A Clipboard for Formatting

OK, here's what happened: The article I intended to post today, I couldn't.  And now the day's almost done (except, of course, here
on the left coast of the US where it's still mid-afternoon and in Australia, where it's already tomorrow.)

So instead of posting a full article, I'll devote this space today to an underrated Office command that I'm still
learning to appreciate myself: the Format Painter.

The idea behind Format Painter is simple: it lets you copy the formatting from one object and apply it to another object.  The
"objects" can be words, paragraphs, shapes, pictures, tables, text boxes, or just about anything else in Office.  Format
Painter copies the entire formatting of the source object, including borders, fills, shadows, text styles, etc.

You'll find the "Format Painter" button in Office 2003 right next to the Paste button on the Formatting
toolbar.  (It looks kind of like a hand broom to me.)

Here's how to use it:

First, select the object which has the formatting you wish to copy.  Then, click the Format Painter button.  The mouse cursor
changes to show that you have "picked up" the formatting.  Now, you're ready to paint with it: simply click wherever you want to apply the
formatting.  (To apply formatting to a range of text, just select the text you want to paint while the mouse cursor is in "paint" mode.)

If you want to paint multiple objects at once to make them match, follow the same procedure, except this time double-click the Format
Painter button.  Now, your cursor will remain in "paint" mode indefinitely so that you can paint lots of objects at once.  When you're done
painting, just press "Escape" on the keyboard.

That's all there is to it!  Long live Format Painter: underappreciated time-saver, and one of the coolest features in Office.

Comments (29)
  1. I didn’t even know that was there! That is neat though.

  2. And as long as we’re praising this wonderful and unappreciated feature, let’s also mention the default keyboard mapping in Word and (IIRC) PowerPoint – Ctrl-Shift-C to copy, Ctrl-Shift-V to paste the style.

    Thanks for the double-click tip – I never knew that, and it’s a feature I’ve missed.

  3. Abigail says:

    I’ve been a fan of the Format Painter for some time now. Woo hoo! I use it a lot for custom-formatting the automatic numbered/bulleted lists in Word.

    I believe the double-click behavior will now be the default in Word.

  4. Abigail says:

    BTW, Kawigi and I agreed that we both felt a little sad and empty when there wasn’t a JensenH post this morning. Shows how quickly we start taking a gift for granted. πŸ™‚

  5. dan.g. says:

    ‘double clicking a toolbar button’

    i’m not sure if i’ve ever heard of that being a recognizable toolbar action. also seems quite counter-intuitive. do you know if other solutions were considered?


  6. MSDNArchive says:

    I never thought about it that way, really (it did make sense to me when I did it). Access’s "toolbox" controls in its form/report designer have the same behavior, though. I’m not sure if I could say that Access is imitating the format painter (it also has a format painter) or the format painter is imitating Access, but the feel of the whole operation is pretty similar in either case.

  7. BenK says:

    I have been an IT trainer for 10 years now and it always amazes me how many people have no idea what the Format Painter does! I teach people to use it in Advanced courses, let alone Introductory courses! It is a very handy little device.

    Digressing slightly, the concept of double-clicking on toolbar buttons is not as unusual as you might think. For example, if you double click on any button that creates drawing objects (be it in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, whatever) it will enable you to use the tool indefinately, until swithed off (press Esc). It will be interesting to see if the same principle will apply to the ribbon in Office 12. Any comment on that Jensen?

  8. MSDNArchive says:

    I believe you can switch it off by clicking on the button again (pressing escape isn’t the only way).

    I believe that controls that used to have this behavior still do on the ribbon.

  9. Mark says:

    I use the format painter regularly, and it is very useful.


  10. BenK says:

    Thanks Matthew, I didn’t realise you are at Microsoft. Yes, clicking again on the button does turn off the Format Painter or Drawing Toolbar button, thank you.

    Incidentally, folks, this also applies to the Forms toolbar, which will presumably have its own little area of the ribbon in Office 12.

  11. Step says:

    I recently discovered this myself. Good to have a little explanation of it – I need to start using it more (along with styles :/).

  12. MSDNArchive says:

    BenK: "Forms toolbar" is a probably a clearer name for the "toolbox" I was describing above for Access.

  13. I’m a newbie to the Format Painter, but what a tool! I’ve classed myself as a bit of a power-user, but somehow the power of this button passed me by.

    And now I know the double-click action, I’m an even happier bunny.

  14. Andreas Häber says:

    I often use the format painter, it’s a very nice feature.

    But *please* make the double-click feature more obvious. I’ve needed that several times before. Thanks for mentioning it! πŸ™‚

  15. I am not a fan of the Format Painter. I agree with you that it’s a quick-and-easy way to copy a formatting, but imho that is what styles are for. Whenever I want something to look like something else, I use a style.

    But then again, I come from a WordPerfect and LaTeX background πŸ˜‰

  16. Centaur says:

    Format Painter is a tool to ease copy-and-paste. We all know how bad copy-and-paste is in programming; what makes us think it would be any better in {word | spreadsheet | presentation} processing? No, just as we refactor repeating code into functions, we should refactor repeating formatting into styles.

    Until styles become the easiest (even in short term) way to apply formatting, we will be forced to deal with hand-formatted, change-resistant documents.

