Word Processor, Spreadsheet, or Page Layout?

Using the right tool for the job is a good start to creating a better product in less time and with fewer frustrations. This concept is broadly applicable, but I want to look at a specific set of software tools commonly used in offices on a daily basis, and I want to lay out some simple guidelines for choosing which tool to use for a given project.

I want to do this because I’ve seen countless examples of projects created with the wrong tool. By “wrong tool” I mean they have been created using a tool that limits the function or aesthetic of the final product, and most likely increased the work and frustration of getting the job done.

Word processors, spreadsheets, and page layout programs are the three types of software tools we’re going to investigate. Sometimes the choice of which tool to use is obvious, but sometimes there’s a mixture of content or a need for design that makes the solution less clear. OK, let’s get into this.

Word Processors

Programs like Microsoft Word and Apple’s Pages are the most obvious and common examples of word processors. These tools are, indeed, capable of creating tables (similar to a spreadsheet), and laying out items on a page (like a page layout tool), but they are primarily designed to format text in relatively simple ways.

Word processors are largely a default go-to program for people who work in an office. That’s not entirely unwarranted either, since we often are writing a memo, report, summary, quick list of items, or something else that is basically just text on a page. But sometimes that default mode can get us into trouble. If you’re using data of almost any kind, a spreadsheet is almost certainly the way to go instead. Projects like a flyer or brochure, on the other hand, will almost always benefit from using a page layout program.

If you’re creating a text-dominant document with basic layout needs, the word processor has your back. If you’re going to be dealing with data, or you’re looking for finer-tuned layout options, consider using a spreadsheet, page layout program, or both.

Use a word processor if:
  • You just need text on a page without fancy formatting or layout
  • You need a simple table to present information (no updates, calculations, etc. to the data)
  • You’re focused on writing copy for now (ex. a magazine article that will later be laid out in a page layout program)


“That’s the grid program, right?” I believe part of the reason spreadsheet tools are sometimes misused is because they are misunderstood. It is true that spreadsheets are constructed as a grid of cells. But the primary purpose of a spreadsheet is not the grid layout; it’s the processing of the data in the cells.

Spreadsheets are interactive, dynamic, math and logic calculators, and they’re capable of handling massive amounts of information. If you’re dealing with data of some kind, a spreadsheet will probably treat you best. I heard a great example just the other day in which a person used a word processor to create a list of names and correlating contact information. That’s data, so a spreadsheet would organize and process that data in more user-friendly and functional ways.

On the other hand, layout options are limited in spreadsheets (but they can still be cool!), and they don’t work well for copy (paragraphs of text). Consider becoming comfortable with the workflow of creating spreadsheets and then inserting those spreadsheets (or charts from the spreadsheets) into other word processor or page layout documents.

Use a spreadsheet if:
  • You are collecting or organizing data
  • You need calculations or other interactivity
  • You’re making a list with mixed information (ex. name + email + phone)

Page Layout

This might seem like the odd one out because it’s less common than the other two. Microsoft Publisher may be the most familiar among non-professionals, but there are quite a few options out there. These programs excel at handling mixed content and providing flexible layout tools for designing many different kinds of documents.

Think of page layout tools as the presentation of food at a restaurant. Each of the food items are prepared separately using various tools, and then it’s presented on a new plate. Page layout tools are designed to take pre-created content and deliver the final presentation. Many page layout programs offer tools for basic design as well, but what they do best is offer flexible and powerful options for laying out and formatting content.

Once you’re comfortable with a page layout program, it can be tempting to use it for everything, because they’re so flexible. However, if you don’t need specific layout or formatting features using a page layout program will likely slow you down.

Use a page layout program if:
  • Your document has a lot of mixed content (pictures, charts, text, diagrams, etc.)
  • You need fine controls for formatting and layout

“I don’t have time to learn all these tools.”

I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard this. Look, we’re all busy, have lots of work to do, and so on. There are two factors in the balance here: quality and productivity. Using incorrect tools will make you more frustrated, take longer (than it would if you knew how to use the correct tool), and will diminish the quality of the final product. It may seem like you don’t have the time to learn a new tool, but please trust me; it will pay off.

I’m not known for being compassionate, especially when it comes to investing in our work. If these are tools you use (or should be using) on a daily or weekly basis, it’s time to buck up and learn them. You don’t need to become a master user; but you should feel comfortable using your tools. Figure out what helps you learn new software, like youtube videos, written tutorials, help documents, structured online video courses, one-on-one tutoring, or self-exploration, and start getting after it. Once you start using the right tools for different jobs, you’ll cringe at the thought of doing otherwise.

Do you use any other methods of deciding which program to use for a project? Tell me about it in the comments!

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