Annual report design: tips on how to make a bland document shine

annual report design: tips on how to make a bland document shine

Design works best to impress! It’s mostly associated with a logo or website design when companies need to impress new customers or clientele, but design still applies to less-visible documents. Take annual reports, which need to impress stakeholders and potential investors. Annual report design is often seen as boring or clinical, but considering their high stakes, they need exciting designs more than anything!
Below, we discuss what makes the best design of annual reports, and provide tips to help create impressive reports. But first, let’s talk a little about the purpose of annual reports and why they benefit from amazing designs.
Also known as “yearly statements” or “statements of information,” annual reports are a written account of a company’s performance for that year. While their aim is to instill confidence in current shareholders and future investors, in many states they’re also a legal requirement.
Annual reports typically include a letter from the top executive (i.e., president or CEO), a business profile with a company’s standard information, fiscal statements for the year and a discussion or analysis, which usually involves a forecast for the future.
Likewise, survey reports are written in the same style. Survey reports also aim to disseminate information to stakeholders and interested parties; instead of financial information, however, they discuss the results of a specific survey or questionnaire. In both cases, the goal of design is to make the otherwise dense data more digestible and easier to comprehend.
If you presented all the information of an annual report directly, with no visuals and no consideration for layout, it would be, at best, boring. Even if your yearly profits soared, it would be difficult to get stakeholders excited with only black and white numbers on a page.
The design of an annual report is not necessary to share the information, but it is crucial to communication, not just to make it interesting, but to make that information easier to process. An annual report design plays a large role in segmenting the data, offering it in manageable doses that don’t overwhelm the reader.
On top of that, the visual and presentational aspects of your annual report design make it easier to get the readers, stakeholders and investors on board with what your company is trying to do. Annual reports have the potential to be more than just financial documents, they can inspire and generate enthusiasm—and considering the content, that extra enthusiasm could lead to more investments.
Given the high stakes of annual reports, it’s not uncommon for companies to hire a professional designer to add some flair. If, however, you’d like to design your own annual report, here are some helpful tips.
A proper layout is essential to annual report design. You’re presenting a lot of important information, so you need to organize it in a way that’s accessible and easy to read.
For starters, you want to divide your annual report design into categories and sections, separated by headings and subheadings. First, this effectively breaks up the information so it doesn’t overwhelm the reader by coming all at once. Second, it makes your annual report easy to scan; that’s a big help for annual reports, because some readers will only be interested in one or two parts, and you don’t want to make their search difficult.
Breaking up your annual report design also facilitates using a table of contents. This enhances the reading experience, catering to those who pick and choose which parts they want to read. While it’d be nice if everyone read your annual report cover to cover, you still want to accommodate those who are only interested in particular parts.
When it comes to the visual layout, use ample negative space, otherwise known as “white space” or simply “empty space.” While negative space will make your annual report longer, it’s worth it to give breathing room to the text and figures.
Cramming words and data together not only makes it harder to read, but it also makes the information harder to retain. Spacing elements out with plenty of empty space in between makes it easier for the reader to comprehend what’s in front of them and ultimately helps them remember it later. That applies to both text and visual aids like graphs.
There’s a lot of information that’s acceptable in annual reports and even survey reports, but that doesn’t mean you should include everything. You’re free to pick and choose which topics you discuss and what you mention, so be intentional with what passes the bar.
We’re not suggesting you hide the unflattering news. Rather, ignore the unnecessary topics that don’t really add to the discussion or provide helpful insights. Your company’s own business goals should determine what gets the most coverage in annual reports.
For example, if you’re looking for more PR placement, include compelling or sensational information that’s easy to publicize. If you’d prefer a traditional state-of-the-company report, focus on data, graphs, and statistics that demonstrate the company’s performance.
This is applicable advice for drafting a survey as well. Narrow in on the questions that give you the most useful answers, and don’t stray from the topics that need the most clarity. Including questions you already know the answer to just bog down the survey and distract from the more important issues.
Though well-intentioned, the old adage “don’t judge a book by its cover” is a bit misguided. The design of an annual report cover isn’t just for looks, it can also serve strategic goals.
