Give a table of numeric data in which many cells contain zero, under what circumstances would it be appropriate or preferable to present the zero-value cells blank or otherwise obscured (eg. in lighter ink)?

Assume it is explicit that the table contains no missing values, so a blank cell is not ambiguous.


I think that you should display zero values in light gray. However, what to display depends on context, e.g.

  • If you are displaying financial information, displaying zero seems appropriate to me

  • If you are displaying the number of widgets sold by different sales reps, then I'd display a simple dash ("-") to illustrate that no widgets have been sold yet

  • I agree completely. It is completely dependent on context. Is the zero a placeholder or an actual value? Nov 5 '10 at 19:04

I'd say when there are an overwhelming number of zero values compared to the non-zero values.

In this case having blanks (or dimmed zeros) would make the non-zero values stand out more. They'd be easier to spot and verify.

  • 1
    I agree: it would depend on whether or not the tabled data is sparse (ie. mostly zero values) or not (ie. only a few zero values). It also would depend on your use case. Perhaps zero values are the most important, and should be highlighted. Nov 5 '10 at 13:45

If the zero value is of lower importance, it is my preference to gray it out to allow the eye to easily skip or ignore those values when scanning the list. Omitting it altogether can be less clean of a look than having the gray-colored placeholder.


The Office for National Statistics uses a - to denote nil in its tables. It lets the numbers stand out.

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