How to produce an awesome annual report that people will actually want to read

Illustrated character holding a pie chart, design created for Frontier Agriculture

Annual reports are sometimes referred to as ‘grey literature’, an often long and tiresome breakdown of the company’s activities and financial performance throughout the year. We’re here to tell you that grey literature doesn’t have to be, well - grey.

In fact your report presents an opportunity to produce something truly creative, a document that stands proud from your day-to-day marketing materials and showcases everything that’s great about your organisation. But how? In this article we’ve broken down the process to creating the very best annual report that will knock the socks off the competition (and your MD).

Pick your format

There are a number of forms that your annual report can take - a printed document, a downloadable pdf or a digital presentation (a micro-site or even a video) - but how do you choose the right format for your business? Ask yourself these questions:

  1. Which format would my brand best identify with? Are we more traditional or do we work mainly in digital? Do we consider ourselves as technologically innovative or more conventional? 
  2. Which format would appeal most to our target audience? Would they prefer to receive a beautifully finished brochure in the post? A straight-talking email with a simple pdf download? or would they prefer to browse through a interactive and animated website?

Of course, there are advantages and disadvantages of each approach. A printed document has a presence, it’s tangible and you can use this to your advantage with specialist finishes and tactile papers that reflect your brand values. On the other hand they can be expensive to produce and distribute. 

A download is much less expensive on the other hand; you can still create some magic with the design but without the outlay for print and delivery. The downside of this approach is that reading brochures on screen isn’t the most user friendly experience. 

Finally the digital option opens up a new world of goodies - video, animation, transitions, interaction and shareable content - all great ways to identify with and engage with your audience. Below is a basic example of an interactive pie chart that could be created for an online report (hover over or tap the coloured segments to see what we mean): 

An online solution also provides you with analytics that you may not be able to achieve with printed solutions (seeing how many people have viewed a particular page for example). The drawback for the digital option is the expense (however by the time you’ve factored in print and distribution costs for the printed option, perhaps the two aren’t as far apart as you might imagine).

Creating a report people might actually want to read

Let’s face it, unless you’re a particularly keen accountant you’re probably going to find the financial evidence in a typical annual report pretty dry. So how can you make your document a better read for your audience?

Chunk your content

Over recent years, people have become overloaded with content from all angles (on their phone, in the news, through websites, through email and so on) and are regularly distracted - as a result of this higher cognitive load, the less we read of a page. For example, a recent study found that on average someone will only read around 28% of a typical webpage. The best way to reduce cognitive load is through the structure of your content:

  • Write in short sentences
  • Use bullet points to break up difficult information
  • Avoid jargon
  • Break up content with images
  • Divide your content into bitesize chunks
  • Write engaging headings and subheadings
  • Use pull quotes to draw attention to content

Get the right tone

The use of language is also vital to making sure your content is engaging for your readers. Financial information must be factual but it doesn’t have to be devoid of personality. Imagine if your brand were a person, how would they deliver these key stats in an easy to understand way? Now imagine your target audience, what sort of language are they comfortable with? Will they understand some of the terminology you’re using? All of these factors will play a major role in the readability of your content.

Tell the story of your team - share your brand’s personality and make your business relatable

Tell your story

Numbers-aside, what else has your organisation been working on over the last 12 months? What successes have you achieved? What goals did you meet? These stories can often be more engaging than typical facts and figures, so tell the story of your team - share your brand’s personality and make your business relatable. People remember stories.

How to make your annual report visually engaging

Get creative with typography

Designing an annual report presents an opportunity to produce something a little out-of-the-norm for your business. This is a chance to showcase the outstanding elements of your business, with a document that’s inevitably going to be text-heavy. So, let’s get creative with words; go big, go bold, go vertical, go colourful - take your branding and crank it up to 11!

Lincoln college typographic infographic design by root studio lincoln leicester

Bring data to life with creative infographics

Infographics are a fantastic tool for making your information more engaging for the reader and also visualising your successes more clearly. There are infographics and then there are infographics and what we don’t want to see are naff charts in your annual report - we want to see something more stylish. Whether you’re producing a printed or digital report your stats can take the form of large scale typography, creative illustrations or they can even be animated and interactive, but when it comes to producing infographics there are a few rules to remember:

  • Show don’t tell (if it’s possible to use objects, graphics or colour to tell the story of the data more clearly rather than in text form - do it) - be concise and keep it simple
  • Remember the point you’re making (some infographics go overboard and can be so complex that the data you’re trying to highlight gets lost or confused)
  • Remember your target audience
  • Be consistent - if you’re using infographics throughout your document keep them within the same house style

New Theatre Royal social media infographic by Root Studio Lincoln Leicester

Tables can look great too you know

Your annual report will inevitably include a number of tables of information, some designers loathe them, some love them - we sit firmly in the second camp. Given the right styling, creating the correct hierarchy and using subtle techniques to highlight rows or columns effectively - your tables can actually look pretty damn good!

You’ve created a beautiful report, surely nothing can ruin this masterpiece - wrong

Invest in good photography

You’ve created a beautiful report, the content is spot on and the data is loud and proud with your new creative infographics. Surely nothing can ruin this masterpiece - wrong: bad photography. In our opinion no photo is better than a poor photo, if you have the budget - invest it wisely in quality, professional photography. If you don’t have time or budget and are struggling to source images from the company database - look into alternatives such as illustrations or stock libraries. Something as simple as a bespoke icon set can really lift a table of information or a bulleted list for example.

Bespoke icon set by root studio lincoln leicester

How much does it cost to design an annual report?

Unless you’re opting for an off-the-shelf solution, a designer’s fee for producing an annual report will vary. Below are a few variables that could have an impact on your designer’s estimate:

  • The scale of the document (number of pages)
  • How many design options you would like to see
  • Number of revisions required
  • Infographic style (simple vs complex)
  • Number of tables of information (large tables will take longer to produce than a typical page)
  • Image sourcing (searching for and purchasing stock imagery for example)
  • Photo retouching
  • Timescales (if you need the report urgently you may being paying a premium) - be prepared and start organising content and design teams at least 3 months in advance

Then there are other costs to consider such as printing, distribution or the development of an online solution if you’ve opted for this alternative route. 

How can you justify the cost?

It’s important not to see this as a cost, it’s an investment. To promote the business to clientele, shareholders, investors and other stakeholders you really should be presenting your reflection on the past year in the best light possible. If it encourages brand loyalty or greater investment then it’s done its job. One tip to make the most out of your report is to break up those creative infographics you had created into individual social media graphics - share the data, don’t just leave it in one place waiting to be found.

In conclusion

Creating an annual report is a fantastically rewarding opportunity to look back at what you’ve achieved in the past year - embrace it, be proud of it and tell the world that you mean business! If you’d like to work with our designers to create a jaw-dropping annual report for your organisation get in touch.