For Designers: How to harness the power of Excel

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Like maths, getting the most out of Excel can be quite difficult.  It needs applied examples and better communication from knowledgeable people.  When you’re designing knitwear, it can be frustrating to keep hearing about why it’s so good when you can’t find a way in, or can’t find your way around once you’re in.  Here’s how I got started – and if you need a way in, I hope it inspires you!

Disease: I used to REALLY dislike Excel (shocker, I know!)

Once upon a time, I was a knitter terrified of spreadsheets.  I was also fed up of hearing about how magical they were.  If I had a penny for everyone who’d said, “You’d be amazed at what Excel can do!”, I could’ve gone on a cruise…and told them what they could do in return.

It wasn’t the depth of the software that bothered me.  Adobe Photoshop is quite hefty, and that doesn’t bother me at all.  No, it was the idea of an oversized calculator with miserable grey squares that did it.  No visuals, no excuse to draw charts, and the colour scheme of a thunderstorm. As someone who loves squared paper, this was quite something.  Ink and paper squares: YES.  Excel squares on the computer: NO.

Nothing convinced me.  Connections between knitting and code, and Excel being handy for code-based stuff didn’t cut it.  I was stubborn and didn’t want to use ugly software.  “Fill us!  Fill us!” taunted the little grey squares.  If they’d been a soft yellow or peach, I might’ve obliged.  Maybe.

Years later, something dawned on me.  My problem with Excel was a type of blank page syndrome.

Split screen of an Excel spreadsheet and hand written notes.  The information is the same, but presented differently for the same knitwear design.

Diagnosis: Blank spreadsheet syndrome

Normally, blank page syndrome is linked to the nervousness or excitement you feel when opening a new diary, journal, notebook, or sketchbook.  What am I supposed to do here?  For diaries and journals, there are sometimes templates inviting you to fill in the blanks.  Manuscript paper has blank staves, anticipating the clef, key signature and time.  Bullet journals are even more organic: you can adapt existing spreads or create your own.

But here’s the key: The more blank and overwhelming the page – or the more formless the layout – the greater the power of the document…and the clearer your intentions must be.

– What do you need?

– What are you trying to do?  Is there a process, or part of one?

– What are your goals?

Treatment: Be as intentional as possible

Because Excel is built to be of service, and rammed with nearly every mathematical function in existence, intention is vital.  This is why the blank page of Excel isn’t quite like the blank page of a writing pad or sketchbook.  For those, you make notes, bullet points, or marks on the page, warming yourself up until the ideas flow freely.  You don’t have to have a clue to get going, but you can doodle until you do. 

That physical connection is often missing with Excel.

My way around this obstacle was to pretend that Excel is a dog.  Not just any dog; maybe a labrador, retriever or a cross between those breeds.  Dogs, for all their friendliness and helpfulness, need to be trained.  You can train a dog to do anything; like Excel, it’s amazing what dogs can learn to do.  (Ever tried to train a cat?!)  But first, you need to know exactly what you need them to do.  Once you have even a vague idea, huge lists like this are a lot less intimidating! 

Prescription: Three practical action steps

Try describing what you need the numbers to do. Do you need to round things up? The MROUND family is your friend. Do you need to set a pattern repeat? MOD and QUOTIENT might be what you’re looking for.

Draw things out longhand or on paper first. This can be amazing for clarifying what’s going on inside your head. FAR too much emphasis is put on being able to calculate things mentally. If it were that easy, abacuses wouldn’t have been one of humankind’s earliest inventions!

Our hands are a gift, so it makes sense to use them as much as possible. Besides, seeing things laid on on paper or in a more visual format means that you can observe patterns. The end product – a knitted garment – is highly visual and tactile, so it makes sense for you to use maths in the same way. It’s not basic or elementary at all, so please don’t give yourself a hard time.

Talk to other people – especially your tech editor, if you’re publishing a pattern. Tech editors can – and should – do SO MUCH MORE than check your numeracy skills or style sheet! Don’t forget that they’re on the design team, too. Share as much information as possible about how your brain works if you’re struggling to explain something, interpret an idea, or work something out.

Never underestimate how powerful the light from a fresh pair of eyes can be. Don’t forget that you’re a designer. That is, it’s your job to create something new, something out of nothing. In practice, that means that the design process involves uncharted (excuse the pun) territory. It’s normal to feel a bit lost if you’re trying to do or say something you’ve never said or done before, so elaborate as much as you can.

Hand drawn grading for a sleevehead, representing a drawing of a knitwear design that could be reinterpreted as an Excel spreadsheet.

It’s good to talk

The tie that binds these three action steps is communication. Maths – and anything in numerical form – represents a relationship of some kind. The artistic composition of your design is another kind of relationship; a visual one. And because there are so many ways to establish relationships, we have software like Excel. Don’t be intimidated by the depth of Excel. Remember, it’s a dog awaiting your command. Once you’re sure of what you want it to do, call it – it’ll be there.

Today’s post is an adaptation from an old edition of Between the Seams, my newsletter for knitwear designers. You can get more stuff like this in your inbox by signing up here.

For Designers: How to harness the power of Excel

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Natalie in Stitches

I design size inclusive knitting patterns for clothes makers who want their garments to fit well. Clothes should serve you, not the other way around. You alter clothes to fit you, not alter yourself to fit the clothes. I also teach people how to sew, how to design knitwear, and am currently creating a comprehensive, year-long knitwear design course, covering everything from illustration to pattern grading. If you're enjoying my content, you can get more by following me on Instagram or Pinterest @natalieinstitches, or signing up to my newsletter. Thank you for reading!

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