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Highlighting negative columns in Excel charts
Ever wondered if you can make negative columns automatically turn red in an Excel chart? Well now you can in Excel 2010!

Posted by Michael Allsop on 01 October 2012

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Making a chart with negative values look good in Excel 2010

Excel has no difficulty in plotting negative values on a standard column chart, but the initial result can be less than ideal. While any special number formatting, such as negative numbers coloured red, should be carried across from the data sheet onto the axis and data labels, the colours of the columns themselves are harder to automatically format. The steps below will show you how to avoid a laborious manual approach to formatting negative columns with a different fill colour.

Creating the chart

First, let us consider a fictional clothing supplier who is having mixed feedback with regard to the quality of their clothing. The small data table below reflects this:

Data table

The trousers and shoes aren't impressing the customers.

To keep things straightforward, the chart used in this example is the standard 2D Clustered Column chart. The chart is produced in the usual way by selecting a cell within the list and clicking on Insert --> Column --> Clustered Column (or did you know about the F11 shortcut?). This results in the chart below:

Clustered column chart

It's OK, but it's not perfect. Those labels have got to move for a start, then we can consider the column fill colours!

Modifying the primary horizontal axis labels

This next step addresses purely the essential formatting needed (in this Owl's opinion). If you wanted to add a background picture of dancing penguins then that is entirely up to you.

To format the Primary Horizontal Axis, right click the mouse cursor on any of the labels, for example 'Trousers'. Then select Format Axis... from the menu:

Right-click menu

You can hover with the mouse before clicking to make sure that you're over the Horizontal (Category) Axis.

Halfway down the Axis Options dialog box you'll find the tick mark and label settings. Change the Axis labels setting to Low and this will move the labels to below the plot area.

Axis label options

Choose Low and you'll see the effect straight away on the axis labels

Applying automatic formatting to the negative values

If we wanted to draw attention to the negative values (assuming we do...) then a change of fill colour would make them stand out. However, rather than manually adjusting this for each column as it becomes negative or goes back to being positive, we can get Excel 2010 to pick from two preset fill colours, one for positive values and one for negatives.

To do this we need to get into the formatting settings for the data series - the simplest way is to right click on one of the columns and choose the Format Data Series... option.

Now you need to look at the Fill settings and firstly pick Solid fill:

Fill settings dialog box

Choose 'Solid fill' rather than 'Automatic'.

Then, select the tick-box option for Invert if negative. This should then present you with two fill colour options, the first for positive value columns and the second for negatives. To make things obvious, the example below opts for red negative columns:

Negative fill colour options

Pick a contrasting colour for the negative columns.

To complete the process, click the Close button on the dialog box, and you should be left with a chart resembling the one below:

Chart with contrasting negative columns

This should make even the toughest manager sit up and take notice.

You can always check to see that it works by changing some of the values in the spreadsheet, in this instance the opinions of the shirts have plummeted while the trouser stitchers have obviously pulled up their socks...

Chart with new values

You should see the fill colours change automatically as the columns go from positive to negative.

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