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It’s easy to highlight a record in Microsoft Excel using conditional formatting–usually, the condition is compared to an existing value in the data set. Is this value larger, smaller, or equal to “this” or “that”? You can highlight the value, part of the record, or the entire record. You can even highlight a different value based on another—both in the data set. What you can’t easily do is change the condition. I’ll show you how to add an input cell in Excel that’s referenced in the conditional formatting rule, which allows you to change a condition on the fly—without modifying the actual rule itself.

To implement this technique, you need data, a unique list of filtering values, a data validation control, and a conditional rule. It might sound complex, but it isn’t. I assume you know basic features, such as how to insert rows, create a Table object, sort data, and so on.

I’m using Microsoft Excel in Office 365 on a Windows 10 64-bit system, but you can use earlier versions. You can work with your own data or download the .xlsx and .xls demonstration file. This technique isn’t appropriate for the browser edition.

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How to set it up

The simple data set shown in Figure A is formatted as a Table object, and it stores 45 rows of product information (that I copied from the Access Northwind database). I used a Table object because I want the entire technique to be as dynamic as possible, but you don’t have to use a Table object. (To create a Table, click anywhere inside the data set, click the Insert tab, click Table in the Tables group, and click OK.)

Figure A

We’ll create a dynamic conditional format expression to highlight specific records in this data set.

Let’s suppose you want to highlight products with a Units in Stock value that is less than or equal to the product’s Reorder Level value; however, you don’t want to view them all–you want to view the products that meet this condition by categories. In other words, you want to see all the beverages or condiments that need to be ordered.

Built-in filters can’t help, and neither can a conditional format, by itself. But you can combine a list control with a conditional format to create a conditional format that’s more conditional that it otherwise could be.

How to organize the list

The first thing we need is a control that displays the categories in a dropdown. The selected value will be stored in the underlying cell, and the conditional rule will refer to that cell. Magic (almost)!
The list should be a set of unique values. You could enter the category list manually (it’s easy enough to glean all of them from our simple data set), or, you can let Excel do it for you, ensuring that you didn’t miss one. To do so, you’ll use the advanced filter feature. At this point, you can’t copy an advanced filtered set to another sheet. The feature only copies to the active sheet (kind of). If you start with the destination sheet instead of the source sheet, it works just fine. That will make sense in a minute.
You can copy the list anywhere you like but choose an out-of-the-way spot. I chose a sheet specifically dedicated to lists of this sort, and it was named appropriately: Lists. We’ll copy a unique set of categories from the data set to the Lists sheet as follows.

  1. Note the category range—you’ll need it in a bit. For our demonstration data, it’s $G$2:$G$46.

  2. Select an out-of-the-way spot for the list. Select B2 on the sheet named Lists.

  3. Click the Data tab and then click Advanced in the Sort and Filter group to display the Advanced Filter dialog.

  4. Under the Action settings, click Copy To Another Location.

  5. For the List range, enter $G$2:$G$46 or Table1[Category] if you’re using a Table object. Or click the Sheet tab and manually highlight the values.

  6. In the Copy To range, enter the anchor cell for the unique list. In this case, it’s Lists!$B$2.

  7. Click the Unique Records Only option (Figure B), and then click OK.

  8. Sort the resulting list if you want the dropdown to display an alphabetized list. Give the list a header cell and format it as a Table Object (Figure C).

Figure B

Identify the original list and the unique list location.

Figure C

Excel’s advanced filter feature creates a unique list of category values.

The next step is to embed a list control that will display the unique set of categories you just created.

How to control the list

We need a list control that will allow users to select a specific category, and the most logical spot is above the Category header. To that end, insert a few rows above the data set. (Select a row, right-click the selection, and choose Insert. I selected three rows.) With empty rows above the data set, you’re ready to add the list control as follows.

  1. Select G1. Then click the Data tab and choose Data Validation from the Data Validation dropdown in the Data Tools group.

  2. From the Allow dropdown in the resulting dialog, choose List.

  3. In the source dialog, identify the category list (Figure D), and click OK. The resulting control is shown in Figure E.

Figure D

Create a data validation control populated with the category values.

Figure E

This list control displays a unique list of categories.

When you select a category from the Data Validation list, that value is stored in cell G1. You’ll need to reference this cell in the conditional format rule, which is coming up next.

You might remember I mentioned that the data set and the list were both Table objects–here’s why: If you update the list of unique categories, the Data Validation list will update automatically. It’s not mandatory for the technique to work, but it certainly is a nice bonus. Now, on to the conditional format rule.

How to use conditional format

The basic requirement is simple: We want to highlight records when they need to be ordered. We can write that as a simple expression:

Units in Stock

When the amount in stock is less than or equal to the reorder threshold amount, the expression is true; otherwise, the expression is false. But wait–there’s more! We also need to consider the category. We want to highlight only those records where this expression is true, and the record’s category value matches the one in G1. We can write this as another true or false expression:

Category=selected value in data validation control

Using the AND operator, we can combine the two conditions to create an expression that returns true only when both conditions are true:


The last step is to add this conditional format expression as follows.

  1. Select the data set: B5:G49. If you don’t want to highlight the entire row, highlight the column(s) you want to highlight.

  2. On the Home tab, click Conditional Formatting in the Styles group and choose New Rule from the dropdown list.

  3. In the top pane, select Use A Formula To Determine Which Cells To Format.

  4. In the lower pane, enter this formula: AND($D5. (The period is grammatical, not part of the formula.)

  5. Click Format. In the next pane, click the Fill tab, choose a color, and click OK. Figure F shows the formula and the format. Click OK to return to the worksheet.

Figure F

Set the conditional format to apply when the expression returns true.

As you can see in Figure G, the selection in the data validation control is Condiments, and the conditional rule highlights two records: Aniseed Syrup and Chang need to be reordered. Use the data validation control to change the category value and watch the rule highlight different (or perhaps no) records.

Figure G

The conditional format highlights products by category that need to be reordered.

On the fly

Being able to change a value that’s evaluated by a conditional formatting rule gives you a lot of flexibility. If you implement this technique, please share your experience in the comments section.

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