Solving an Automatic Formatting Problem in Outlook


Earlier today I had the following exchange with Rakesh (@aaR4) on Twitter:

@aaR4: #outlook2010 possible to color code messages ad-hoc / w/out setting up conditional formatting? // cc:
@TechnicLee: Categories is the closest you can come.
@aaR4: looked at it. But categories just sticks that small color square as column or a bar when in the message.
@TechnicLee: I am not aware of a means of coloring the entire line except for conditional formatting. Can you share what you’re goal is?
@aaR4: contd… Eg ‘missing specific attachment’ = coded blue. Missing receipts = coded red /
@aaR4: color coded way of flagging messages. Not related to specific conditions like sender, subject etc..
@TechnicLee: You could do it with conditional formatting and a user-defined field. The field would contain a color name.
@TechnicLee: There’d be a formatting rule for each color. Put “Red” in the field and it’d trigger the “red” rule. Blue for blue, and so on.

If I’ve understood correctly Rakesh is seeking a means of color coding messages based on criteria that doesn’t exist in the message (i.e. not based on the sender, contents of the message or subject, etc.). Outlook’s built-in automatic formatting (note that we both mistakenly referred to it as conditional formatting in the tweets) capability is the only way I know of to color the entire line. As Rakesh notes, categories only adds the category color as a colored block somewhere on the line.

My first thought, and the one I shared with Rakesh during the exchange, was to create a user-defined field and store a keyword in it that triggers the appropriate automatic formatting rule. In the tweet I mentioned using the names of colors as the keyword, but in reality it could be anything (e.g. a value of “missing_receipt” could trigger a rule that colors the item red). Rakesh would need to create one rule for each possible condition. The rule would look at the user-defined field and color the message based on the keyword it finds. If the field was empty it wouldn’t trigger a rule, thereby leaving the message in the default font color.

The problem with this approach is that Outlook doesn’t provide a convenient means of creating a user-defined field for emails or of filling them in. That’s immaterial though. After thinking about this a bit more I realized that the best solution is to use categories instead of a user-defined field. I don’t know why I didn’t think of that at the time. Categories are the best choice because they don’t require creating a user-defined field and Outlook’s interface already has a convenient means of filing in category values. Categories also allow you to do things like group on them. This will allow Rakesh to get all the “missing specific attachment” items together, something that wouldn’t be possible with automatic formatting alone.

Here are the steps for doing this.

  1. Create the categories you want to use. If you don’t want to confuse them with your other categories, then prefix them with a special character, for example an @ or a #.
  2. Create an automatic formatting rule for each category. Categories is a keyword (i.e. multi-value) field so I recommend setting the condition to category name is contained in the Categories field. Chose the font and or font color to be used with the rule.
  3. Each time you add a category add a corresponding automatic formatting rule.

With the categories and rules in place, select one or more items and apply a category. When Outlook applies the change the font/font color of the selected items should change color to match the chosen category.

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