Excel Drawing Objects
Add Class to Your Reports with Excel Drawing Objects
Are you tired of ordinary Excel tables? Here's a way to add some class to your reports while learning more about little-known features of Excel.
by Charley Kyd, MBA
Microsoft Excel MVP, 2005-2014
The Father of Spreadsheet Dashboard Reports
In Dashboard Reporting With Excel
I recommend that you "steal" ideas for Excel reports from business
magazines. I recently had another opportunity to follow my own advice.
A recent issue of Business Week carried an ad for Fidelity
Investments. The ad largely consisted of a table showing their investor's
returns. The table consisted of a blue square with overlapping
semi-transparent bright green bars.
This figure shows my version of the Fidelity display. Instead of
using Fidelity's colors and data, I used ExcelUser colors, and I used
data about recent revenues of three web search companies. The data was provided by
This tutorial explains how to create this figure in Excel. Even if you
don't need a figure like this, just creating it will teach you about
useful but little-used areas of Excel: the Camera object, grouped
worksheets, and transparent AutoShapes.
Setting Up the Data in Excel
Start by creating a rough version of the simple table shown below.
Enter the three-word title shown in cell C2. To center it in the four
columns as shown, select the range C2:F2
and chose Format, Cells. In the Format Cells dialog, specify Center
Across Selection for the horizontal text alignment.
In cell B10, enter "Total" followed by three spaces. Then click on
the Align Right button on your toolbar to position the label as shown.
Enter the data in every other row, as shown. To expand the row heights, first select the entire rows 2 through 10. To do so, click and
drag your mouse pointer from the row header for row 2 through the row
header for row 10. Then, when you hover over the border between any two
of the selected rows, your mouse pointer will change shape. When it
does, you can click and drag to make the rows taller.
After they are about tall enough, select rows 5 and 7 to make them
shorter. To do so, select row 5; hold down your Control key; then select
row 7. Now, when you click and drag the height of one of the rows, the
other row adjusts to the same height.
Select all of the data and vertically align the text to the center of
their rows. To do so, choose Format, Cells. In the Alignment tab, in the
Vertical list, choose Center.
Indent the three company names slightly. To do so, select the range
B4:B8. Choose Format, Cells. In the Alignment tab, in its Horizontal
list box, choose Left (Indent). And then specify an Indent of 1.
Adjust the column widths about as shown.
You'll have the chance to adjust them again later.
Don't worry about the precise row heights or column widths at this
point. You'll be able to adjust them later.
To assign a number format for the data, select the area with the
numbers. Then choose Format, Cells. In the Number tab, choose Custom.
Then select the "#,##0" format near the top of the Type list.
Set Up the Second Worksheet
You will create this display using two worksheets that have identical
row heights and column widths. You will see why this is important in a
To set up the second worksheet, you copy the first one. The easiest
way to do that is to hold down your Ctrl key then click and drag the
tab at the bottom of your worksheet to the right. When you do so, Excel
adds a small image of a document with a plus sign to your mouse pointer.
Once you see that plus sign you can release your mouse button to copy
Alternatively, to copy the worksheet, you can right-click on the tab,
choose Move or Copy, and then complete the instructions in the Move or
Name the left sheet Report and the right sheet Data. To do so,
double-click the text in a tab to select it. You now can enter the
In the Report sheet, select all data and delete it using your Delete
You now have two worksheets with identical formats in your workbook. The Report
sheet will contain the formatting and drawing objects, but no data. The
Data sheet will contain data, but only minimal formatting.
Finally, for future convenience, assign the range name Data to your
data range of data in the Data sheet. To do so, choose Insert, Name, Define. In
the Define Name dialog, enter the name Data and a Refers-To reference
Set Up the Excel Drawing Objects
Before you can set up drawing objects, you need to make sure that
your Drawing toolbar is displayed. Choose Tools, Customize. In the
Toolbars tab, make sure that Drawing is checked. Then choose OK.
First set up the brown rectangle object. To do so, click AutoShapes
in the Drawing toolbar; in the Basic Shapes menu item, choose the
Rounded Rectangle object. When you do so, Excel turns your mouse pointer
to a cross bar. Click and drag in the general area of the rectangle
To position the rectangle, hold down your Alt key then click and drag
the rectangle. As you do so, notice that the object jumps from cell to
cell. This makes it easy for you to position the top-left corner of the
rectangle in cell C2.
After the top-left corner is in cell C2, position the bottom-right
corner in cell F11. To do so, select the rectangle; hold down your Alt
key, click on the selector circle near the bottom right corner of the
object; then click and drag the bottom-right corner into into the
bottom-right corner of cell F11.
Similarly, create a second Rounded Rectangle object and position it
within the range B4:G4.
Copy the rectangle and paste it three times. Position two of the
copies in B6 and B8 as shown. Position the last copy in cell B10. Then
click on the last object's center selection handle at its left side and drag
the handle to the right. As you do so, you reduce the object's width.
Position the left side about as shown in the figure.
Format the Rounded Rectangles
Display Any Colors in Excel explains how
to set up any colors you want for your display. For now, let's assign a
standard Excel color to the first object.
