Outlook lets you create and customize folder views in many ways, like adding and removing columns or grouping and sorting messages. You can also apply rules to make Outlook display messages in different ways based on their properties (like the sender, subject line, or timestamp). This is called conditional formatting. Let’s take a look at how it works.

Update: One of our readers brought to our attention that conditional formatting is only available on the Windows version of Outlook and not the macOS version. Thanks, Christy!

Getting Started

To get started setting up conditional formatting, head to View > View Settings.

You can also access Advanced View Settings by right-clicking the folder head and selecting the “View Settings” command.

The Advanced View Settings window lets you customize the folder view. Click the “Conditional Formatting” button.

This brings you to the Conditional Formatting window that you’ll be using to set up different rules for how messages are formatted.

The items displayed in the “Rules for this view” list are the default rules that come with an un-customized folder view. For example, you can see that “Unread messages” are displayed in bold, blue Segoe UI font with a size of 11 points.

How the Rules Work

The “rules” are the conditions that a message has to meet for Outlook to apply the formatting. In the default rules, for example, the “Unread Messages” rule is activated when a message is marked as unread. When that rule is activated, Outlook uses the bold, blue, 11-point Segoe UI font to display it.

Outlook applies rules in order from the top of the list. Rules higher up on the list take precedence over rules lower down. How does this work in practice? Let’s say you have two rules, one at the top of the list that changes the font to green, and one lower down in the list that changes the font to red. If a message meets the conditions of both rules, the font will be changed to green because that rule is higher up on the list—the rule which sets the font to red is ignored.

With the default rules, you can only change the font. You can’t delete default rules, or move the order around, or change the conditions for the rule. You can turn default rules off though, by unchecking them in the “Rules for this view” list.

How to Add a New Rule

In the Conditional Formatting window, click the “Add” button. A new rule called “Untitled” will be added to the list. Give your rule a name and then click the “Condition” button.

The Filter window lets you decide on the condition, or conditions, that the mail has to meet to be formatted.

We’re just going to use a simple example here and have it look for messages that were sent by “Rob Woodgate” and contain the word “Outlook” in the Subject field.

To do this, first click the “From” button, which opens up the address book, and select a contact.

Then we add “Outlook” into the “Search for the word(s)” field, making sure that the “Subject Field Only” option is selected from the “In” drop-down list. Click “OK” when you’re done.

Back in the Conditional Formatting, click the “Font” button.

We’re going to make messages that match the filter we set up be displayed in purple and bold. Set yours up however you want, click the “OK” button, click “OK” again to close the Conditional Formatting window, and then one more time to close the Advanced View Settings window.

The rules are applied immediately. You can see below that messages meeting our conditions are now bold and purple.

This is just a simple example—you can add lots of conditions, even very complex ones. Back in that Filter window, you can switch over to the “More Choices” tab to see a bunch of additional conditions you can pick.

Here you can choose to match a message on whether:

  • It’s been assigned a particular category
  • It’s read or unread
  • It has attachments or no attachments
  • It’s marked as high, normal, or low priority
  • It’s been flagged by you, by someone else, by no-one, or marked as complete
  • The text you’re searching for needs to match the case
  • It’s a particular size, greater or smaller than a particular size, or between two sizes

Switch over to the “Advanced” tab, and you can create complex conditions.

The Advanced tab allows you to select any field from anywhere in Outlook, and select a condition that you want to match. This could be quite simple, such as matching the sender to an exact address, but you have a lot of options to choose from. Let’s say you want your rule to match emails that you received. Click the “Field” button, point to “Date/Time Fields,” and then click the “Received” option.

Click the “Condition” dropdown to choose your condition.

The choices are much greater than you might expect:

  • Anytime
  • Yesterday
  • Today
  • Tomorrow
  • In the last 7 days
  • In the next 7 days
  • Last Week
  • This Week
  • Next Week
  • Last Month
  • This Month
  • Next Month
  • On
  • On or after
  • On or before
  • Between
  • Exists
  • Does not exist

And the other fields you can choose offer similar amounts of options.

Select your Condition, add a value, and click the “Add to List” button.

You can add as many conditions to the list as you like. To give you some idea of how many fields there are, here’s a look at just the “All Mail fields” menu.

The “All Contact fields” menu has over four columns of options—so many we couldn’t fit it into a sensible screenshot. So we’re not going to go through each of the fields and conditions, but now you know where they are and how to use them.

You can set up multiple conditions in a rule to get things as specific as you like. Want to have Outlook display messages in a red 16pt font if they are from a certain contact, received in the last seven days, contain a specific word in the subject, and include an attachment? Not a problem.

How to Delete a Rule

If you’ve created a rule and you no longer want it, it’s easy to delete. In the Conditional Formatting window, select the rule you want to delete and click the “Delete” button. Just remember that you can only delete rules you’ve created—not Outlook’s built-in default rules.

You can add as many conditions as you like, and have as many rules as you like. And as we showed you before, once you’ve got the conditional formatting rules set up the way you want then you can copy the view to another folder, or to all folders if you want.

Rob Woodgate Rob Woodgate
Rob Woodgate is a writer and IT consultant with nearly 20 years of experience across the private and public sectors. He's also worked as a trainer, technical support person, delivery manager, system administrator, and in other roles that involve getting people and technology to work together.
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