Spreadsheets (Excel, Google sheets and the like) get a bad rap – a statement which that may seem out of place in a blog about why you should not use spreadsheets – but it’s the truth. We all adore our spreadsheets and use them daily, with good reason too. They are easy to use, accessible across the organization, and super flexible – what’s not to love? I for one dread to think about the loss of productivity to my work day if without this simple-yet-powerful tool.
Excel and Google Sheets are great when used for the right task. If you want to build a rudimentary budget for your business or are making a quick list of contacts for your next sales roadshow spreadsheets excel! However, building a project specification for your designs studio’s next interior design project in spreadsheets is challenging.
What is a Product Specification? (Skip this part if you are familiar with the terminology)
You’ve worked with your client and finalized the theme of your project. Your mood board is sorted and the time has come to put in a detailed definition of what needs to happen to fit out the space. That document is a project specification, also known as a spec, and it is usually composed of these sections:
- Cover page: Your company logo, information about the project and client, reference numbers and important dates
- Index: Table of contents
- Legends: Grouped summary sheets e.g. Items in a specific room,
- Multiple Schedules. Lists that could be of physical locations, products and/or finishes.
- Data/tear sheets or a cut sheets sheet: The details of a product – a name, brand, quantity, dimensions and finishes
- Contact lists: Key stakeholders on the project and contact information products and service providers
- Instructions: How to read the spec, next steps or who to contact with questions
- Standards and Attachments: Additional documentation for each product
As you can tell, there is a boatload of items to put together to bring out a professional spec. With competition and the near commoditization of interior design, it is more apparent than ever that design studios need strong technology tools to get specs assembled quickly and ideally painlessly.
One would imagine that this should be simple enough especially with tech getting better and cheaper every day. Yet it is tragic that so many firms, even the large ones continue to stay in the technology dark ages. The sad truth remains, that the world of ID Specification is dreadfully outdated.
We ran a survey with different design firms to understand why they use spreadsheets for specifications. Our findings are below. While spreadsheets are a useful way to start – they are clearly not a good option for most projects.
The Most Popular yet Most Wrong Choice for interior design specs: Excel, Google Sheets and all other spreadsheets
- Familiarity: If you have used a computer chances are you have used spreadsheets. There is no learning curve for you or a member of your team to overcome.
- Flexibility: Totaling quantities and summing up amounts – check; Copy-Pasting from your old specs – check; Quickly adding in new records – check;
- Accessibility: Most spreadsheets are accessible online and shareable, by your whole team and in real time.
- Templates: A quick google search should help you find many (surely too many) templates for you to fire up in for your next spec.
- Error-Prone: While spreadsheets are powerful and easy to use, they also lends itself to easily making errors – expensive errors. Imagine you have hundreds of items in a sheet, with quantities and multiple currencies for each. As you work through checking each item, you get through a third of the list and you’re probably already drained with looking at all that data in a small font. Suffice to say, it’s is really easy to add a zero or two where there shouldn’t be any. The lack of any in-built checks and balances is like walking through a minefield blindfolded.
- Collaboration – Yes, Cooperation – No: While you can collaborate on most cloud based spreadsheets, with no in-built checks and balances the quality of the collaboration become questionable. It’s not easy to incorporate a workflow such as internal approvals before something gets sent out to a client. Even if you manage, how do you hide the internal workings of your organization from the final output that is shared? It’s even more complex when everyone has their own “Final Final” update of a sheet! Come time to review you need to first figure out which is the most current and accurate version.
- Image Manipulation is a nightmare: Working with images in a tool meant to crunch numbers is as frustrating as trying to herd cats. Best of luck to you if you want to position a photo of that bedside table alongside the cell with its description and quantity. And when you finally have it in place, your client comes back with a preference of having it in the walnut finish instead – swapping images out is no easy feat.
- Changes: While we are on the topic of changes, revising anything in a spreadsheet is laborious. Having to specify a new fabric for a set of items, means each item will need to be updated separately. Although ‘Find & Replace’ exists, it’s speed gives you a false sense of accomplishment that everything is done right. You will need to recheck every instance to ensure that you have not made a mistake.
- Data Accuracy and Conformity: Inches, feet, centimeters, millimeters – all of these exist in bliss in spreadsheets and when time comes to use them in a calculation, its easy to create a mess. Designers have to be especially wary when plugging in dimensions and account for unit conversions in their calculations.
- Lost product intelligence: If you want to look up a chair in that hotel you completed last year prepare yourself to search through a crazy folder structure (that made sense at the time). Every new product you create in a spreadsheet exists independently and even though designers specify tried and tested products over 50% of the time, you will need to enter everything from scratch for each instance.
- Security: While excel has some security features (password protection and read only permissions), you can’t really effectively shave down access rights to specific bits of information (e.g. pricing). To do it effectively you will need to maintain different versions of a single sheet which is time consuming and laborious to manage. If you need someone to make changes on your spreadsheet you will need to email it across. Once it has left your computer you have relinquished control of who has access to it. With the increasing occurrence of data leaks these shares have the potential to be dangerous for your company.
TL;DR – The bottom line
Tried and trusted Excel and Google Spreadsheets can work for mini projects for the most part and long as you don’t have to make many changes or get too creative with images.
If you need something for larger jobs or when working with a team, spreadsheets are not the right tool for the job.
There are a plethora of tools like the multi purpose Monday.com or enterprise offerings like Newforma that can work. We built .STUDIO to bring the best of all these tools into a single, easy to use, powerful offering. It has the simplicity of Excel without all the misgivings.