The INDIRECT trick of using Structured Reference in Conditional Formatting

When setting up conditions for Conditional Formatting in Excel, have you ever tried to set a formula that refers to a Excel Table, but failed?

First of all, why we want to refer to Excel Table in Conditional Formatting? There is one simple answer: To accept new data automatically.

Let’s look back at the sample we used in the previous two blog posts.  In the following screen shot, you see that the formula used refers to a “fixed” range of $I$2:$I$9.  It works totally fine given the current static situation. excel tips - using table in conditional formatting1

But what if we are moving into May and are ready to input more “PublicHolidays” to the list?

excel tips - using table in conditional formatting2

Oh no… it didn’t work as the formula was hard-coded.

To fix that, we need to go into the formula of Conditional Formatting and revised the hard-coded range. (provided that you remember to do it; and/or your user knows how to do it)  🙂

excel tips - using table in conditional formatting3

That’s why we want to make the formula used in Conditional Formatting be dynamic!

There are two common ways to do dynamic ranges:

  1. Using OFFSET function
  2. Using Excel Table

Using Excel Table will be the technique discussed in this post.  Indeed, whenever possible, I highly recommend you use Excel Table for dynamic range.  Excel Table was introduced in Excel 2007.  After a decade, it’s still one of the hidden gems to most regular Excel users.  We should promote it more as it is really a cool feature of Excel.  Indeed there are obvious reasons of using Excel Table over OFFSET for setting up dynamic range.  Nevertheless that is not the topic of this post. 😛

To turn a range into Excel Table

  1. Select the range
  2. Go to Insert tab
  3. Click Table
  4. Check the range is correctly detected; and My table has headers is checked
  5. OK

excel tips - using table in conditional formatting4

Tip: Keyboard shortcut for inserting a Table: Ctrl+T

As a good practice, always name your Excel Table to something meaningful to you/users.  In our example, it’s named as tb_PH.

excel tips - using table in conditional formatting5

Now, we have created an Excel Table named tb_PH.  Let’s try two things:

First, let’s see what happens when

  1. we select tb_PH from Name Box; and
  2. after new data is added to tb_PH, repeat step 1 and see

excel tips - using table in conditional formatting7

wow…. tb_PH accepts new data appended.  Now the same table name tb_PH refers to an expanded range.  Isn’t it cool?

Now, try also this:

In any blank cell, input = then using mouse to select the range I2:I9

excel tips - using table in conditional formatting6

Note: For demonstration purpose, the range before adding data is used.  If you have added new data to tb_PH, ensure you have selected the whole range to make Excel to turn the range into a Structure Reference automatically.

See?!  Excel automatically turns the range selected into a Structured Reference:


Don’t be afraid of the new formula structure.   It simply refers to the Table Name [ColumnHeader].  In other words, it means the (whole) column of PublicHolidays of the table tb_PH.

On the surface, you may know what I am trying to do next – Using the Structure Reference in the formula for conditional formatting:


Unfortunately, it did not work….

excel tips - using table in conditional formatting6

To test the formula, copy it and paste it to K2 and see:

excel tips - using table in conditional formatting7

It works.  Somehow it does not work in conditional formatting…

To fix this, we need an INDIRECT approach in the formula set:


And the trick is… simply wrap the Structured Reference with INDIRECT. (Note: Don’t miss the double quotes)

As simple as this. 🙂

Let’s watch the result in action:

excel tips - using table in conditional formatting8

WOW… it works like a charm!  🙂

Tip: As there is only one column in the Excel Table, we may shorten the formula to:


Want to know about what COUNTIF does in the example?  Please read the post Highlight weekends and holidays using Conditional Formatting in #Excel.

You may download a sample file to follow along.  Remind you to unhide the sheet <Example (3)>.


About MF

An Excel nerd who just transition into a role related to data analytics at current company......😊 Recently in love with Power Query and Power BI.😍 Keep learning new Excel and Power BI stuffs and be amazed by all the new discoveries.
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7 Responses to The INDIRECT trick of using Structured Reference in Conditional Formatting

  1. haragog says:

    My biggest issue is not the formula per se, but the range “Applies to”. If there’s a change in the table (e.g. adding a row/collumn in the middle) this messes up the range… THERE I would also like to use a structured reference (that hopefully wouldn’t change, if the row/column order changes).


  2. MF says:

    Thanks for your detailed suggestion. You are right about INDIRECT. We should avoid use it massively. Nevertheless it should be fine for small size workbook. 😁


  3. Bl4derubber says:

    I have one issue with this approach: INDIRECT is an inefficient function, and should be a last-option to refer to. It’s a Function after-all, meant to interpret a value.
    A better solution is to use:
    1) A table, for convenience. For example, we’ll create a table with [ID], [first name], [last name] with the table-name [clients]
    2) Create a “Named array” from the contents of this table, without the header
    (it can be a sub-selection of the table, like [ID]:[Last name])
    2a) Make a selection of the contents of the table
    2b) Go to: Formulas > Name Manager > New…
    2c) Give a name, I usually take the name of the table with an underscore in front of it: [_clients]
    Scope: Workbook
    Give a declarative comment if you want
    Check if the Referens is correct:
    =clients for the contents of the whole table
    =clients[[ID]:[Last name]] if you want just a range within the table (useful for large tables and saving some time)
    3) Now you can refer to an exact range of values with your conditional formatting. This is a lot faster then a computational function And you can do things like

    Or in your case:

    AND keep the flexibility of tables. 🙂


    • Stephen says:

      @Bl4derubber …
      The topic was referring to the use of “Structured tables” in Excel. Your response included the use of “Name Manager” and “VLOOKUP” function. As soon as I see that, I realized you are not familiar with structured tables in Excel so I don’t bother reading the rest of your message.

      Research Structured tables in Excel … It’s an awesome hidden gem in Excel since 2007, and I have worked with those that consider themselves as “experts” in Excel, but are totally unaware of the structured table capabilities in EXCEL.


  4. David N says:

    I believe you’ll also find that simply writing your conditional formula to refer to an entire column from a Table somehow enables that range reference to auto-magically grow as the Table grows without needing to use INDIRECT or other trickery. In fact, if your cursor is on a cell of that Table when you bring up the Conditional Formatting Rules Manager, then the dropdown to “Show formatting rules for:” will contain an option for “This Table” in the pick list.


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