Call to account

Three experts in the field of financial reports were brought around a table and asked to cast a critical eye over six of the best annual reports of last year. Their opinions are summed up below

Annual reports are big business for design. With the total design and print package amounting to between 100 000 and 200 000 per report per year for most blue-chip companies, they weigh in at the top end of the corporate scale, invariably involving access to the chairman of the client company and other board members. There’s a lot of kudos riding on a report and this rubs off on the designer.

Accounts inevitably contain data that is sensitive and often difficult for the uninitiated to grasp, so a handful of specialist design groups have tended to cream off the prestigious projects serving the same clients for many years. These groups claim expertise at conveying the financial message and meeting the stringent requirements of the London Stock Exchange and other financial regulators.

But new names are muscling in on the act, especially with international clients falling outside the conventions of the City of London. Some, such as award-winning consultancy Radley Yeldar, are rooted in print operations; others, notably Merchant, take a project management stance, farming out reports to various design groups. And then there has been movement among corporate specialists such as Sampson Tyrrell Enterprise, whose off-shoot Sampson Tyrrell Corporate Marketing is building on its reputation for report design, and CGI, which has added corporate identity to its repertoire since its merger with Ingleton Thomas.

Ad agencies, meanwhile, are seizing opportunities where they can, and a new breed of creative design group such as Johnson Banks is entering the arena. Its designs are on a par with those promoted by Michael Peters in the mid-Eighties, when the then Michael Peters Group took on world-beating US consultancies to come up with great annual report designs.

Predictable demand – where every company listed on the stock market is legally bound to publish an annual account of its finances – and repeat orders make annual reports highly attractive and lucrative to designers. But what does the recent surge of interest mean for the users? We put accountant Mandy Merron, financial journalist Richard Carpenter and designer Steve Gibbons around a table and asked them to assess six reports that they agreed were “a pretty good crop” in design terms.

There was a surprising level of consensus between the three, given the different uses they might make of annual reports. On a superficial level, it was interesting to learn that both Merron and Gibbons flick through a report from the back where the columns of numbers traditionally appear. But more important was the view shared by all three that having two documents – a separate, promotional report and a financial tome containing the accounts – is not a good idea. A short summary to send to private investors can be a useful way of saving costs, in Carpenter’s view, but if one document does the trick then why duplicate the effort?

Not surprisingly, Johnson Banks’ 1996 report for Dutch entertainments group PolyGram scored a hit with all our panellists, and was named “best report” by both Merron and Gibbons. One of the plus points they identified was the fact that report and accounts are combined in one document with two covers, which you read from either end depending on which section you want. Merron pointed out that, being Dutch, PolyGram doesn’t have to comply with the same regulations as a UK company, but was nonetheless impressed by the uncluttered presentation.

By the same token, Fitch’s latest report was voted down, partly because the report element is largely contained in a broadsheet “newspaper”. This has a novelty value, but, as Carpenter pointed out, is likely to get tattered and lost amid other newspapers at home or in the office.

Size is also an issue. Just as Fitch’s broadsheet might not fit easily on to a standard shelf, so Carpenter’s favourite – Pauffley’s small square 1996 report for pharmaceuticals giant Pharmacia & Upjohn – lost points because “it might get lost on the shelves” alongside standard A4 documents.


Covers are vitally important, according to Merron, who singled out PolyGram and Kate Stephens’ 1995/6 report for arts charity ABSA as the most attractive. A financial expert is as human as the rest of us and can be seduced into picking up a report if it appeals, even though the figures it contains will inform real judgement.

According to Carpenter, the cover should “say something about the company’s business”. Abbott Mead Vickers’ choice of red for The Economist Group’s 1996 report was therefore good, though a couple of assessors were baffled by the cover imagery which showed a combination lock and featured the words “The Economist Group” in a numerical code.

AMV scored a second black mark by omitting The Economist Group’s name from the spine of the report, making it hard to identify on the shelf. Meanwhile, ABSA lost face by having its name virtually obscured by a busy cover image.

Gibbons believes the cover should introduce the theme contained within, and for him the PolyGram report “does it brilliantly”. Pauffley’s people-based cover for Pharmacia & Upjohn creates a sense of style and alerts you to the overall tone, whereas Provident Financial’s plain blue corrugated cover offers no clues at all.


All three panellists liked themes which, Merron believes, can enhance your feeling about a company. They’ve become “a fashion thing”, according to Carpenter, but they don’t detract from the message the figures give if the two are in harmony. His gripe is with companies that have a strong brand image for everything but suddenly launch into a different visual and literary style for their annual report.

Graphs and charts

Graphs and charts are vital for gaining a quick picture of a company’s performance and Fitch and Pharmacia & Upjohn in particular lost points for not providing enough. The consensus was that the simpler the design, the better – the piles of carrots, bricks or tins so beloved by many a design group to get their client’s business message across were not popular with our jury, who applauded the clarity of the graphs and piecharts in the PolyGram and The Economist Group reports.

There was a plea from our experts to put financial highlights at the beginning of a document. Here PolyGram scored, putting its financial highlights on page 2. “Financial highlights should be on the first page to tell you what has happened that year,” according to Carpenter.

Photography and typography

A common point was that photographs of company directors must be included, married up with their biographies, in order to “personalise” the management. Otherwise, photography wasn’t deemed much of an issue, though each jury member named preferences. Gibbons likes the “spontaneity” of the people shots in the Pharmacia & Upjohn report, while Carpenter was turned off by the colour cut-outs of staged shots and use of tiny black and white photos of more relevant subjects in the Provident Financial document.

Typography is more crucial, particularly to get the requisite financial data across. Prompted by ABSA’s excessively small print, Merron made a plea for 10 point type to be the minimum size for figures and tables. Gibbons decreed The Economist Group’s type “a tad drab”, while at the other extreme the Fitch report was criticised as “indulgence gone wild” with the use of too many type sizes.


Designers often overlook the need to blend good design with great copy for corporate literature, and the annual report is no exception. Regular report readers Merron and Carpenter were hard-pressed to divorce the two. The important thing for them is that the text and the figures are telling the same story, and the message should be echoed in the design.

Needless to say, all three panellists singled out The Economist Group’s report as an example of great copywriting. Gibbons described the text as “honest and beautifully written”, while Carpenter said the whole thing “made you think”.

Overall personality

To the uninitiated, annual reports may appear to be fairly formal affairs, but the experts say they should exude a strong personality, in keeping with the nature of the company. In this, PolyGram wins hands down, according to our panel, but Pharmacia & Upjohn, with its photographs of people in natural poses, also does pretty well.

A report has to be honest. When times are tough, for example, analysts and accountants like to see a bit of humility and evidence that costs are under control. But you should still present a professional report, according to our experts.

Merron sums up a successful report as one that combines a strong visual effect with clear writing style. But the acid test for a superb design is how you put across those all-important numbers.

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