For design agencies, there are few projects more beloved than annual reports.
The layout possibilities are vast and the budgets often accommodate the packaging of year-end financials in beautiful design, fine paper selection, creative print finishes, and unique bindery. Or beautiful, layered microsites and apps. But in this climate of readily accessible information (in many cases including financial performance), what is the deeper value of an annual report?
With public companies’ performance and analysis readily available online, the purpose and value of the traditional annual report has shifted. While some companies question the value and expense of the traditional report with all of the bells and whistles and have slimmed their annual reckoning down accordingly, creative companies are learning to see the report as an annual specialty publication. The best of these companies are also using the reporting period to true their resources, reviewing and recommitting to big organizational ideas and long-term plans.
If a company does opt for either a traditional print annual report or a web-based interactive annual report over a simple downloadable PDF version (which we’ve seen a lot of in recent years), there is an opportunity to evolve the traditional book map and content architecture to enhance the utility and longevity of the piece. By definition, an annual report fixes the myriad, layered corporate activities in time and reflects on the performance and progress of the last fiscal year. It is intended to report on what (just) happened, but if the intent is to align and measure corporate activity against final financial values alone, is that not a missed opportunity to apply needed context and insight to set the course going forward?
Performance, in financial terms, is measured by the fiscal year, providing a narrow view of holistic success. Many projects and business initiatives are multi-year endeavours. We feel that it’s as important to measure and report on the less tangible goals that, if successful, can create the greatest value in the long-term. Keeping the workforce and shareholders engaged and inspired is key.
Because, in part, of the growing recognition of the tight relationship between creativity, organizational design, and business success, the design of an annual report is not arbitrary, nor should it be prescribed by habit. Design is now understood as an opportunity to apply visual intelligence to reporting, enshrining and supporting positive organizational momentum and putting ‘bumps’ in context. The best reports are appropriately rooted in the ‘now’, but emphasize the aspirational arc of the long-term business plan.
And, as is so often the case in our business, the medium remains the message.
We work with our clients to produce magazine-style print and digital reports with a broad readership in mind. While much of the content is fixed, it is important to design reports in a way that effectively supports different audience segments, with different information and user experience requirements. Annual reports should be designed with consideration of producing a volume of work chaptered annually, but conceived in three or four-year epochs, in line with corporate leadership, strategy, and brand ideology. Designing year to year, but knowing where you are within the four-year outlook at each reporting deadline allows organizations to report not only on the annual progress, but to place that progress on a long-term continuum. This is how businesses and brands are built.
The design should frame the content and visualize the overarching ‘theme’ of each annual chapter in the corporate life cycle. As most of the report content is fragmented, it can be tough for readers to glean a cohesive impression of the year’s performance, and more importantly, the contribution of that year to the long-term business strategy.
The front end of the report is where the corporate or brand positioning content should reside, using design in conjunction with designed content to introduce the ideas that will be further explored in the sections that follow. Much as a film trailer positions the style, tone, and mood of a film, so should the opening section of your annual report. While annual reports differ from marketing pieces in that they must deliver the straight financial ‘goods’, the black art of interpretation applies to creative thinkers in business as much as anywhere else. Whether the news is good, bad or neutral, why miss an opportunity to engage your readership in the big picture?
Taken on its own, the front of the report should be designed for extraction as a stand-alone resource to optimize ROI on the content curation and design investment. Traditional leadership messages should deliver the truths of the reporting period, with an eye to demonstrating acquired knowledge, ongoing or new initiatives, and progress on key strategic mandates. The interest of investors, stakeholders, and talent is captured by a strong story as much as by strong performance. What can we say? Packaging still matters. A good, but honest, story is as important as the numbers in building loyalty.
Brand development and value are long-term games. That’s why, in the digital age, the best annual reports craft a rich, contextual narrative around the numbers. Because no matter what story the numbers are telling, they represent a status report on a moment in time, and the best companies are always looking forward.