Beyond Google Spreadsheets

Making your collections more visual and useful

You’re reading the Wonder Tools newsletter. Each post features a tip to help make your remote work a little more enjoyable, efficient and creative. I’m Jeremy Caplan, a journalist, director of teaching & learning at the Newmark J-School, and a lover of tools. If you’re not yet signed up:

Welcome to new readers! Thanks for your awesome emails after my recent guest post in Poynter’s Try This newsletter. Here’s my new table of 21 fave free tools for you as a welcome 🎁 resource! Now on to my newest love affair — Airtable.

My spreadsheets needed a makeover.

Words and numbers spilled out from their cells. My Google sheets page felt like a collection of overstuffed closets.  

Then I fell in love with Airtable. It became fun to make visual tables. Now I relish the orderly structure of the little fillable boxes. 

Google Spreadsheets has great features for number-crunching and collaborative editing. But Airtable is a more elegant visual design tool that’s part spreadsheet and part database. It’s also a neat alternative to complex project management software.

If reading about spreadsheets seems like dancing about architecture,* check out these examples to see 👀 what I’m talking about.  

Here are some Airtables I've made recently. 

For ideas for your own projects, check out the Airtable Universe. It’s a curated home for free templates and databases you can re-use. Like a great list of well-written emails in various categories: Welcome emails, Updates, etc. Or poke through 2000 great quotes organized and categorized by the Product Hunt team.

You can remix templates to make your own podcast episode planner, product roadmap, social media calendar, project management tool, wedding planning, or to manage your contacts or tasks. Or just about anything else. 

Airtable Business Development exec David Peterson used it to elegantly organize nearly 2,500 TED Talks, 200 books recommended by guests on Tim Ferriss’ podcast, the most popular Medium posts ever, and 300 of the best free online courses

In addition to leisure templates, there are professional ones — like these journalism and media-related databases and templates.  

Here’s a short video illustrating how you could use Airtable to organize a complex project. 

View Information Visually

The thing that's special about Airtable isn't just that you can create this kind of visual collection of information. You could do some of that with Google sheets or Excel. Or Trello.

What’s unique about Airtable is the grace with which it lets you easily organize and view your information from multiple perspectives, with large images or video previews built-in. Without having to use complex pivot tables or fancy formulas. 

This trip-tracking template, for instance, lets you add a map illustrating where you've traveled.

You can sort out a book collection, or a recipe assortment, or a YouTube collection by category. Here’s the key: when you publish them, depending on how you set them up, they don’t have to look like spreadsheets. That’s a good thing. You can view collections as a gallery of images rather than a grid of drab spreadsheet text. 

Each sort can have its own separate view filtering out everything else, so you don’t have to scour through thousands of cells to find the ones of interest. 

Another unique aspect of Airtable are the little superpowers you can add to tables. These "blocks” each do something special. One lets you design neat PDFs out of your table’s info. Another lets you show videos within your spreadsheet. 

Clip Efficiently from the Web

My favorite block lets me grab info from the Web directly into a table. This web clipper ends up being a super efficient way of gathering and organizing Web research. 

Here’s a specific example. When I stumble across a YouTube video of interest — either for work or leisure— I click the Airtable Web clipper extension in Chrome. The clipper automatically grabs the video title, description, duration, URL, and cover image and drops all of that info neatly into my table. 

Here’s a quick screencast that shows how I clip something to the table.

One nice thing about the YouTube table I showed in the little screencast above 👆 is that you can view the videos right within the table. And when I want to find something, it’s easy to sift through the videos by category, title, cover image, duration etc. I also use the Web clipper to clip fantastic design examples onto a separate inspiration board I use when designing something new.

How Journalism Organizations Use Airtable 

Rebekah Monson, Co-founder and COO of WhereBy.Us, a growing new media brand that has built five local news orgs, told me that WhereBy uses Airtable for almost all of its workflow, from content planning to user research and developing new products.

The European Journalism Accelerator uses Airtable for its Engaged Journalism in Europe Database and its new directory of 30 cool journalism engagement experiments.

The Local Independent Online News publishers network (LION) uses Airtable to showcase its incredible network of expert consultants, explained here.  

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Final Thoughts

Airtable’s not the only way to spice up info collections. I use a Pinterest board for teaching games I like, for example. And in a future post I’ll share why I also adore Coda and Notion — two other super-useful tools. Both let you blend tables with text and images into publishable pages. Each has its own style and utility.

Airtable is free for as many tables as you want, with up to 1,200 records in each. The Pro plan that includes the superpower blocks feature is $20/month or $12 for educators or nonprofits. It’s all free for students

Back in my pre-Airtable days, I didn't think strings of boxes could be sexy, but I’ve changed my mind. Visual tables can make otherwise drab info appealing.

Thanks for reading. Let me know if you have a use-case for Airtable, or if you’ve got a question or comment. Or pass this along to someone who might find it interesting.