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Gridlines Are Not Always Necessary

One of the most defining and noticeable characteristics of any spreadsheet is those thin gray lines that we call gridlines. This simple feature of spreadsheets is what practically defines what we know as cells (those boxes that all of the information goes into).

Despite the perceived importance of gridlines to spreadsheets, I plan to make and support the bold statement that gridlines are not always necessary.

The Positive Side of Gridlines

Before I move into my discussion about why gridlines are not always necessary, I think it’s important to point out many of the things that gridlines are useful for.

For one, gridlines add structure to a bare spreadsheet which is often what you want at the beginning. Gridlines make it easy to separate and organize your thoughts into cells.

The second thing that gridlines are good for is the gradual design of your final spreadsheet.

Gridlines add a sense of volume to a spreadsheet and can act as guides for placement, separation, and alignment. They can be a useful tool when you are working on building something powerful.

Finally, gridlines are useful as a stencil to draw and paint a digital masterpiece.

It’s a great idea to have the gridlines visible when putting together and building different spreadsheet components. Once again, the gridlines offer a solid structure that can be used for the composition of greater things.

Blank Spreadsheet With Gridlines

The Negative Side of Gridlines

On the flip side of the coin, we come to see that there are disadvantages that gridlines pose to our final and completed spreadsheet.

What do I mean by this? I mean that once the spreadsheet is built and ready to be used for whatever purpose it was designed for, you don’t need the gridlines any longer.

In most cases, they just get in the way. In fact, I would say that gridlines take away from your final spreadsheet in three main ways.

No. 1 – An Unprofessional Look

This point is much easier to make with pictures rather than with words. Take a look at the two spreadsheets below and tell me which one has a more professional appearance.

Info Page - Gridlines Visible

Info Page - Gridlines Hidden

Although I am sure that “a professional look” is certainly a matter of opinion, I would guess that most would claim the first image has a much more “professional look” compared to the second.

What’s more, the only difference between the two is that the first image hides the gridlines and the second one does not.

No. 2 – Extra Clutter

Whether you are looking at a screen or sheet of paper, too much ink can get in the way of both your attention and your focus.

When you take a look at the two photos below, is it easier to find the 4 input boxes with the gridlines visible or hidden?

Spreadsheet Input - Gridlines Visible

Spreadsheet Input - Gridlines Hidden

If there are random lines scattered all over the place, finding the input boxes can be very difficult because there are too many boxes to pick from.

But if you get all of the unnecessary digital ink out of the way, you can focus on the four boxes that really matter. With less clutter lying around, it is much easier to find what you are looking for in the first place.

No. 3 – Unnecessary Confusion

When trying to understand something or when trying to figure out how something works, is it easier when there is more or when there is less?

I suppose the correct answer is “it depends,” but probably more often than not, a shorter paragraph that communicates the same thing as a longer one is usually much better.

This same concept applies to spreadsheets.

If you have a spreadsheet cluttered with gridlines, instructions, arrows and pictures, it can take a while to figure out exactly what to do.

But if you take away the gridlines, there is less for your brain to process, and finding the right path is much easier. Check out the two photos below to see what I mean.

Complex Spreadsheet - Gridlines Visible

Complex Spreadsheet - Gridlines Hidden

The Point of the Post

When it comes down to it, there is a time and place for gridlines on a spreadsheet. The point is simply that gridlines don’t have to be shown “all the time” or “on every sheet.”

Gridlines are a wonderful fundamental building block of spreadsheets, and they should almost always be used when you are putting together your master workbook.

However, once you’ve got your spreadsheet ready for action, turn the gridlines off and let your masterful design do what it was designed to do.

Give gridlines their time of day, and then move on to cleaner and better ways. Gridlines are certainly useful, but they are not always necessary.

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