Your Math Teacher Was Right After All!

Story, by Debra Devine
Three Reasons Why Graphic Designers
Need to Learn Spreadsheet Software

Back in school when many of us endured math as an unfair cruelty, our teachers warned that we would need this subject later in life. Well, right-brain thinkers, it’s time to rejoice! There is a magnificent loophole to substantially lessen our fear of math forever!

Early in life, it became apparent to me I would never excel at math. So, obviously, I went to art school and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in graphic design. A few months after graduation, I began my career as a junior graphic designer. Everything was great, until, the day I was told my job included calculating the advertising percentage for our weekly newspaper, and that meant math. Oh, the horror! However, I wasn’t the only one suffering. Time after time, I would e-mail the ad percentage to our printer rep, and she would respond very politely and ask me to check the math because the calculation didn’t look right. This went on for some time, until I discovered a magical program that would perform math for me. I bought a copy of Maria Langer’s “Microsoft Excel for Macintosh 2001” and learned how to create formulas — and I’ve never manually calculated another ad percentage since then.

These are the basics that you, the designer, should learn to do in a spreadsheet program:

  1. Avoid mathematical mistakes
    If you learn a few simple formulas you can successfully avoid manual calculations forever. Here’s a website that will help you get started: an introduction to Excel's formula and functions and here’s a handy reference guide by Custom Guide.

  2. Build data tables
    If you use a spreadsheet program to set up your information and then import the data into layout software, it’s much easier to sort data and add columns. Here is a link to show you how easy this can be at

    For years, I spent time copying and pasting data from one place to another when I easily could have cleaned up a spreadsheet, sorted data with the click of a button, made calculations and then imported all of that information into a design program.

  3. Make your colleagues work for you
    Many people you work with already use Microsoft programs and are familiar with spreadsheets. If you receive data regularly from non-designers, teach them how to set up their data so the information can be imported easily into your design programs.

    I deal with a table in a weekly newspaper that always required a lot of cleaning up. I got tired of doing it over and over, so one day when the data were submitted, I cleaned up the spreadsheet. Then I sent it back to the person who submitted it and requested that he make this the new template. Since then, the table has been coming in clean, with no extra cells, no text overflow and my work takes less time to do.

If you learn these three skills, I promise you an instant reduction in production time and mathematical errors —and more time for design.