O'Reilly logo

Excel Scientific and Engineering Cookbook by David M Bourg

Stay ahead with the world's most comprehensive technology and business learning platform.

With Safari, you learn the way you learn best. Get unlimited access to videos, live online training, learning paths, books, tutorials, and more.

Start Free Trial

No credit card required

1.1. Navigating the Interface


You've never used Excel before and don't know where to start.


Start Excel and begin poking around the interface to become familiar with it.


This solution sounds simple and it is. I believe there's no better way to learn something on the computer than to just start exploring and experimenting. Don't worry about breaking anything. The worst you can do is create a nonsensical spreadsheet—in which case, you can exit Excel without saving anything and start over fresh. I have a four-year-old daughter who loves playing around in Excel because of the paperclip office assistant. If she can't ruin anything with all her random clicking and typing, then I think you're in good shape to do some purposeful exploring. That said, I won't just throw you to the wolves, but will point you in the right direction to begin your journey.

Excel is just like any other standard Windows application: it consists of a multiple-document interface main window containing a main menu bar, toolbars, and a status bar.


A multiple-document interface main window is just a window that acts as a container for several of the same type of files, so to speak. For example, in Excel you can have more than one spreadsheet open at once and switch between them. Word is another example; you can have many different Word documents open at once and switch between them as desired. By contrast, an application based on a single-document interface window is one that allows you to open up and work on only one file at a time. Many specialized programs are based on this paradigm.

Figure 1-1 shows a screenshot of Excel as installed on my computer. You'll notice that it looks like any other Windows application, with one distinct difference.

Excel's main window

Figure 1-1. Excel's main window

In addition to the standard menu bar, toolbars, and status bar, the window contains a large grid of cells . These cells are arranged in an organized matrix, with letters identifying columns and numbers identifying rows. This is the spreadsheet. Notice that there are a few tabs toward the bottom of the spreadsheet labeled Sheet 1, Sheet 2, and Sheet 3. By default, Excel starts with a blank workbook . A workbook contains multiple sheets, which can be linked together. You can add or remove spreadsheets from a workbook, rename the sheets, put data and formulas on one sheet and refer to them from another sheet, and so on. We'll explore the details of working with spreadsheets and workbooks throughout the remainder of this book. For now, let's continue getting acquainted with the window itself.

Main menu bar

The main menu bar gives you access to all of Excel's features and functionality. Excel's main menu bar contains the following menus:


Access the usual file operations such as open, save, print, and exit.


Access the standard cut, copy, paste, find, replace, and other operations.


Customize Excel's appearance by changing options such as page layout, zoom, toolbars, status bar, and task pane.


Add various spreadsheet elements such as cells, rows, and columns, as well as other objects such as notes, comments, and pictures.


Customize the formatting of text, cells, rows, columns, and other aspects of your spreadsheets.


Access various useful tools including spelling tools, change tracking, formula auditing, and a host of useful analysis tools such as goal seek, solver, and data analysis tools. The tools menu also provides access to the Customize and Options windows, allowing you to tailor Excel to your specific needs and preferences.


Access various data management tools such as sorting, validation, and tables.


Manage Excel's windows by using features such as arranging windows and splitting panes.


Access Excel's built-in help system.

These nine menus comprise the standard menus built into Excel. I encourage you to click through these menus in your version of Excel to familiarize yourself with them a little. We're going to use these menus a great deal throughout the remainder of this book.

Take another look at Figure 1-1 and notice that my version of Excel has one more menu option in addition to the nine just summarized. In my case, I have Adobe PDF converter installed, so a custom menu option for it appears in Excel's main menu bar after the standard menus. (Such custom menus will not appear on your version of Excel unless you've installed third-party software that adds them.) I should mention that you can also add your own menus using techniques that we'll discuss in other recipes throughout this book.

As with most standard Windows programs, you can access the menu using the mouse or the keyboard. Accessing the menu with the mouse is, of course, as simple as pointing and clicking. Notice in Figure 1-1 that the View menu is currently visible. Also notice the little down arrow icon at the bottom of the menu. Whenever you see this icon on a menu, it means there are more menu items available to you, but they are hidden. By default, MS Office applications hide less frequently used menu items from view, showing only your most frequently used items in an effort to simplify the menus. If you click the down arrow icon, the full menu will appear. I personally don't like this feature and prefer to see the menus in their entirety all the time.

You can change this behavior by going to the Tools → Customize... menu and clicking the Options tab (see Figure 1-2).

Customize window

Figure 1-2. Customize window

On the Options tab you'll see a checkbox labeled "Always show full menus." If you check that checkbox, full menus will be shown all the time. Otherwise, you'll get the abbreviated menus, in which case you can select an option to show the full menus after a short delay. Press the Close button to save your changes and get rid of this window.

There are two ways to access menu items with the keyboard. The first way involves using the Alt key on your keyboard to set input focus on the main menu bar. In Excel, or any other Windows application for that matter, press the Alt key and you will notice that the first menu on the main menu bar gets highlighted. This means the menu has focus. Also notice that each menu—File, Edit, View, and so on—has one letter underlined. The underlined characters are called accelerator characters. After pressing the Alt key and giving focus to the main menu bar, you can press a key corresponding to one of those accelerator characters to open the corresponding menu. For example, the key sequence Alt-V will open the View menu, as shown in Figure 1-1.

