You can improve the readability of your Excel reports by using subdued labels and headers. No one would argue that the labels and headers of a table aren’t important. On the contrary, they provide your audience with the guidance and structure needed to make sense of the data within.

However, many people have a habit of overemphasizing labels and headers to the point that they overshadow the data within the table.

How many times have you seen bold or oversized font applied to headers? The reality is that your audience will benefit more with subdued labels.

De-emphasizing labels by formatting them to lighter hues actually makes the table easier to read and draws more attention to the data within the table. Lightly colored labels give your users the information they need without distracting them from the information being presented. Ideal colors to use for labels are soft grays, light browns, soft blues, and greens.

Font size and alignment also factor in the effective display of tables. Aligning column headers to the same alignment as the numbers beneath them helps reinforce the column structures in your table. Keeping the font size of your labels close to that of the data within the table helps keep your eyes focused on the data — not the labels.

This figure shows a poorly designed table.


This figure illustrates how this same table looks with subdued headers and labels. Note how the data now becomes the focus, while the muted labels work in the background.


Sorting is another key factor in the readability of your data. Many tables sort based on labels (alphabetical by route for example). Sorting the table based on a key data point within the data helps establish a pattern your audience can use to quickly analyze the top and bottom values.

Note in this figure that the data has been sorted by the Revenue dollars. This again adds a layer of analysis, providing a quick look at the top and bottom generating routes.

If possible, consider using modern-looking fonts such as Calibri and Segoe UI in your reports and dashboards. Fonts such as Times New Roman or Arial can make your reports look old compared with the rounded edges of the more trendy fonts used now. This change in font perception is primarily driven by popular online sites that often use fonts with rounded edges.