  17. Paul Morriss says:

    My wife used to think format painter was the "paste" button. I think it’s because wallpaper paste (the glue you use to stick wallpaper to the wall, not sure how this translates into US English from UK English) is usually applied with a large wide brush like the one on the format painter button.

  18. Matt says:

    Wallpaper paste is applied with such a brush, yes – but so is emulsion paint for walls (at such time that you’re not using a roller of course). I always saw it as a large paintbrush, personally. It’s a very nice feature, but much as Dirk said, I feel it’s really a band-aid feature to cover up shortcomings in Word. Word does have styles, yes, but it’s far too easy to inadvertently alter bits of style formatting when attempting to make a document that’s entirely consistent using them, especially given Word’s irritating habit of sometimes letting backspace at the start of a line adjust the left indentation, and things like that.

    For casual stuff, format painter’s great. For serious stuff, the entire visual presentation set of tools shouldn’t be there anyway – except through style definitions.

    I’m a bit of a one for semantic markup, you see, and utterly incapable of comprehending how a former colleague of mine happily wrote his BSc dissertation in Word. But then he couldn’t understand how I wrote mine in LaTeX, so perhaps we’re even.

  19. Michael Zuschlag says:

    Double-clicking to make a pointer-tool persistent is one of those cool little power-user things that I also hope make it into Office 12. This functionality has actually been popping up here and there for a long time, I believe going back to early versions of Claris’ paint program. I think it’s a pretty good solution to selectively making pointer-tools persistent, but, yeah, it could be made more discoverable and more consistent with other double clicking. One way to do that is to make this function also available as the default menu item on the toolbar’s context menu. Also, it may be a good idea if there was some feedback that the pointer-tool had been made persistent, especially since it doesn’t work for all pointer tools, at least in older Office versions (e.g., it doesn’t work on Text Box, and Highlight is persistent with a single click).

  20. itsadok says:

    On the same note, I must recommend the Redo trick: if you’ve just done some styling to an object – let’s say set an image’s width – you can do the same to any other image in the document by selecting it and hitting F4 (or Ctrl-Y). Of course this has to be done right after the original step.

    In addition, this is useful for things other than styling: let’s say you have a table with 30 rows, and you want to delete every other row. Delete the first row you want the usual way, but then just hit ArrowDown,F4 fifteen more times.

    Now try it the old way, just to feel the difference.

  21. Randy Rettinger says:

    Perhaps someone could continue a forum like this to reveal such hidden secrets well past the release date of O-12.

    I have been introduced (forcibly) to such tools as Format Painter. It helps, but wishing for 6 months it would be persistent rather than formatting one cell at a time and clicking the painter icon again over 300 times was getting a little annoying…

  22. itamar says:

    Personally, I find the Format Painter a great tool to work with, especially to overcome Word’s apparently "sponteneous" formatting decisions. I only wish there was a short-cut key to activate it instead of having to use the mouse…

  23. Tim says:

    This reminds me of my ‘Clippy’ story, which I usually bore people with.

    I believe Clippy was actually a good thing, but had a fatal flaw – which was that when you told Clippy to go away, he kept coming back. This annoyed people intensely. The main reason is that Clippy is just annoying if you already know the package quite well. So, e.g. I’m quite familiar with Word, so Clippy just gets in my way.

    However, I had to produce a project cashflow/budget in Excel once, for a large (>$1m) project. I’d never really used Excel beyond playing around, so I decided to leave Clippy on to see if it helped.

    Over the course of the next 3 days, Clippy kept popping up with hints that were *useful*.

    And, for example, he popped up once and said something like "You keep changing the style of cells – you know you can use the format painter to copy the style of one cell to another?" and explained the toolbar button etc.

    About half an hour later, Clippy popped up and said "You keep using the format painter to copy the format of the same cell – you can just double-click the button and keep copying the same style without having to click the button each time. Then when you’re done, click the button to stop."

    And so on.

    So, and it amazes most people, I for one am slightly sad to see Clippy has gone from Office. It was a good idea – it was just that it committed the fatal flaw of not paying attention to the user’s wishes – i.e. when they told it to go away, it should have just gone away.

    So, thanks to Clippy, the stuff Jensen mentioned today was old news for me.

    Also, anyone who isn’t charmed by the animation Links the Cat does for printing is dead inside πŸ™‚

  24. Universalis says:

    In Word 2.0 for Windows you used to get this functionality by selecting the text whose format you wanted to modify, then Ctrl+Shift+clicking on the text that looked the way you wanted it. I always wondered why that feature was removed.

  25. ChrisC says:

    Michael, check the Highlight ‘painter’ again – here’s why it doesn’t respond to dbl click as you expect it to:

    1. If you have text selected it changes that text with no future effects (even if dbl clicked).


    2. If you have no text selected, a single click will turn it on until you turn it off.


  26. TC says:

    The other problem with clippy was that he did not go away /quickly/. When I close something, I want it to close /right now/. I don’t want it to hang around for a moment, seemingly making its mind up whether to obey me or not!

  27. Tim says:

    "When I close something, I want it to close /right now/. I don’t want it to hang around for a moment, seemingly making its mind up whether to obey me or not!"

    You mean like that damn dog in the XP Search window?

    God, I hate it πŸ™‚

  28. Abigail says:

    At least Links was cute and occasionally served a purpose — she was there instead of help. The dog? He’s taking up space that could’ve been used by, I don’t know, textboxes where I can fill in what I want to search for! And Links was cuter.

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