For one thing, the cover of your annual report can introduce themes and prepare people for what’s inside. For example, if one particular product had an exceptional year, you might consider featuring it on the cover. Even more abstract themes work as well; if your annual report discusses technological advances or pivoting to futuristic ideas, your cover could convey those same themes visually to help set the tone or atmosphere before readers even see what’s inside.
On top of that, the design of your annual report cover is a great branding opportunity. Because annual reports are business documents, it makes sense to feature your logo and branding visuals prominently. There’s no better place for these elements than on the cover, especially when they might seem out-of-place within the text.
Last, what’s wrong with a cover that just looks good? Reading annual reports can come across as a necessary chore more than something fun to do, but an attractive cover can make reading one seem more palatable, if not entertaining. Cover design is a good tool to generate interest and help the reader start off with the right attitude.
Annual reports with all text and numbers are hard to get through. As we mentioned above, large blocks of text make it harder to comprehend and retain the information. In addition to using ample negative space, you should also break up text with visuals. Graphs are perfect for this, but for sections that don’t require visual aids, you can still use pull quotes and icons.
Pull quotes and icons work well in both organizing and spacing out content. You can interrupt long blocks of text with these visuals to create natural sections without using a new heading or category.
Pull quotes especially are useful in highlighting certain information, such as financial successes or big new plans. You can use them strategically to reiterate core information relevant to your business goals, as we mentioned above. Icons are great for situations when other visuals won’t work. They can be pretty vague and can be used for virtually any scenario. They’re also a great branding opportunity because the visual style you choose can accurately reflect the tone you’re going for.
Graphs and charts are quite common in annual reports as a way to display empirical data, but that doesn’t mean they have to look common. Feel free to make your graphs visually engaging, such as using vibrant colors or 3D graphics.
Like icons, graphs and charts are a branding opportunity. The style they use can help you influence how your company comes across, such as a futuristic style for a technical look, or a more experimental style for an edgy look. It’s also a great chance to reuse your branding color scheme to strengthen associations.
However, the main rule for graph and chart visuals is don’t overdo it—overly detailed graphs can distract from the main message and come off as confusing. Above all, your visual aids should communicate the information clearly.
Annual reports are always branded documents, so don’t shy away from branding design elements. This goes beyond using your logo; you want to make use of your branding color schemes and typography, as well as any other branded graphics you have at your disposal.
The color scheme of your annual report design is quite significant, as you’ll use accent colors and background colors to improve readability. It’s best to stick with your branding color scheme for any coloring in your annual report to take advantage of associations—make the report feel like it comes from your company even in the parts where you don’t state it outright.
Likewise, the style of your other visuals, in particular graphs, should match the consistency of your other branding elements. For example, if your branding persona is fun and casual, you can use more playful visuals in your graphs and accompanying pictures. If your brand is more professional and formal, stick with traditional styles.
The same goes for the typography you use. While the main body text of your annual report should be straightforward to facilitate legibility, the headings and subheadings have more leeway for creativity. If your brand has stylized typography, feel free to use it there. If not, go ahead and experiment with more attention-grabbing fonts for the headings, as long as they don’t ruin readability.
Design trends come and go, and people have an innate ability to distinguish new trends from old ones. If you want your company to appear modern, it’s important to use current design trends.
It’s tempting to carry over a lot of the same design elements from one year to the next. If your annual report design was a big hit last year, why not redo it again this year? The problem, of course, is that public perception of these visuals has changed; even if they still look as good as they did last year, they’ll feel outdated to readers who have since become accustomed to a whole new set of trends.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what’s trendy and what’s not. Sometimes it’s certain colors, other times it’s certain shapes, still other times it’s certain fonts. To help you out, every year we publish a list of the newest and most current graphic design trends. But keep in mind that they’re time-sensitive.
Having an impressive annual report design isn’t just about looks—considering that a lot of readers are current or prospective investors, having an impressive annual report design can essentially lead to more incoming money for your company.
Of course, you don’t need a fancy annual report design to meet the bare minimum requirements, but you could say the same thing about advertisements, websites or other branded materials. As branded documents, annual reports provide the opportunity to influence how people perceive your company—and that’s an opportunity you don’t want to waste!

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Our newsletter is for everyone who loves design! Let us know if you’re a freelance designer (or not) so we can share the most relevant content for you.
By completing this form, you agree to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Google Terms of Service apply.