Create A Professional Looking Spreadsheet Using Art Principles

Feb 9, 2017 / Day Job & the Practical / spreadsheets

When I was doing my first accounting job, the tax partner who was reviewing my work said: “what is this spreadsheet about? Put a title on it.”

When you’re twenty years old, any suggestion is interpreted as criticism, I never forgot this.

I put a title on that spreadsheet.

I started a series last year on this blog about improving spreadsheets using art principles, but I never finished it.

Since this year I’m all about finishing what I started, coming up in February is the wrap-up of this series (how’s that for public accountability). We will be talking about the art principles of

  • Emphasis/visual hierarchy
  • Color
  • Similarity
  • Balance
  • Closure

Let’s go.

What is Visual Hierarchy

I think of visual hierarchy as a kind of internal logic on how to “look” and “read” something regardless of what you’re looking at, whether it’s a painting, a photograph, or a spreadsheet.

I’m sure you’ve heard this before. When composing photographs, follow the rule of thirds. Don’t put your subject in the center. Instead, subdivide your frame into thirds, and put the subject off-center, like in the image above.

This is one way of establishing a visual hierarchy. You’re indicating that items in the intersection of these lines are important.

Another approach to visual hierarchy is to simply put something in the center. In this way, the subject is emphasized.

Visual Hierarchy in a Spreadsheet

When it comes to spreadsheets however, the rule of thirds or centering doesn’t work. There is no äóìcenteräóù in a spreadsheet, there is just a data table or graph, that may span the length of the entire page. The rule of thirds (by placing important elements in the intersection of imaginary lines) doesn’t work either for the same reason. Now I’m talking about a spreadsheets here. If you were designing dashboards, it would be another story, the rule of thirds may apply.

What you need to do is establish a visual hierarchy in some other way. And the way to do that is to think about audience tendencies.

In western cultures, we read from left to right, from top of the page to bottom of the page.

We notice big things first, before small things.

We perk up when we see color.

We gravitate to saturated (stronger) color vs less saturated (lighter) color.

We can use these tendencies to your advantage, by formatting your final spreadsheet to äóìfollowäóù these tendencies, or at the very least, not contradict them.

What Makes A Spreadsheet Memorable

In my experience, what makes a spreadsheet memorable is simplicity. I’ve hammered this point in all the blog posts in the spreadsheet series. Watch the data-ink ratio. Cut -anything- on your spreadsheet that is not data. Your spreadsheets will be cleaner and more professional looking.

With that “stripped” spreadsheet as the base, create a visual flow to your spreadsheet.

No title? Put one in, at the top-left corner of the page. Make the title a slightly larger font-size than the rest of spreadsheet. People will read that first, no matter who they are.

Lead the eye from the left side of your spreadsheet to the right with guiding lines as I discussed in a previous blog post. But again, watch for the data-ink ratio.

Watch your negative space. Create meaning using proximity, enclosure, and continuation art principles. We’ve discussed this in previous blog posts.

Finally, add explanatory footnotes, if necessary, at the bottom of the page, in a smaller font-size if you want. People automatically interpret smaller things as less important than larger things. This means that they will focus on your main table (or whatever else you want them to focus on). Take advantage of people’s tendencies as I mentioned above.

Make Your Spreadsheet Balanced

One of the lessons in art school is compositionäóîthe placement of things on canvas, on the photographic frame, or on the page. A composition could be static vs dynamic, symmetric vs asymmetric. A static composition would be something like centering (which is symmetric). Dynamic would be something like the rule of thirds (which may look asymmetric). Regardless of whether you use static or dynamic composition, you should always strive for balance. The best way to describe balance is as follows.

The Line Example

One of the things that humans are good at, is to sense when they are not in balance. Especially the lateral kind. Is this line horizontal or not?

Even if this horizontal line is only slightly askew, (it’s only off by 0.2% according to Photoshop), you unconsciously know it’s not in balance.

How do you feel when looking at it? You feel unsettled, right? You are held in “tension”, looking at that line. Kinetic energy suggests that this image is not at rest. When artists talk about a visual composition being in “balance”, this is what they mean. All elements in a composition must somehow feel complete and finished, i.e. balanced.

The same thing happens in a spreadsheet. If the elements on the page are somehow not balanced, there will be an underlying tension in the spreadsheet that a reader will sense (even if they are not consciously aware of it).

Why is this important? If your goal with the spreadsheet is to communicate something, then it would be wise to think about whether your spreadsheet is balanced or not. Otherwise, whatever you’re communicating will lose its impact because your audience will feel uneasy about what they are looking at (and they will not know why). They might then have to analyze what’s on the page (and not listen to you), they might then get confused, then ask you questions. It’s a snowball effect. You will then have to work harder to get back on message.

Use The Thumbnail Test for Spreadsheets

One way to check whether the spreadsheet is in balance is to do a thumbnail test. Do a print preview of your spreadsheet. Make the print preview of your spreadsheet smalläóîslightly bigger than a postage stamp.

What attracts your attention? Does your eye go to a particular section (top left, top right, bottom left, bottom right) or does it invite your viewer to roam all over the page? This is a good test on whether a spreadsheet is balanced. If your spreadsheet allows your eye to roam.

Color Attracts Attention

And it’s for this reason I don’t recommend using very strong colors or even any color in a spreadsheet. Color will always attract the greatest attention. What does strong mean? It means very saturated colors depending on how big the item is on the page. Keep color in your back-pocket and don’t use it–just because I want to make my spreadsheet interesting. We’ll talk about color in the next blog post.

Try the ideas above in your next spreadsheet, and see how it goes. What you should end up with is a spreadsheet that has visual hierarchy built into it. It’s clean and professional looking, ready for presentation.

Also, don’t forget to put a title on it.

Struggling To Define Your Goals? Try Your Unconscious

Stop Using Color In Your Spreadsheets

What Picasso Can Teach Us About Spreadsheets
Let Your Spreadsheet Speak, Without Speaking
Stop Using Color In Your Spreadsheets

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