Okay, so you came to a design blog to read about spreadsheets. I’m sure you’re curious about how I’ll make a case for why designers should care about them.
But hear me out — spreadsheets are magical, beautiful tools for everyone, including creatives. At Dropbox, we’re designing enlightened ways of working, so in service of investigating what exactly that means, I’d like to share my thoughts on one of my favorite ways to work as a design program manager.
During a particularly memorable job interview, a hiring manager asked me what my superpower was. I answered with absolute certainty that I made really good spreadsheets. We both laughed, but it was true. I even had a case study about a spreadsheet in my portfolio. This calm confidence came from a few years of enthusiasm and experimentation with a simple tool that that had been foundational to my career in Design Operations.
I discovered a love of spreadsheets during one of my first production jobs. I was overseeing the creative production for a campaign that was super complex. I’m talking Gantt charts, multiple-location shoots, cross-channel promotion, scrappy budget to work with, and unbridled enthusiasm for the project. The project was a beast that could only be reined in with a spreadsheet. This spreadsheet had call times, it had links, it was beautiful, and it had all of the answers anyone could ask about the job.
As a program manager and design operations professional, I’ve made countless spreadsheets in my career. They’ve helped me communicate status, coordinate teams, raise budgets, zero in on timelines, and make really big decisions. But what makes a perfect spreadsheet? How can you use spreadsheets in your creative practice? In this ode to spreadsheets, I’ll share a few tips on how to make the most of this humble, often overlooked creative tool.
Spreadsheets can serve as a basic utility or be your secret weapon, depending on the purpose and format you use. Given the multidisciplinary use of spreadsheets, it comes as no surprise that spreadsheets can even be considered a computational language for data modeling. Here are a few common types of spreadsheets that I use in my work:
- Tracking — Whether you’re tracking your monthly budget or progress on your OKRs, a tracking spreadsheet will help you maintain accountability over time.
- Tabulation — Yes, math is part of every creative job. Spreadsheets can handle simple sums to complex calculus. Depending on the business need, you’re likely going to turn to formulas to help you add it all up.
- Analysis & Visualization — Analyzing data is probably the most powerful common function of your favorite spreadsheet tool. With basic visualization, you can find signal in the noise of a lot of data.
- Forecasting — These types of spreadsheets can help you look into the future and calculate what’s to come. They are great for anticipating spend, resourcing, calculating user growth, or any speculation of change over time. For creative teams, resource forecasting helps with scheduling and project planning.
- Production — In production, a spreadsheet is often your source of truth. It’s where you’ll communicate facts (like constraints and specs), plan how you’ll spend your resources (like time and money), and track progress along the way. A good production sheet can tell you what, who, when, and how the work will get done (and what won’t get done).
Clarity is key
In the depths of my Dropbox folders, you’ll find countless documents from different projects and programs I’ve produced. Some of the documents were made for my eyes only, while others were a collaborative workspace where teams came together to do work. The difference between the two document types is that shared documents require greater document hygiene in order for teammates to trust the almighty power of your shared sheets. When your spreadsheets are clear, they become useful and trusted tools for your teams. A few tips for getting it right:
- Establish how to use the spreadsheet. This may include what you need people to update, how often the spreadsheet is updated, where the spreadsheet will be reviewed, or when people can expect status updates to be sent based on spreadsheet data.
- Label everything and create a key
- Be clear about your data sources
- Lock the zones you don’t want to change
- Remember that boundaries are healthy! View-only status is totally okay.
Experimentation in sheets
Whether you use Airtable, Google Sheets, Excel, or simple tables in Dropbox Paper, your tool of choice may influence the capabilities and potential of your spreadsheet. Jessie Char, fellow producer and organizer of Layers Conference, says, “I love that spreadsheets can be as simple as a grocery list or robust as code. It’s a blank grid that asks nothing of me other than to enter plain lists of information, and in turn allows me to view, organize, manipulate, and quantify my data on my own terms.”
I have met some remarkable spreadsheet masters throughout the creative community in my pursuit of the perfect spreadsheet. Each of them has their own style and approach to maximizing a spreadsheet’s potential. Surprising to some, spreadsheets can carry you from low- to high-fidelity experimentation and prototyping. Linda Dong, product designer and swift enthusiast, said it best: “Every product is just a nicely designed spreadsheet.” Here are a few favorite examples:
- Nicholas Jitkoff, VP of Design at Dropbox, uses a spreadsheet to maintain a shared extended family directory and dynamic family tree. He uses redirect.app and other tricks to create one-click links that trigger native actions like calling, messaging, and let family members download contact info to their personal address books.
- Joel Califa, once famed for his use of spreadsheets to make meetings more effective, has recently created a new framework to help folks in the creative community evaluate job offers.
- David Williams made an awesome sheets plug-in for Figma that syncs content from your spreadsheet to your design files.
- Brent “Meowza” Kobayashi created the most beautiful untitled goose illustration, treating each cell as a pixel.
There are bona fide spreadsheet people who take spreadsheets to the next level. When you find a spreadsheet enthusiast out in the world, make friends. Share your sheets! Learn tips and tricks. Marvel at the unique style and finesse that each ‘sheet offers. And remember that the people with the spreadsheets have the answers.
Nothing gets done without one
If I haven’t sold you yet, remember this: Nothing gets done without a spreadsheet. Budgets, time, head counts, user engagement, NPS, app downloads — all the infrastructure, knowledge, and resources you need to do your job reside in someone’s glorious spreadsheet. If you don’t know where to start, I suggest reaching out to your friendly local design-ops professional.
Function on, spreadsheet people!
PS. We’re hiring! If you too love spreadsheets, consider joining our team to lead design operations for our core product teams. Job link here.