Is there some convention for coloring certain spreadsheet cells with certain colors to indicate the meaning/type of cell?

Excel provides the following. Is that an Excel thing or a broader color scheme and style convention?
Are there any best practices and/or guidelines for visually separating inputs, parameters, known constants, conversions, intermediate calculations etc...


I found this for financial data. Not sure how generally acceppted and expected that is.

2 Answers 2


As far as I know, there is no standard color scheme other than that which you pointed out in Excel. Excel more or less set the standard here, and their biggest competitor Google Sheets has not put forward a different set, so I'd say these colors continue to hold.

An item being "greyed out" has become a common visual cue in UIs for something that cannot be changed, for instance form fields that are dependent on some other condition being enabled. Grey text also blends with the default white background, making it stand out less, which can be problematic if you want the output data to be the focus on a report, which you probably do. Therefore, Excel design seems to try to split the difference by combining a grey background with bold text for the Output and a popping orange for a Calculation (and the difference between Output and Calculation is not clear), thus letting you know that while this data should not be changed, it is still important!

The Excel colors are probably a good place to start, but if you're making a spreadsheet that relies on a lot of human input where you need to point out inputs and calculations, you should try to use other visual cues as well, including placement on the page (inputs at the top and left lead to calculations on the bottom and right), cell borders, even things like forcing inputs from a defined list so that users will see a caret to select a list. If the user does not need to see the intermediate calculation steps, you can hide these cells or put them on a hidden sheet. Finally, do not rely on the greyed out cells to point out that you have formulas that shouldn't be erased: lock cells and sheets for editing to avoid accidental deletion!


I adopted a convention from one of my first employers, which is: cells that require input are Blue Text and cells that calculate are Black Text. Simple but after 20+ years it seems to work well.

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  • The issue with this approach is that it's not great for people with colour-blindness. Using colour as the only way of presenting information is going against accessibility guidelines: w3.org/WAI/WCAG21/Understanding/use-of-color.html They may be web-rules, but the principles still apply to Excel.
    – JonW

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