Are there notable attempts to redesign the spreadsheet, as a number-heavy GUI which requires hours of painful concentration?

As of today, the mainstream spreadsheet applications still use the same basic screen design as in 1980s: a large collection of small uniform cells, some of which have data. Excel indeed allows resizing the columns and building different fonts, but basically it is still the same. Hundreds of millions of office workers worldwide have to stare into ugly uniform screens for hours, trying to find what they need.

I suppose most take it for granted, but I wonder if anyone recently tried redesigning the entire paradigm.

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    I don't understand this at all.
    – Scott
    Apr 18, 2014 at 2:09
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    Here's a link to an article about an app, Grid, that attempted this in 2012. I've not heard of others though I heard the latest version of excel has had quite a makeover for touchscreens. Finally, it's an older "basic design" than the 1980s - here's a spreadsheet in Luxor Temple, Egypt! And Sumarians, too Apr 18, 2014 at 12:18
  • Much clearer with the edit.
    – Scott
    Apr 18, 2014 at 16:30
  • @user568458: perfect, this is what I'm talking about. Apr 20, 2014 at 0:00
  • @user568458: why not add an answer instead of the comment? Bonus for the stone spreadsheets. I wonder if the Egyptian one is real, it's way too clean and modern. Apr 20, 2014 at 0:27

3 Answers 3


Look back at the history of spreadsheets. This has been addressed in the past:

  • Javelin
  • Lotus Improv (v1 was for NeXTstep, v2 for Windows) --- review here: http://simson.net/clips/1991/1991.NW.Improv.html
  • Flexisheet (this is moribund, but opensource)
  • Quantrix Financial Modeller (still available --- be sure to check the price tag)

Basically, the improvement which is needed (and was implemented) is to force the naming of every row, table and ultimately cell, and allow a dynamic re-arranging.

  • There. This is what I'm talking about. Can't say I'm hugely impressed with them, since they don't seem to address the main issues, instead cramming in more information. But it's great that they are thinking about it. Thanks a lot. Apr 20, 2014 at 0:15
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    @VadimBerman The thing is Excel is horribly misused and nearly always the wrong tool for the job. Its not the only paradigm in the room but mostly used one. Use of Excel has caused a few multi billion dollar failures. BUt even so even Exel supports fixed naming for rows and columns most user dont know this tough. Basically the rule of thumb is if your using a spreadsheet your doing something wrong, or compensating for lack of other tools.
    – joojaa
    Apr 20, 2014 at 6:34
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    Referring to row, columns and cells by their location allows one to get a formula wrong (how does one determine the difference between SUM(d2:d7) and SUM(e2:e7)?). Requiring that every row, column and cell is referred to by a textual label means that one is SUM(expenses) while the other is SUM(profit).
    – WillAdams
    Apr 21, 2014 at 14:16
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    Why would I need a database to just calculate a simple profit and loss sheet? Why shouldn't such a sheet have a straight-forward way to refer to things in a sensible and reliable fashion --- please read the early reviews of Improv, or the article on its creation: simson.net/clips/1991/1991.NW.Improv.html
    – WillAdams
    Apr 23, 2014 at 19:29
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    See the above about finding what one needs and understanding formulas and avoiding errors.
    – WillAdams
    Apr 24, 2014 at 15:52

Spreadsheets are all 'basically the same' because it's a pretty basic construct. It's a table of numbers. A spreadsheet is a data tool. First and foremost, it's designed for data input and manipulation. It's been essentially the same since the beginning of GUIs--and even before that if you look at ledger books.

That's not to say people haven't likely rethought it at different times, but in the end, people that use spreadsheets simply need a spreadsheet. It's a pretty basic tool in that sense.

What has changed, is how we interact with them, however. Apple's Numbers app incorporates touch into the experience:


  • Thanks, @DA01. Even if "it is a basic construct", this does not mean it can't be improved. Also, with hundreds of functions, interdependency, hidden columns, embedded charts it's hardly a "basic tool". Apr 20, 2014 at 0:05
  • Anything can be improved, but consider that the spreadsheet has been around for decades and decades. It's a 'basic tool' in the sense that it's designed to do one thing very well. Akin to a Word Processor--another 'basic tool' that, while has a plethora of functions now, is still essentially the same UI it was 3 decades ago.
    – DA01
    Apr 20, 2014 at 6:18
  • A great example, @DA01. Word Processor today is not the same UI as it was 3 decades ago. The only similarity is the rectangle and the text in it. However, today we have: - several windows which may share content - grammar and spell checkers with visual indication - no more rulers And more. Yet the word processor is not broken: it is generally easy to use and does not look like a bazaar of content where every bit is screaming at you. The spreadsheet, on the other hand... Apr 21, 2014 at 3:00
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    I think that's entirely a matter of opinion. A valid opinion, but just an opinion.
    – DA01
    Apr 21, 2014 at 3:34
  • Of course. Opinions can be backed by aggregate user experiences though, and this is why there are such things as "good design" and "bad design". Apr 21, 2014 at 3:35

...by the definition of what spreadsheet is it can't be rethought. Spreadsheet is a tool for inserting data into tables. The closest thing to an alternative would be databases particularly on the front end so office workers are no longer visually seeing a table even though thats exactly what it is.

In fact a buddy of mine started as a spreadsheet programmer for Lockheed Martin. From there as databases developed he naturally progressed into that role. The progression you're looking for in spreadsheets are databases and the most recent change could be looked at as NoSQL or JSON on the back end.

On the front end for office workers to not be "bored" there's a steady supply of ways to interact with the data on custom applications. Even cash registers these days are essentially databases with a custom user interface.

  • Sorry, but "can't be rethought" is a horrible answer for a designer. Everything can be rethought. A quill, even a piece of paper. No, spreadsheet is not "a tool for inserting data into tables". It is a tool to manage data - which does not necessarily have to be in tables. Here's an idea: how about putting this data in graphs with nodes, when required? Or maybe help the user create aggregate entities? Apr 20, 2014 at 0:09
  • Anything can be rethought, but not every rethinking produces something better. And ryan is correct, a spreadsheet is a table of data. As for graphs and nodes and such, that's all great, but that's a visualization feature on top of the table of data.
    – DA01
    Apr 20, 2014 at 6:20
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    @VadimBerman Merriam Webster's defines Spreadsheet as "a computer program that calculates numbers and organizes information in columns and rows" --- you can rethink ways to manage data which I said... in databases and other tools. But you can't rethink a spreadsheet because it is by definition a series of rows and columns. If you use graphs and nodes then it is not a spreadsheet.
    – Ryan
    Apr 20, 2014 at 18:54
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    @VadimBerman to your comment directly after mine "so you're saying that..." yes. Just as you cannot say a square doesn't always fit, sometimes you need a circular node. That's all well and good but it doesn't change that the original object was a square and the second object is not a square (its a circle). Even if they carry the same function for your particular use.
    – Ryan
    Apr 21, 2014 at 11:51
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    @VadimBerman if your beef with the spreadsheet is that the functionality hasn't evolved, that may be a valid beef to have, but that's not really a graphic design question. I think you're wanting the concept of the spreadsheet to have evolved into something bigger and better. I think it has...it's just that we don't call those evolutions 'spreadsheets' anymore. If one has 30,000 rows in a spreadsheet, they need to 'evolve' their thinking of how useful a spreadsheet is for that and consider one of the many database concepts out there.
    – DA01
    Apr 23, 2014 at 18:43

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