The world of the printed annual report is a strange place. It is so dwarfed by the world of the novel that few people notice it. But it is unique and certainly exotic enough to warrant a visit – especially from a designer’s perspective.
Practicalities. First to get the nitty-gritties out of the way. Companies that are listed on a stock exchange must publish an annual report within the stipulated period after the end of every financial year (although some unlisted companies also opt to produce an annual report.)
Novels. Now, for argument’s sake, let’s imagine that Planet Novel has many diverse continents. Considered ‘a classic’ location, the largest continent has been inhabited for the longest time and is generally considered the seat of learning and culture (although this wasn’t always the case – especially in its early days). Any visitors to this planet who arrive as part of a guided tour are always directed here – ostensibly so that they may absorb and cultivate good taste.
A smaller but notable continent is the Graphic Novel, which has been populated fairly recently. Unkindly, the denizens of this continent are considered by some to be uncultured and not very respectable. (A possible case in point: On Feb 5 2017, The New York Times decided to discontinue its best seller lists for Hardcover Graphic Novel, Paperback Graphic Novel and Manga.) Nevertheless, the continent itself has been receiving a growing number of visitors.
Despite the differences of its continents and populations, all citizens of Planet Novel are called stories no matter which continent they live on.
Annual reports. Now what of our dwarf planet? For the longest time Planet Annual Report was only visited by small numbers of specialists – you are free to imagine bookish people with magnifying glasses and sample collection containers – who flocked to the planet each year during the season but always returned to their home planet at season’s end. For decades the planet was considered uninhabited. No stories lived here.
Stories. But then, mass hysteria erupted throughout the solar system. During one season on this barren world the specialists encountered a story – imagine that! Malnourished and gaunt, it was nevertheless declared a native of Planet Annual Report. During the seasons that followed it was observed with caution that these stories were increasing in number – if only very slightly. Years passed, now that it had a population to speak of Planet Annual Report began to interest more than just the specialists.
In fact, the more interaction there was between the two worlds the more the stories of Planet Annual Report began to take on the norms and quirks of those of Planet Novel. Despite some similarities, however, to this day the stories of Planet Annual Report are distinct to those of its sister world – significantly different enough to be called a separate species.
The role of design. Now let’s leave our tongue-in-cheek allegory there and focus on this difference – particularly in relation to the design aspect of an annual report.
To be clear, designers have been playing a major role in the creation of annual reports for several decades. But with the idea of corporate story-telling this role has seen some subtle changes.
In the novel. If you think about it, what makes a novel compelling? Plot, character, language… these are some of the words that will inevitably pop into your mind. And why is there always apprehension among readers when a beloved novel is converted to a film? It’s because each character has escaped the page and already transformed into a living breathing person in the reader’s mind.
The printed annual report presents a challenge to its creators in that, despite being a vehicle for compelling corporate story-telling, by its very nature it is grounded.
In the annual report. The annual report is a regulatory document which over the last few years has begun to double as a marketing tool. While a novel has no limit as to where it can take the reader the annual report must be firmly rooted in reality. How then to free the reader’s mind and entice it to consider the exciting possibilities that may be open to the company in question or even an industry?
This is where, I believe, the role of the designer comes into play. The place of character and plot (critical to a novel but usually absent in an annual report) must be taken up by design that is able to hold the attention of the reader and compel them to read on.
Keep in mind also that an annual report has two basic types of readers: The specialists (already introduced) from communities such as financial analysts and investor relations experts, and the three-minute readers. This latter group are sight-seers – tourists who don’t stay long. They may have no professional interest in the annual report but they are keen to enjoy that which is relevant and meaningful to them.
So then, design elements such as typography, colour, photography styles, layout and the overall look and feel of an annual report must capture the ‘personality’ of the publication. This is the design challenge when it comes to annual reports. Certainly, this is what I look for when I judge the design of an annual report. Each graphic element gives the reader a better understanding of the company and its vision or strategic direction.
Not sure how that’s achieved in practice? Watch this space for more on the role of Design in Annual Reports.
If you like this article you may also be interested in Smart’s humorous illustrated series: The Uses of an Annual Report, on BeSpoke, the company blog.
Chief Creative Officer at Smart Media The Annual Report Company
© Copyright March 2017
The ideas discussed here may be used, adapted or built upon for academic or commercial purposes provided due credit is given to Smart Media The Annual Report Company as the originator of this work.