One interesting thing about art is that it suggests ideas that are not on the piece itself. That’s how abstract art works. It all comes down to associations.
Take Mark Rothko’s paintings for example, my favorite abstract art. His monumental rectangle paintings breathe with mysterious color. The first time I saw one of his paintings in real life, I teared up standing in front of it. His work is all about making associations. And for me, Rothko’s work is all about infinity.
But back to spreadsheet. We won’t be tearing up looking at spreadsheets, but what we can do is start utilizing the idea of associations.
Making Associations in A Spreadsheet
You make associations on a spreadsheet by grouping elements side by side, by presenting them together. You will then be saying there is a relationship between these two things. That’s why diptychs, like what I posted above, work in art.
This technique of grouping is really about the art principle of proximity, (which we’ve talked about previously). Things that are closer together are taken to be together. This is the strongest and most effective way to create an association. Put them side by side, and separate them from other elements with spacing (also known as negative space).
You can also make an association by taking two things and highlighting them in some way. For example, you can enclose aspects of items with the same form, like a circle or a square. Then you would be signaling that there is a relationship between them that is important. This is the art principle of similarity at work.
But what if you can’t do this? What if they are too far apart on the spreadsheet page and you can’t show them side by side for other reasons? Then link them some other way.
You can make them the same color - signaling that they are semantically the same at some level, which you can then explain.
Or you could draw lines between certain things, which is a form of enclosure. (I don’t normally do this approach because I find that it’s too distracting—to the detriment of everything else on the spreadsheet page.)
Trust Your Intuition
The key to making associations is to always think about implied meaning that comes out, using the art principles we’ve been talking about: proximity, enclosure, and similarity.
If by default you think of an association, then don’t fight that meaning. Most likely, other people will think the same way. If it’s not the meaning you want to imply or send (i.e. the spreadsheet will be implying something that is misleading), then change your association. Trust your intuition. There are many ways of presenting data and information, choose one that is clear to you, without thinking too much about it.
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