Software

Use color to identify mail messages to and from specific people

Want to respond to important people more efficiently? Assign color to their incoming messages so they'll stand out in your crowded Inbox.

Most of us use rules to filter incoming messages into specific folders - having messages seemingly organize themselves is an efficient practice! Another way to increase productivity is to use color to identify specific messages - you can spot them instantly in a crowded Inbox. If you use multiple folders, color can help you distinguish messages within a specific folder. Regardless of why you apply color, it'll help you quickly spot messages that are important to you. Today, I'll show you how to color messages from and sent to a specific person.

Fortunately, this process is much easier than you might think, but instead of using rules, we'll use conditional formatting as follows:

  1. In the mail window, select a folder (or Inbox), click the View tab, and then click View Settings in the Current Settings group.
  2. Click Conditional Formatting in the resulting Advanced View Settings dialog box.
  3. Click Add and give the new "rule" a name - such as From The Boss.
  4. Click the Font button, choose a color from the Color dropdown, and click OK.
  5. Click Condition and then click From.
  6. Find the contact, double-click it to add it to the From control, and click OK four times. (If creating a rule for messages sent, make sure you add the name to the Sent To control.) Outlook will display existing messages from the designated contact in the assigned color. It will also display new incoming messages in red as they arrive.

It's amazing how simple this is, but there are a few gotchas:

  • If the contact isn't in your Address Book, you can enter the contact's email address.
  • The name you're matching must exactly match the name Outlook displays in the From control. If you let Outlook add contacts automatically, this shouldn't be a problem. If you enter them manually, it might, so be careful.
  • You can't use the same rule to assign color to messages from and sent, even though the dialogs offer both options and will even let you specify both in the same rule.
  • Conditional formatting rules apply only to the current folder, but you can add the same rule to multiple folders. Always start by selecting the right mail folder (#1).

To create a coloring rule for messages sent to specific people, follow the above instructions. In #5, click Sent To instead of From.

This technique lets you specify many conditions. For instance, you can assign color to messages that contain a specific word or phrase. The More Choices and Advanced tabs let you set detailed criteria and even use expressions! You're not limited to color either. Via the Font button, you can set a different typeface, size, and so on.

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A word of caution: once you're familiar with this simple but helpful technique, you might think of lots of uses, but go slowly. The whole point is to help you be more productive by helping you spot important messages quickly. Too many different colors, fonts, and so on will have the opposite effect - they will create more stress. So save this technique for just a few rules.

About

Susan Sales Harkins is an IT consultant, specializing in desktop solutions. Previously, she was editor in chief for The Cobb Group, the world's largest publisher of technical journals.

22 comments
Fagan
Fagan

Thanks for the tip. Just a smiple variation on the above. The article mentioned that you have a complete email address name@domain.com either from Contact list or type it in. Just tried with "@domain.com" it highlighted all emails from the ppl @domain.com TerryF

jim.bassett
jim.bassett

I am surprise at all the morons making rude comments about this Office Tip. So, you know some better way to do this or ???this is nothing new???, well all of you are so special. Someone going to the trouble of writing up a tip about how to do something or make things easier to do should always be thanked. You rude morons need to learn some manners.

gechurch
gechurch

I'm surprised by the number of comments saying this is hard. Go to conditional formatting, create a rule, tell it how to format your message, tell it the conditions for when it should format and then click OK. It's hard to see how this could be boiled down much more without taking away flexibility. And this seems to be a feature for people that want a lot of control over their messages, not for the casual user. I agree that finding the conditional formatting section in the first place is a bit of a pain. Outlook 2010 is not too bad, but this is one of those things Microsoft move around and rename in every version of Outlook they release. I've always found right-clicking a column heading and choosing View Settings is the easiest way to get there, and it seems fairly consistent across Outlook versions.

RealGem
RealGem

I'm using Groupwise. If I want to colour code my email, I have to apply crayon to monitor.

promytius1
promytius1

HEY - Users come here from many different places - don't waste our time with bad info. AT LEAST SPECIFY which of 12,243 versions of Outlook you are writing tips for! Geez.

dhays
dhays

My problem is that if my emails went to a folder, they would never get read! Most of my mail consists of newsletters from Tech Republic, PC Magazine, Smart Planet, Quality Digest and ZDNet anyway, so why would I color code them? The rest, it seems, are from the various magazines announcing their latest digital edition available for download. The really important ones, announcing work to do, have multiline titles and are easily spotted. The only time something like this would be useful to me is when I have been away from the office for a few days. When I am here, there is no real buildup of messages. We are Lotus Notes users, Outlook is not supported. I use Outlook for the tasking function only. It keeps all of the things I use it for, out of my LN mailbox which is limited in its size, therfore it keeps me out of mail jail. Outlook, not being used for mail, has no such limitations. Someday we are to get MSO 2010. It is still being tested by the "knowledgeable users." Even though we were to have it installed already by now. W7 is available by new PC only.

techrepublic
techrepublic

.... is the ability to color your folders in the folder list within outlook. If you have hundreds of folders, many nested, being able to color the folder itself would go a long way towards making Outlook easier to use. Even better being able to play with the font would help too! It is mind boggling to me that with all the bells and whistles Outlook has, all folders are the same color all the time (yes... I know I can fake them to bold if I like)

pjoubert003
pjoubert003

Lotus Notes have been able to do this for years, and it's a lot easier to set up :-)

ssharkins
ssharkins

I think it's harder than it should be too -- maybe I'm missing something -- if someone has an easier way in 2010, please chime in -- I'm not too proud to learn! ;)

tlc1224
tlc1224

Well, I've got your agency beat.....I am using Outlook 2003.......guess I'm SOL wrt color coding email items..............:(((

gmrstudios
gmrstudios

You can apply conditional formatting in Outlook 2007 using the organize pane. Tool > Organize Follow the "Wizard" or click on the "Automatic Formatting" button. Hope this helps!

zimmerwoman
zimmerwoman

I don't have a Current Settings group. Is this a 2010 version only tip. My agency still uses 2007 (quelle surprise!). Does this work some other way in 2007 or is it only for travellers from the future?

dhamilt01
dhamilt01

This is 2011. To use color to identify mail messages to and from specific people should be a 2 to 4 click process. Your instructions are like we were back in 1990's when to get anything important done on a computer it was necessary to hire a geek to figure the complexity out. Outlook has had bells and whistles galor added over 10 years yet a little thing like this requires a page full of instructions to accomplish. Shame on you Microsoft.

tawkalot
tawkalot

Couldn't have said it better, myself. I'm really surprised at how nasty these people are behaving also. For those of us who are not so brilliant (or brilliant in other ways), this was a very helpful article. Thank you, Susan and all the others who posted alternative methods, programs, videos, software, etc.

ssharkins
ssharkins

I don't think it's hard, I think it requires more steps than it should.

ssharkins
ssharkins

We've been writing from the perspective of the latest version for a long time. I often include instructions for 2003.

ayahdikjah
ayahdikjah

View > Arrange By > Current View > Customize Current View. The rest are just like directions above.

Andy M
Andy M

Select folder, then View menu -> Current View -> Customize Current View. Then click the Automatic Formatting button, and from there you can Add, etc. as needed.

ssharkins
ssharkins

Microsoft kind of does that to folks -- don't think it has anything to do with me or the information. :) It does take more steps than it should. I'm hoping someone chimes in with a shortcut!

spierren
spierren

I appreciate the tip. But now that we have a page of email addresses from your contacts list, do you think they wanted to be on part of your tech tip article? Just wondering...

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