You'll notice each menu item in the View menu also contains an accelerator character. If you now press the key corresponding to one of these accelerators, you'll activate the corresponding menu item. For example, the key sequence Alt-V-Z will activate the Zoom menu item, opening a new window that allows you to customize the zoom level of your spreadsheet. The zoom feature is helpful for those of us whose eyesight needs a little help.

The second way to access menu items from the keyboard involves the use of shortcut keys . Take another look at the View menu shown in Figure 1-1. Notice the Task Pane menu item has a key combination denoted to the right. In this case the key combination is Ctrl-F1 . This is the shortcut key combination to activate the Task Pane menu item. (This applies to Excel 2003. Earlier versions may not have this shortcut.) So, if you press and hold the Ctrl key and then press the F1 key (while still holding the Ctrl key down), you'll activate the Task Pane menu item. When you execute this key combination, the task pane on the right side of the window will disappear. If you execute this shortcut again, the task pane will reappear. (We'll come back to the task pane in a moment.)

Both of these keyboard techniques are designed to speed up your productivity by providing quick access to Excel's functionality: you don't have to keep taking your hand off the keyboard to navigate with the mouse. These quick access features are not unique to Excel and, in fact, are standard Windows interface features. Most well-designed Windows applications provide one or both of these features.

Task pane

I've already mentioned the task pane in the context of accessing menus using shortcuts (i.e., toggling the task pane's visibility by using Ctrl-F1); however, I haven't mentioned what the task pane actually does. The task pane provides another portal to features included in Excel, giving you access to Excel's built-in and online help systems, a searchable dictionary and other reference material, and various spreadsheet templates. With Excel open as shown in Figure 1-1, click the little down arrow icon located to the right of the Getting Started title on the task pane to view the various tools available to you.

The one I find most useful is the Help tool. The Help tool is easy to use and provides access to both built-in and online sources of documentation on Excel . If you click the Help option, you'll be presented with a text box at the top of the pane that allows you to type in search terms for topics.

For example, if you type in keyboard shortcuts, the task pane will switch to the Search Results view, displaying a list of topics related to your search terms. In my case, the topic Keyboard Shortcuts is at the top of the list. Find this in your version and click it. Upon doing so, you'll be presented with a new help window showing a list of topics specifically related to keyboard shortcuts.


Excel has keyboard shortcuts for many features in addition to the menu shortcuts we discussed earlier. The help documentation describes all of those available to you and is a convenient reference for learning all sorts of useful shortcuts to help you work more efficiently. I encourage you to explore this documentation.

While the task pane does provide convenient access to some useful features, I find it sometimes gets in the way of my spreadsheet. So, when I'm not using it, I Ctrl-F1 it away or reduce its width by clicking and dragging the task pane's left edge over toward the right, making more space for the spreadsheet.


Referring back to Figure 1-1, or your version of Excel if you have it open now, you'll notice that the Excel window contains many toolbars and tool buttons. These are standard, dockable toolbars that provide yet another means to access Excel's features. Many of the toolbars duplicate menu functionality, giving you another way of selecting menus; other toolbars provide access to features buried in various dialog boxes or windows that are themselves accessible from the menu or other toolbars. These toolbars are provided for convenience and it's up to you to develop your own preferences, i.e., whether you prefer navigating the menu, using shortcut keys, or clicking tool buttons. I do all three.

You may have noticed that the toolbars in my version of Excel, shown in Figure 1-1, are different from those shown in your version of Excel. Certain toolbars that I use frequently are visible, while others are hidden. You can customize your toolbars to your liking. To do so, open the View menu and select the Toolbars submenu. This will display a list of toolbars available to you for display. The ones shown with checkmarks to their left are visible. You may select whichever ones you'd like to show or hide.

You can also customize the toolbars by using the Customize window shown in Figure 1-2. To activate this window, select Tools → Customize.... Select the Toolbars tab to display a list of available toolbars that you can show or hide.


The Commands tab in the Customize window allows you to further customize your toolbars. Using the Commands tool, you can select specific commands and then drag-and-drop a button corresponding to each command onto Excel's toolbar area. This allows you to tailor your toolbars to contain only those command buttons you use most frequently, without cluttering your window with rarely used buttons.

Toolbars in Excel are dockable. This means you can drag them around to rearrange them. To do so, click (and hold) the four dots located to the left of a toolbar and drag it around. You can rearrange all your toolbars in this manner, placing some at the top of the window (below the main menu bar), some toward the bottom of the window (above the status bar), and some to the left or right of the window.

See Also

The aim of this recipe is not to provide a treatise on Excel's interface, but to acquaint you with its layout so we can explore Excel further throughout this book. As I said earlier, I think the best way to become familiar and comfortable with Excel is to explore it directly. I've shown you how to access Excel's online help and documentation already, and they are a good source for additional reading material on Excel.

If you're interested in browsing Excel's documentation rather than searching it, then click the "Table of Contents" link just below the search term entry box on the Excel Help task pane (see Figure 1-3).

With Safari, you learn the way you learn best. Get unlimited access to videos, live online training, learning paths, books, interactive tutorials, and more.

Start Free Trial

No credit card required