Figuring it out

One of the few sectors that is proving immune to the recession is annual reports, but that doesn’t mean clients or consultancies are playing it safe. Anna Richardson talks to four groups about the latest developments

Creating an annual report is not considered the most sexy of design projects. But access to top business minds and getting to the heart of some of the country’s biggest plcs make it a satisfying challenge. Designing reports is a ‘very well-rounded experience for designers’, says Gilmar Wendt, executive creative director at SAS Design.

‘It’s about content and how it can be presented in a creative way, from pictorial style down to the detail of crafting tables, for example. If you put the effort in, you can create something very beautiful.’ This year, communicating a strategic message and not just the figures is especially important, as companies seek to highlight their position and vision for the future against the recessionary gloom. Nick Jones, creative director at Browns Design, which designed the annual report for bespoke insurer Hiscox for the second time this year, says, ‘[Chairman] Robert Hiscox was keen to make the report as bold, concise and straightforward as possible, and, from an information point of view, as transparent as possible. No flowery language, no spin – just straight reporting. Our approach was to take him at his word and therefore reduce the design to meet those requirements.’

The Hiscox publication is printed in two colours for the review front section and one colour for the financial back section, on environmentally sound paper. ‘It’s not ostentatious, and it meets environmental concerns,’ says Jones. It’s also linked to a corporate brochure, separating the functional financial data from the marketing aspect. The evolution that saw annual reports become pieces of design flamboyance certainly seems to be coming to a stop. According to NB Studio creative director Ben Stott, ‘They’re going to have to work a lot harder, not just because of the economic climate, but also due to natural progression. They’ve become a little bit self-important.

They’re not there to win design awards, they’re there to talk about what a company has done in the year and what it will do in the future.’ NB Studio’s latest Channel 4 report makes content king, with a focus on the channel’s public value remit. Designwise, it’s ‘quite straightforward’, says Stott, ‘a simple layout with a lot of white space to keep it clean’ and four wrap-around poster covers as a nod to ‘being a little bit different’. NB Studio also created an animated presentation of the public value measures, intended for meetings with interested parties.

Being able to tailor annual reporting to a specific audience is becoming more important as companies’ stakeholders become increasingly diverse. Separating out dry figures from glossy brochures is one way of achieving this, and changes in legislation mean that companies can post figures on the Internet, with some opting to take the bulk online and others combining Web and print versions. Having an integrated design approach is therefore vital.

SAS Design took the online approach even further in the latest Sainsbury’s report, released this week. It features a virtual store for retail shareholders to interact with online, allowing them to browse in a non-linear way by clicking on different elements.

For the Home Retail Group, SAS created a report split 50/50 between print and online, which also helped strengthen the corporate brand using the group’s box logo in different guises as an analogy for the business. ‘We always put the audience at the heart of our design,’ says Wendt. ‘And we find that for every client, audiences vary in expectation and needs. It’s all about how best to tell a company’s story.’ With Sainsbury’s, for example, institutional investors get the story through the numbers, while retail investors are primarily interested in what’s going on behind the scenes.

Many predict that going online or using mixed media is the future, but there is still a need for the report as a beautifully produced piece of print. For smaller organisations or charities, it’s an annual showcase, while larger companies such as property giant Shaftesbury use it as part of their marketing. ‘They want to do something different and excite people,’ says Steve Gardiner of SG Design, which has been working with Shaftesbury for 14 years. ‘Our clients still see it as a main tool in their communication and something they can be proud of.’

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