How to Use Conditional Formatting in Microsoft Outlook

Emails and letter on blue background

When you want to spot emails quickly in your Outlook inbox, you can automatically apply font formatting based on conditions. Then, as messages arrive that meet those conditions, they’ll obtain that formatting without you having to lift a finger. Setting up conditional formatting in Microsoft Outlook takes only a few minutes and helps you see certain emails at a glance. This tutorial shows how to create a conditional formatting rule, edit formatting rules, and disable or delete a rule you no longer need.

Did you know: you can automatically forward emails in Outlook, either en masse or based on custom rules.

Set Up Conditional Formatting in Outlook

As of this writing, the conditional formatting feature is only available in the Windows version of Microsoft Outlook. To get started, open Outlook and follow these steps to set up your rule.

  1. Go to the “View” tab and select “View Settings” in the “Current View” section of the ribbon.
View Settings on the View tab in Outlook
  1. Click “Conditional Formatting” in the box that appears.
Conditional Formatting in the View Settings
  1. You’ll see a subsequent box open, where you can review the current default rules set up by Outlook. These include displaying unread messages in blue and expired emails with a strikethrough font.
Default conditional formatting rules in Outlook
  1. To set up your own rule, click “Add” on the top right.
Add button for conditional formatting
  1. Enter a title for the rule in the “Name” box.
Name field for conditional formatting
  1. Select the “Font” button to choose the formatting you want to use.
Font button for conditional formatting
  1. You can select the font family, style, size, color, and add a strikeout or underline. Click “OK” when you finish.
Font selection box in Outlook
  1. Select the “Condition” button to set up the criteria for your rule.
Condition button for conditional formatting
  1. You’ll see three tabs with basic to advanced options. Let’s walk through each in more detail below.
Tabs to set up conditions for conditional formatting

Tip: use Outlook email templates to further automate your workflows.

Conditions for the Formatting Rule

Depending on the type of rule you want to create, there are many options. Use the appropriate tab to get started.

Messages Tab

Go to the “Messages” tab to set up common criteria, like keywords in the email or subject line, from a particular contact, a mention on the CC line, or based on a timeframe.

Messages tab for a condition

As an example, we selected emails from a group that are due tomorrow.

Messages tab example for a condition

More Choices Tab

Go to the “More Choices” tab to add more criteria, like emails that include a category, are read or unread, contain attachments, have a certain priority, or are a specific size.

More Choices tab for a condition

As an example, we selected emails with the Blue category, are unread, and have attachments.

More Choices tab example for a condition

Advanced Tab

  1. Go to the “Advanced” tab to set up custom conditions for your rule.
Advanced tab for a condition
  1. Use the “Field” drop-down menu to choose from frequently-used, address, and date fields, along with mail, contact, and task fields.
Advanced tab Fields for a condition
  1. Choose the exact field to use, select a “Condition” in the drop-down box, and add a “Value” to the right. The Conditional and Value options may or may not display or may be different, depending on the field you select.
Advanced tab Field entries in Outlook
  1. Click “Add to List” to place the condition in the criteria box at the top.
Advanced tab Add to List button for a condition

As an example, we selected the Frequently-Used Field for Flag Status where the Condition is Equals and the Value is Followup Flag.

Advanced tab example for a condition
  1. When you finish creating your rule using any or all of the above tabs, click “OK” to save it.
Advanced tab OK button for a condition

Save and Apply the Rule

  1. Return to the initial “Conditional Formatting” box and ensure that your rule has a checkmark next to it at the top. Click “OK” to finish and apply the rule.
Checkmark for a conditional formatting rule in Outlook
  1. Click “OK” in the “Advanced View Settings” box to complete the process.
OK button for conditional formatting in Outlook
  1. Moving forward, any email that arrives, or that you send depending on your rule setup, will have the font formatting you selected.

Tip: learn how you can turn emails into tasks in Outlook.

Edit a Conditional Formatting Rule

You can edit a rule you set up and can also edit Outlook’s default rules. Yet, you cannot edit a condition for one of the default rules, only the font formatting.

  1. Return to “View -> View Settings,” select “Conditional Formatting,” and choose the rule in the list.
    • For a default rule, select “Font” to change the formatting and click “OK” to save it.
    • For a rule of your own, select “Font,” “Condition,” or both to make your changes. Click “OK” to save.
Edit the Font or Condition for conditional formatting in Outlook
  1. When you finish, click “OK” in the “Conditional Formatting” box, then “OK” once more in the “Advanced View Settings” box.

Delete a Conditional Formatting Rule

If you create a rule that you no longer want to use, you can either disable it or delete it. For the default rules, you can disable them but cannot delete them.

  1. Return to “View -> View Settings,” select “Conditional Formatting,” and choose the rule in the list.
    • To disable a rule, uncheck the box next to it in the list. You can check the box again later to re-enable it if you would like.
    • To delete a rule of your own, select it and click “Delete.” You won’t be asked to confirm this action.
Disable or Delete conditional formatting in Outlook
  1. When you complete your edits, click “OK” to save them, then “OK” once more in the “Advanced View Settings” box.

Frequently Asked Questions

How can I color-code emails in Outlook for the Web or on Mac?

Although conditional formatting is only available for Outlook on Windows at this time, you can use the other Outlook rules to mark emails, although differently, on the Web or on Mac.

You can automatically apply a category, which places a color indicator on the actual message rather than formatting the font. Check out our how-tos for using categories in Outlook and setting up Outlook rules for details on both features.

Can I format the font for contacts, tasks, and calendar events?

When you set up your conditional formatting rule as described here, use the “Advanced” tab for setting up the conditions, then choose from “All Contact Fields,” “All Appointment Fields,” or “All Task Fields” to set up custom criteria for contacts, tasks, or calendar events.

How do I change the font for the message list in my inbox?

Go to “View -> View Settings,” select “Row Font,” and pick the font family, style, and size. Click “OK” to see the From and Subject for your message list update to the new font.

Image credit: Pixabay. All screenshots by Sandy Writtenhouse.

Sandy Writtenhouse
Sandy Writtenhouse

With her BS in Information Technology, Sandy worked for many years in the IT industry as a Project Manager, Department Manager, and PMO Lead. She wanted to help others learn how technology can enrich business and personal lives and has shared her suggestions and how-tos across thousands of articles.

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