CoolData blog

17 November 2011

Add life to numbers with Excel colour scales

Filed under: Excel, Fun, Visualization — kevinmacdonell @ 7:21 am

For telling a story with data nothing beats a good visualization, which for most of us means a chart, usually created in Excel. Sometimes the situation seems to call for including the data in table format as well. You may include it after the chart, or throw it into an appendix; either way, you’re creating redundancy: The table and the chart are telling the same story.

The table offers accurate detail, but the person who’s trying to find the story in the data needs to study the table for a while to find it, even if there are only very few rows and columns. The chart is readily accessible (or should be), but probably trades away accurate detail to gain simplicity. Today I’ll show you that sometimes you can get the best of both in a single graphic.

Let’s start with a table that looks a bit complicated. This is copied from a study published on this blog by Peter Wylie and John Sammis (Is the online behaviour of your alums worth exploring?) For this example, it’s not essential that you understand what the chart is about. The important thing is to attempt to recognize patterns in the table. You can probably spot them, but only after studying the numbers and comparing values across cells, both up and down and from side to side. It’s not exactly “at a glance” comprehension.

The paper didn’t offer a chart for this table, but were we to express the data visually, we might have used something like the chart below. It’s a bit complex because of all the lines, but we can readily distinguish some key things about the Class Year deciles (that’s what “CY Decile” stands for). First of all, they’re arranged in order, from top to bottom, by age. The oldest decile starts high and stays up there, while the two youngest deciles languish at the bottom. All the rest are stacked in between. I haven’t told you what they are high IN, but let’s not worry about that for now.

Whether the chart is helpful or not, it’s still takes up extra room: One table, one chart, same data. What if we could COMBINE the two types of information — numerical and visual — into a single entity? Fortunately, newer versions of Excel offer the ability to include visual cues within the data table itself using conditional formatting. Here is the original table with colour added. Now what do you see?

That’s right, when cell are shaded according to the values they contain, the patterns are obvious. The lower the CY Decile value and the higher the Visits value, the greater is the number in the cell. Our eye is immediately drawn to the intersection of row ‘CY Decile 1’ and the column ‘8 or more visits’. And as it turns out, this is a very special cell.

How so? Well, this table was created using data from a university that tracks how many times its alumni have visited its website via links sent out in university emails — the columns break down alumni by number of web visits. As well, for this analysis, all alumni were divided up into ten equal groups (deciles) by Class Year, the oldest being CY Decile 1, and the youngest CY Decile 10.

The values in the cells are actually percentages — the percentage of alumni in each group who have Lifetime Giving of $10,000 or more. No one should be surprised that the oldest alumni have the highest percentages, but the truly awesome finding is that frequent web visits are also associated with high levels of lifetime giving. (Anyone who has this data at their institution and fails to make use of it for prospect identification is obviously not interested in raising scads of money. Consider firing them.)

As I said, our eye is immediately drawn to the darkest cell, the 42.9% value. It’s almost like that cell is the “hottest.” Which leads me to the next version of the chart: a “heat map”. Sometimes we want to highlight both extremes, the highest AND the lowest values. It’s very intuitive to think of high values as “hot” and low values as “cool,” and colour them appropriately, like so:

Adding shading is quick and easy. Start by clicking and dragging to select the cells of your table that hold the values you want to jazz up. On the Home tab, click on the Conditional Formatting icon, and select Color Scales. Here you’ve got all sorts of options, one of which is the cold-to-hot scheme. Play with it to your heart’s content: Some shadings might be more appropriate for your data than others.

I can see this being useful for at-a-glance exploration of large tables in which patterns may be difficult to detect. For presenting your data to others, though, adding colour scales makes sense only when the physical layout of the cell values contains a visual pattern that you want to exploit to tell a story. Otherwise it’s just visual junk. The object is not just to make our charts pretty, but to make the data sing.


  1. […] #learning – How to do heat map like ‘Color Scales’ in Excel […]

    Pingback by State of Data #76 « Dr Data's Blog — 1 December 2011 @ 10:22 pm

  2. I recommend a product called Graphs Made Easy. It’s free, easy to use, allows easy data entry, or imports data from programs like MS Excel.
    Results look great, and it provides solutions that may be unique, like multi coloured line graph lines.
    Of course I would say it’s great – I work for them!

    Comment by john s — 5 August 2012 @ 1:15 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: