Use Symbols to Enhance Reporting in Excel - dummies

By Michael Alexander

You can use symbols in Excel to enhance your reports and dashboards. Symbols are essentially tiny graphics, not unlike those you see when you use the Wingdings, Webdings, or other fancy fonts. However, symbols are not really fonts. They’re Unicode characters. Unicode characters are a set of industry standard text elements designed to provide a reliable character-set that remains viable on any platform regardless of international font differences.

One example of a commonly used symbol is the copyright symbol (©). This symbol is a Unicode character. You can use this symbol on a Chinese, Turkish, French, and American PC and it will reliably be available with no international differences.

In terms of Excel presentations, Unicode characters (or symbols) can be used in places where conditional formatting cannot. For instance, in the chart labels that you see in this figure, the x-axis shows some trending arrows that allow for an extra layer of analysis. This couldn’t be done with conditional formatting.


Let’s take some time to review the steps that led to the chart in this figure.

Start with the data shown in the next figure. Note that you have a designated cell — C1 in this case — to hold any symbols you’re going to use. This cell isn’t really all that important. It’s just a holding cell for the symbols you’ll insert. Now, follow these steps:


  1. Click in C1 and then select the Symbol command on the Insert tab.

    The Symbol dialog box shown in this figure opens.


  2. Find and select your desired symbols by clicking the Insert button after each symbol. In this scenario, select the down-pointing triangle, and click Insert. Then click the up-pointing triangle and click Insert. Close the dialog box when you’re done.

    At this point, you have the up triangle and down triangle symbols in cell C1, as shown in this figure.


  3. Click the C1 cell, go to the Formula bar, and copy the two symbols by highlighting them and pressing Ctrl+C on your keyboard.

  4. Go to your data table, right-click the percentages, and then select Format Cells.

  5. In the Format Cells dialog box, create a new custom format by pasting the up- and down-triangle symbols into the appropriate syntax parts, as shown in this figure. In this case, any positive percentage will be preceded with the up-triangle symbol, and any negative percentage will be preceded with the down-triangle symbol.


  6. Click OK.

    The symbols are now part of your number formatting! This figure illustrates what your percentages look like. Change any number from positive to negative (or vice versa) and Excel automatically applies the appropriate symbol.


Because charts automatically adopt number formatting, a chart created from this data will show the symbols as part of the labels. Simply use this data as the source for the chart.

This is just one way to use symbols in your reporting. With this basic technique, you can insert symbols to add visual appeal to tables, pivot tables, formulas, or any other object you can think of.