Rise in annual report work boosts influence

Merchant’s study of the annual report market makes interesting reading for the design community (see News Analysis, page 6). It isn’t just the extra workload created by more top companies putting the design of this key document out to consultancies, rather than handling it in-house.

It is the additional influence the shift gives designers.

With chairmen, chief executives and finance directors involving themselves with annual reports, their design groups get a foot in the boardroom door. If the outcome is good, it could have a positive effect on the client’s attitude to design in other aspects of the business. It’s about creating design champions.

Mind you, the increasing volume of report work isn’t to be sniffed at. The Merchant Handbook reports a 37 per cent rise in FTSE 250 companies using external design groups. Established specialists Addison and Merchant share top slot in the ratings, but a few outsiders are breaking into the field. Work such as Johnson Banks’ report for Dutch entertainments giant PolyGram – which doesn’t feature in Merchants report – must start to erode the edges of what was once a near cartel of annual report specialists.

The increase in summary reports for shareholders not conversant with City parlance has set a new challenge – that of making the data intelligible to ordinary people. Those of you in business during the mid-Eighties will remember bids made then to “humanise” reports when regulations governing the presentation of data were relaxed. Big design breakthroughs were made, spearheaded by the then Michael Peters Group, which took its cue from more liberal US corporations, creating a pop-up annual report for its own business and magazine-style publications for fashion retailer The Burton Group.

Others followed suit and creativity was on a roll in what had previously been seen as a stodgy sector. Carrots, fountains and other devices were used to liven up charts and tables in a way that reflected the client’s business, even in the sacred accounts sections of annual reports.

Things have settled down in design terms, partly because of smaller budgets being available for client promotions in general. Quality copywriting and legible print are, rightly, higher on the agenda than gimmickry. The financial community isn’t averse to data being “tricked up”, provided the meaning isn’t obscured. But, annual report design should be in keeping with a company’s personality – Saatchi & Saatchi’s “talking” report this year, for example, is acceptable for a marketing services conglomerate. It’s a question of striking the right balance.

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