To do so, select the object, right-click it, and choose Format
AutoShape. In the Colors and Lines tab, in the Fill dropdown list,
choose the Brown color, which is the darkest orange color. In the Line dropdown list, choose No Line.
can format the other objects in one step. To do so, you first select
them. The Select Objects tool makes this easy to do. To launch the tool,
click on the arrow shown here, which is on your Drawing toolbar. When
you do so, your mouse pointer takes the shape of the arrow shown.
Now you can click a cell in your spreadsheet and drag the selection
grid to surround the four rectangles that you need to format. When you
release your pointer, Excel selects all objects that are entirely
within the selection grid.
To dismiss the Select Objects tool, press the Esc key.
With the other four selected (the ones that are dark green),
begin as you did before. Right-click any of the selected objects, choose
Format AutoShape. In the Colors and Lines tab, in the Fill dropdown
list, choose the Dark Green color. In the Line dropdown list, choose No
Line. Also, however, slide the Transparency slider to 50%. Then choose
You have one more adjustment to make.
The rounded corners of your brown rectangle probably will be much
larger than the ones shown above. To make the rounded corners smaller,
click on the object. When you do so, you'll see a yellow handle in the
top-left corner of the object. Drag the yellow handle up and to the left
to make the corners smaller. (You could drag the handle down and to the
right to make the rounded corners larger.)
Your five objects now should look somewhat like they do in this
figure, but your colors will be different.
Add Excel's Camera Object
Excel's Camera object returns a picture of the range that it
references. It works great for this application.
(Warning: Do not use the Camera object to display charts. A bug in
Excel could resize your charts if you point a Camera object at them.)
You can use Camera objects without using the Camera icon. But if you
intend to use the Camera tool a lot (which I do), you can set up its
icon on one of your Excel toolbars. To do so, choose Tools, Customize.
In the Commands tab, select Tools in the Categories list. In the
Commands list, scroll about 60% of the way down the list, where you'll
see the Camera icon,
Click and drag this icon to any convenient toolbar in Excel.
To set up the Camera tool for this report, first create a Camera
object on your Report sheet. To do so, temporarily enter any character
in cell A1.
To create the object with the Camera tool, first select cell A1.
Click on the Camera icon, then click on any nearby cell. When you do so,
Excel drops a live picture of cell A1 wherever you clicked.
To create the object without using the Camera tool, copy cell A1 and
then select a nearby cell. Hold down your Shift key and then choose
Edit, Paste Picture Link. When you do so, Excel copies the Camera tool
object to the active cell.
Select the Camera object if necessary. Notice the formula =$A$1 in
the formula bar. To get the Camera object to display the data in the
Data sheet, this formula needs to reference the range that contains
those numbers, which is named Data.
To modify the formula, select it in your formula bar and enter:
When you press Enter, the camera object should display a picture of
your data from your Data sheet.
Now you can erase the character you entered in cell A1 of the Report
Format Excel's Camera Object
Initially, the next step might look like you've made a mistake. You
need to move the Camera object into position on top of your colored
rectangles. To do so, first select the Camera object. Hold down your Alt
key. Then click and drag the object so that its top-left corner is
positioned in the top-left corner of cell B2.
If you used the Camera tool to create your Camera object, the object
will obscure your colored rectangles, and it will have a border line. To
remove those settings, right-click the object and choose Format Picture.
In the Colors and Lines tab, set the fill color to No Fill and the line
color to No Line.
Format Your Data
Because the rounded rectangles have a dark color, the black font
doesn't show up very well against them. You therefore need to change the
font color to white.
To do so, first select the data range. To do so quickly press the F5
function key to launch the Go To dialog, type Data in the
Reference box, then press Enter.
With the Data range selected, assign a white font using the Font
Color icon on your Excel toolbar.
Now, when you activate the Report sheet, you should see your report's
white fonts displayed on top of your colored rectangles.
Adjust the Figure
It's likely that the rows and columns in your figure need to be
adjusted. Here's a trick that allows you to do it easily:
Select your Report sheet; hold down the Shift key then click on the
Data tab. When you do so, both sheets will be selected. Also, in the
title bar, Excel displays "[Group]". Now, any
adjustment you make to the Report sheet also will be made to the Data
That is, when you click and drag to adjust the rows and columns in
your report, you also adjust the rows and columns in the Data sheet.
Normally this wouldn't be important. But because we're using the Camera
object, we need to keep the positioning of the two sheets exactly in sync, and this trick will do
it for us.
If you need to select one of the rectangles for any reason, you might run into two
First, notice that Excel won't let you select one of the rectangles
when both sheets are selected. Therefore, if your Report sheet is
active, select the Data sheet (or some other sheet in your workbook) to
ungroup your worksheets. Then select the Report sheet again. Now you can
activate the objects on your Report sheet.
Second, because the Camera object covers your colored rectangles, you
probably will have a difficult time selecting them with your mouse
pointer. To do so easily, you can use the Select Objects tool. As
described above, use it to encircle only the objects that you want to
One final adjustment that you might want to make is to apply
different colors to the figure. To illustrate, here's the same figure in
blue and gray. Whatever colors you choose, keep in mind that you can
adjust their intensity by adjusting the degree of transparency for
any of the five colored objects.