inside the body of my report. Every report’s appendices are full of tables, tables, and more tables.
In heat tables, higher numbers are darker and lower numbers are lighter. Viewers find patterns in the data much faster than if they were reading line by line of text from the table.
Here’s how to make heat tables in good ol’ Microsoft Excel.
Step 1. Highlight the Cells That You Want to Color-Code
Ignore the categories on the left.
Ignore the table headers along the top.
Just select the actual numbers or percentages in the body of the table.
Step 2. Click on the Conditional Formatting Icon
It’s hiding in plain sight on the Home tab.
Step 3. Select One of the Color Scales
For sequential variables, choose a sequential color scale (a one-color scale, e.g., green faded into white).
For diverging variables, choose a diverging color scale (a two-color scale, e.g., red versus blue).
Congratulations, you’re finished!
Start exploring your data.
Which patterns stand out now?
Bonus! Add White Borders to Differentiate Cells from One Another
White borders help with color printing and with black-and-white printing (so the cells don’t bleed into each other).
Here’s the before version, in which the cells don’t have any outlines. The greens blur into each other.
Here’s the after version, in which I’ve added white outlines to each cell.
I just highlighted all the cells, went to the tiny border icon on the Home tab, and added white outlines.
Bonus! Sort the Data from Greatest to Least Instead of Alphabetically
I always add an intentional order to my spreadsheet.
When I initially downloaded this dataset from a website, Column A was ordered alphabetically.
I decided to order the dataset from greatest to least instead of alphabetically.
You can also order your dataset from least to greatest. It just depends on which pattern you want to emphasize.
Use the Sort feature. Or use Filters (Home –> Sort & Filter –> Filter).
If you don’t use spreadsheets on a regular basis, then you can follow my tutorial on sorting and filtering your spreadsheets.
Here’s the before version, in which the spreadsheet is ordered alphabetically.
Here’s the after version, in which the spreadsheet is ordered from greatest to least based on the numbers in Column B.
Bonus! Adjust the Print Settings so the Heat Table can be Printed or PDF’d
Half the time, I’m creating heat tables for my own purposes. I want an at-a-glance view of my dataset. I want to see whether any numbers are really big.. or really small… or whether I spot any errors right away. Heat tables are excellent exploratory data visualization techniques.
The other half of the time, I’m creating heat tables for someone else. I might send them the Excel file. Or, I might send them a PDF’d handout. Or, I might bring a printout from the spreadsheet to a meeting and pass out the handouts to everyone at attendance so that we can discuss the patterns shown in the table.
Data People like opening up Excel. But Regular People like opening up PDFs. Excel files can be daunting to someone who’s not using that file on a regular basis.
So, I get the data out of spreadsheets and into real-world conversations by PDF’ing my heat table.
If you’re preparing to PDF your heat table so that it can be shared with others, I recommend that you:
- Add a title.
- Repeat the column headers at the top of each page.
- Add a footer with the date and page numbers.
- Adjust the font type and font size.
Once you learn to adjust print settings you’ll save hours of time and every printed or PDF’d spreadsheet will look more professional.
Here’s what the print preview looks like in Excel:
And here’s what the two-page PDF would look like:
Bonus! Customize the Color Palette
No more default Microsoft colors!
Use your audience’s custom colors. It only takes a few minutes to update your visualization’s colors, and it makes your visualization look more professional.
Then, highlight the cells again and return to Home –> Conditional Formatting –> Color Scales –> More Rules.
Select new colors to correspond with the lowest and highest values in your table.
Just click on More Colors and type in the RBG codes.
Here’s what your heat table would look like in purple.
Or, in yellow.
Or, in blue.
Download the Spreadsheet
This two-sheet spreadsheet contains the “before” and “after” dataset used in this blog post. The “before” dataset is just a regular ol’ dataset–some rows and columns without any color formatting. The “after” version has a heat table, is sorted, has a title, and is ready to print or PDF.
Join the Conversation
Have you tried this tutorial? Comment below and link to a screenshot of your own heat table!
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