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Dashboards Before Excel:
Mini-Graph Reports in 1-2-3
Spreadsheet dashboard reports have been used for much longer
than you might think. Here's an example from the early days of
by Charley Kyd
While unpacking from a move the other day, I flipped through a copy of my first book,
Financial Modeling Using Lotus 1-2-3. Published by Sybex McGraw-Hill in 1986, it
explained how to create reports and analyses I had developed in 1984 and 1985 while working as a
Here's the report that I had the most fun with:
I called this report a Mini Graph Management Report. Today, we would call it a dashboard
The report created its graphs with characters. Using Excel terminology, each line of each
chart used the REPLACE, REPT, and LEFT functions to generate those characters.
This work was necessary because that was the only way back then to create one report with
many small charts. Yes, Lotus did have a rudimentary charting system.
But 1-2-3, like Excel in its early days, offered no way to print more than one "real" chart
Even though this report is nearly 25 years old, it contains several elements that I still
use in my dashboards today, as this close-up illustrates:
Each figure in the example above begins with a single-character title -- here, M, N, and O -- to make it easy to
refer to a figure during conversation. In meetings, I found it much easier to say, "Look
at figure O", rather than "Look at the number of employees. It's the third figure from
the left in the bottom row."
These days, I tend to use numbers rather than labels, but either method works.
Figure M above uses "Gray" as we would use yellow in a traffic light display today. Back
then, "Black" would correspond to red in a traffic light display, and "White"
would correspond to green. Today in Excel we can create a similar
effect with colored bars in a bar or column chart.
Character charts offer one advantage over standard Excel charts: Rows of data in tables can be synchronized
easily with lines in charts. To illustrate, take a look at this Accounts Payable Management Analysis from the
Here, each row of the tables at the left side of the page lines up exactly with the chart
information to the right. Today, in native Excel, this isn't easy to do. Off the top of my
head, the only other way that I can think of to do something similar is to use
These days, with the growing popularity of dashboards, I've occasionally wondered what
"firsts" I can claim with regard to spreadsheet dashboard reports.
I'm sure that my Lotus mini-graph reports were the first dashboard reports ever created
for spreadsheets. And because there was very little management software available back then,
they probably were the first dashboard reports created for personal computers.
To put this thought in its proper perspective, that distinction plus $1.95 might buy me a
cup of coffee today.
In a future article I'll show you samples of the Excel dashboard reports I first created
in 1991 and 1992. I'll write the article just as soon as I find those reports, as I continue
to unpack from my move.
Finally, if you'd like to experiment with reports like this in Excel today,
drop me a note. If there seems to be enough interest, I'll create
Excel versions of these figures.