Office Q&A: How to use color to identify incoming Outlook messages

Use this strategy to visually identify important messages as they arrive.

Image: iStock/Molnia

Barrie recently upgraded to Office 2016 and like many of us, was disappointed to find categories missing. However, you can trick Outlook into exposing categories, but it's a tad tedious to implement and the results are still buggy. You can learn how to use categories in Outlook 2016 by reading Reclaim Outlook categories for IMAP accounts. Once you reclaim a category by creating a shortcut for it, you can apply the category to all Outlook items, not just messages. However, you must use the email message interface to initially assign the shortcut. There's another way to use color and you won't need to trick Outlook: In this article, I'll show you how to apply a conditional formatting rule to use color to identify incoming Outlook messages. You can use what you learn to highlight any number of conditions in lots of different ways.

I'm using Outlook 2016 (desktop) on a Windows 10 64-bit system. This technique isn't applicable to 365's online version. There's no demonstration file—you won't need one.

SEE: Make Office 2016 work your way by changing these default settings (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

About conditional formatting in Outlook

Categories let you manually specify a color to identify Outlook items, which is convenient and flexible. Conditional formats can also identify incoming messages that share a common attribute but Outlook decides whether the message matches the rule, or not. For example, you might want to color all incoming messages from your boss or all messages that apply to the same project. In both cases, there's some attribute that will always be the same: the email address or the project name in the message's subject. However, if your boss sends you a message from a home address, the condition won't match that one. Similarly, if the subject text has a typo, the condition won't match that one either. So, conditional formats aren't without some risk.

In a nutshell, a conditional format is a format that's applied when a component satisfies a specific condition or set of conditions. For instance, if the incoming email is from, highlight the message in red. Or, if the subject text for the incoming message is "Nature's Nook Renovation," highlight the message in green.

You're probably familiar with the concept if you use Excel, where you apply conditional formatting rules to cells and ranges. When the message meets the condition, Excel applies the format and it stays "on" as long as the cell or range meets the condition. In Outlook, you'll apply conditional formats via a view. That means if you move a message to another folder, you'll most likely lose the format. However, you can add the same rule to other folders to avoid that possibility, if necessary.

From the boss

Now, let's apply a simple conditional format that highlights messages in the Inbox when they're from the boss. All you need to now is the boss's email address (or addresses if the boss is likely to send messages from more than one account). Start in the Inbox to apply this rule to incoming messages and then do the following:

  1. Click the view tab and then click View Settings in the Current View group.
  2. In the resulting dialog, click Conditional Formatting to display a set of default rules (we won't change these defaults).
  3. Click Add and enter a name for the rule—in this case, enter Highlight Boss.
  4. Click Font, choose Red from the Color dropdown (Figure A), and then click OK. (This is the format you want applied when the message meets the condition.)
  5. Click Condition. In the From control, enter the email address for your boss (Figure B), and click OK. (This is the condition you want to match when applying the format.) Outlook will add the new rule to the view (Figure C).
  6. Click OK twice to return to the Inbox.

Figure A

Choose a color.

Figure B

Enter the email address for your boss.

Figure C

Outlook adds the conditional formatting rule to the view.

As you can see in Figure D, messages from your boss pop right out after applying this conditional formatting rule. You'll never let one fall through the cracks again! As I mentioned, if you move the message to another folder that doesn't have the same conditional formatting rule, the red font (highlight) disappears. If you move the message back to the Inbox, the rule kicks in, via the view, and applies the red font.

Figure D

Messages from the boss appear in red.

This rule will highlight any existing emails from your boss already in the Inbox. If you change the rule, Outlook will apply the modified rule to all existing messages currently in the Inbox.

You'll want to be careful when applying multiple rules that might apply to the same message:

  • If the formats are different attributes, Outlook will apply both formats. For instance, two rules can apply red font to messages from the boss and italics if the subject of that message includes the text "Nature's Nook Renovation."
  • If the formats are the same attribute, Outlook applies the first rule and ignores the other. For instance, if the red font rule for the boss is first in the list, it will take precedent over a rule that uses green when the text includes "Nature's Nook Renovation."

To apply this feature to specific text, such as a project name, repeat this process, but in step 5, enter the text in the Search for the word(s) control. Be sure to enclose the text in quotation marks.

SEE: 10 tips for reaching inbox zero (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Avoid chaos

You might think of lots of uses for adding formats but go slowly. Too many colors, fonts, and so on won't help. Instead, they'll add a bit of chaos—too much of a good thing. Save this technique for your most important needs. In addition, there are a number of attributes and conditions that you can use—I've highlighted only one of the simplest and often requested.

Send me your question about Office

I answer readers' questions when I can, but there's no guarantee. Don't send files unless requested; initial requests for help that arrive with attached files will be deleted unread. You can send screenshots of your data to help clarify your question. When contacting me, be as specific as possible. For example, "Please troubleshoot my workbook and fix what's wrong" probably won't get a response, but "Can you tell me why this formula isn't returning the expected results?" might. Please mention the app and version that you're using. I'm not reimbursed by TechRepublic for my time or expertise when helping readers, nor do I ask for a fee from readers I help. You can contact me at

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About Susan Harkins

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.

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