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How does the 3-color scale work in Excel?

Excel’s 3-color scale is a handy formatting tool that allows you to highlight cells in a range based on their values. This conditional formatting feature enables you to visually distinguish between low, medium, and high values using a gradient of three colors.

What is a 3-color scale?

A 3-color scale is a type of conditional formatting rule in Excel that formats a range of cells with a 3-color gradient based on the cell values. The lowest values are formatted with the first color, mid-range values are formatted with the second color, and the highest values are formatted with the third color.

For example, you could use a 3-color scale to format a range of sales numbers with:

  • Red for low sales
  • Yellow for average sales
  • Green for high sales

This makes it easy to visualize the distribution of values at a glance.

When to use a 3-color scale

Here are some common uses for 3-color scales in Excel:

  • Highlighting top/bottom performers – Format sales reps’ data with green/red to see highest/lowest performers.
  • Visualizing data distribution – Format a range to see concentration of low, medium and high values.
  • Tracking metrics – Format a KPI like customer satisfaction with red/yellow/green based on threshold values.
  • Financial reporting – Highlight negative/positive/neutral financial numbers with a color scale.

The flexibility of choosing your own 3-color gradient makes this tool useful in many scenarios.

How to apply a 3-color scale

Applying a 3-color scale formatting rule to a cell range in Excel is easy:

  1. Select the cell range you want to format.
  2. Go to the Home tab and click Conditional Formatting > Color Scales > 3 Color Scale.
  3. In the menu, pick the 3-color gradient you want.

This will instantly format the selected cells based on their values. Lower values are formatted with the first color, mid-range values with the second color, and higher values with the third color.

Customizing the 3-color scale

Excel provides several pre-configured 3-color scales to choose from. But you can also fully customize the colors and threshold values used:

  1. Select the cell range and access the 3-color scale menu.
  2. Instead of choosing a pre-configured scale, select “More Rules…”
  3. In the New Formatting Rule dialog:
    1. Select “Format all cells based on their values”
    2. Change the type to “3-Color Scale”
    3. Adjust the threshold values and colors
  4. Click OK to apply.

This allows you to have full control over the 3-color scale parameters.

Setting minimum and maximum values

By default, Excel automatically determines the lowest, mid-range and highest threshold values based on the actual minimum and maximum values in your selected range.

But you can override this and set your own custom minimum and maximum values:

  1. In the 3-color scale rules manager, check the “Minimum” box and enter the lowest value you want formatted with the first color.
  2. Check “Maximum” and enter the highest value you want formatted with the third color.
  3. Mid-range values will be formatted with the middle color.

This lets you define a fixed scale for consistent formatting across different data sets.

Adding data bars

You can combine a 3-color scale with data bars to simultaneously show the distribution and magnitude of values:

  1. Apply the 3-color scale formatting first.
  2. Select the cell range and go to Home > Conditional Formatting > Data Bars.
  3. Pick a data bar fill option to overlay on the 3-color scale.

The data bars will inherit the color formatting from the 3-color scale behind it. This creates a visually rich effect for understanding your data.

Using icons instead of color

Besides color, you can also base the 3-tier formatting on data icons:

  1. Access the “Icon Sets” option under Conditional Formatting.
  2. Pick a 3-icon set like the red/yellow/green traffic lights.
  3. The icons will display in cells based on the low, mid and high threshold values.

This can be useful if you need a monochromatic scale or want to visualize the distribution in some other way than color.

Formatting tables and pivot tables

The 3-color scale rules work for formatted Excel tables and pivot tables as well:

  • Select any cell in the table/pivot table and apply the color scale formatting.
  • The entire table or pivot will be formatted based on the conditional rules.
  • The formatting is kept intact even when refreshing or rearranging pivot tables.

This enables flexible visualization and analysis of summary data.


While 3-color scales are very useful, some limitations to keep in mind:

  • Cannot be applied if the data contains errors or logical values.
  • Formatted cells may print differently than they appear on screen.
  • Requires manual refresh if values change – doesn’t dynamically update.
  • Only one conditional formatting rule can be applied to a cell.

Understanding these constraints helps ensure you apply color scales appropriately.

Example uses

Here are some examples of using 3-color scales for different scenarios:

Sales performance

Format sales data with a green/yellow/red color scale based on each rep’s percent to target performance:

Rep Sales % to Target
Bob $50,000 110%
Alice $35,000 75%
Frank $45,000 95%

This quickly shows top and bottom performers.

Customer survey

Apply a color scale to customer satisfaction scores on a 1-5 scale:

Customer Satisfaction
ABC Ltd 5
DEF Inc 3
XYZ Corp 1

The color coding visually identifies pain points vs. happy customers.

Product inventory

Use a 3-color scale to highlight products with low, medium or high inventory levels:

Product Units in Stock
Product A 500
Product B 100
Product C 50

This enables smart inventory management and purchasing decisions.


Excel’s 3-color scale conditional formatting provides a versatile and easy way to visualize data based on values. By choosing intuitive color gradients and thresholds, you can clearly highlight patterns, metrics, and trends. Customizing the scale unlocks further analytical and reporting capabilities. This tool empowers data-driven thinking and decision making across many scenarios.