Oh, the spreadsheet. What would we do without it? Used by millions on a daily basis from professional number crunchers to the college student in Math 101 even to the DIY wedding planner. I still remember my middle school class on the almighty spreadsheet, not that it changed my opinion or working knowledge of it over much. As a designer, I shudder when I hear the words “put it into a quick spreadsheet”. For one, that isn’t a quick request for me. Two, no matter which way you slice, dice and soup up the headlines, it is still a spreadsheet. As an information designer, however, I cannot escape the need for Excel (in my case Numbers!). This is where the process begins from boring, blank numbers marching down the page into a beautiful landscape of visual grace and interest.
So when a client says “I have a spreadsheet and I need it made more interesting/visual”, I no longer shudder. I rejoice. Cue buzzword ‘big data’, this is where it gets interesting.
Big Data, Big Spreadsheet
If I never had to use the words “merge cells” again, it would be too soon. I don’t even use them with enough regularity to consistently know the end result. But with the growth of big data and the frenzy to make everything visual, my days of plunging headfirst into a spreadsheet are not going anywhere soon. We see social media, we see the rapidly populating posts of gorgeous infographics and visualized white papers. But what we are finally seeing less of is the spreadsheet being the end result of market research. The research won’t die down soon, but the demand for something better, something more tangible has finally tipped over the edge.
The New Purpose for Excel
Thus, big data, information itself is eclipsing the spreadsheet. Now we can consider the spreadsheet to be the birth of something more enriching and compelling, not the stopping point. Instead of stopping once the numbers are in, we can find new meaning for the spreadsheet. It is still an organizational tool, but similar to an archeologist, it should be considered prime dusting ground for uncovering the story behind the numbers.
For example, take a look at your finances. If you bank online, chances are you have the option to export to an Excel sheet to examine all of your data in one spot. Great! Except now you have the daunting task of combing through that spreadsheet for hours to make sense of what the information is trying to tell you. Probably with a highlighter (or 5) in hand. Software like mint.com takes the same information and presents it so you are instantly aware in visual form of how you spend, what you spend, even where you spend. It is the spreadsheet’s job to organize. It is the job of a secondary entity to uncover the story to finish the job.
Now that we know the new purpose behind the spreadsheet, we can put it to good use and test our skills. One of my favorite challenges is to take two completely different topics and find the connecting link. As designers this is an excellent way to keep those skills sharp and keep our brains and creative chops up to snuff. What do mp3 players have to do with dogs? It may seem impossible or completely unconnected, but there is always a link. We just have to find it, and tell the story behind the numbers.