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 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 supercomplex. 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).