Annual reports represent a classic example of design schizophrenia. Simultaneously functional and creative, they satisfy the extremes of the well-rounded designer: the tabular organisation of figures, facts appealing to their anal tendencies; the glossy, visual representation of the company gratifying their more flamboyant, expressive urges. So much so that, annual reports now usually come in two discrete sections. You have the funky, colourful “stuff” up front , and the business end at the back, often on a different, tinted paper stock.
Some reports actually play with this dichotomy. A couple of years ago, for example, the Johnson Banks-designed annual report for entertainment giant PolyGram was formatted to read back to front or front to back, depending on whether you wanted the “glam” pictures of the rock stars or the hard-nosed financial results. Swedish telecoms company Ericsson’s 2000 report, designed by SAS, was unapologetically split into two books. The cover of the company review was emblazoned with the words “This will give you something to talk about”, while the report and accounts cover entreated, “Listen to our results”.
This physical separation is certainly becoming more common, bringing more flexibility to the mix, allowing different audiences to be addressed, with either or both publications. Bamber Forsyth’s 2000 annual report for Diageo typifies this trend. The more accessible review features fun, punchy illustrations by Rian Hughes, lively black-and-white reportage photography and vibrant blocks of spot colour, combined with restrained text. The more studious report and accounts section limits itself to just two-colour printing and one typeface in two sizes. Publishing no-nonsense figures on the Internet is also becoming a popular option.
Of course, all these books deliver far more than they need to by law, and are more about image, status, confidence building and showing your best face to investors, both existing and potential. According to Companies House, all accounts must include: a profit and loss account; a balance sheet signed by a director; an auditor’s report, signed by the auditor (where appropriate); the directors’ report, signed by a director or the secretary of the company; notes to the accounts; and group accounts (if appropriate). Bare bones indeed, compared to the lavish productions we’ve come to expect from specialists such as Pauffley, Bamber Forsyth, CGI, Radley Yeldar, Talkvisual, and the others which ranked high in the Merchant Handbook, which charts and analyses trends in annual reports.
So clearly, there is a lot of design input involved here. For the designer, finding a style and tone of voice appropriate for the client is critical, and the use of a full range of graphic weaponry is a must. Photography, illustration, typography, layout and unusual formats are just some of the devices that can make an annual report stand out from the crowd.