A few years ago I worked for a small design studio in Perú where we edited and designed over 20 annual reports for a range of institutions, including government agencies. One thing I learned from this experience: there can never be, and will never be, enough planning.
At the start of the fall of 2016, Enrique Mendizabal and I discussed the idea of doing an annual report for On Think Tanks. The timing seemed right: the OTT team had been consolidated, we had a new Advisory Board, and the bulk of our funding had been secured for the next two years. 2016 had been a great year- we had launched our new platform, increased our visibility on social media and in conferences, and published a wealth of articles and resources. We were also giddy about what 2017 and 2018 will bring. I could go on, but you might be better off reading the report!
I dug in my “design references: cool annual reports” folder and sketched out some pages. “It’s a great idea,” Enrique and I agreed, “Let’s definitely do it.” We carried on with our meetings through October and November, always confirming that it was, indeed, a great idea. December came around and it dawned on us that we had to produce this report. In the spirit of full disclosure: we had included its production in our grant report, so it had to be done. By mid-December, as expected, the report amounted to not a lot more than a few random sketches with a lot of “for-placement-only” texts.
Before the holiday season, we sketched out a plan for the production of the report and an outline of the content. We wanted the report to include the voices of OTT team members as well as our partners, so we reached out to them and asked them if they would be up for writing a short text. Around mid-January, we started receiving content from both internal and external collaborators. Our outline quickly started filling with real content, and by the end of January our report was ready for final edits. We were lucky to have had such support from our peers- it was great to see their willingness to share their insights and thoughts on the year that passed.
Designing our annual report was a mix of luck, enthusiasm, and long hours behind the computer. The OTT platform and corporate identity was designed by Soapbox. They did a terrific job of creating a strong and simple brand for OTT, along with enough building blocks to develop and implement that brand into all of our communications materials. As OTT’s offer grows and we create more resources, it is important that we have a brand identity that is flexible and lets us interpret it for material that has not been created before (like our annual report). What’s important about the design phase of any report of this sort is to make key decisions early on and commit to them, otherwise you’ll end up taking significantly longer to design (and publish) it. Ask yourself some basic questions, such as:
- Will the report be text heavy or image heavy?
- What kind of images do you want to include? Should you look for stock images?
- How will you make your report reader friendly? How will you divide the information into sections?
- Do you want to use pull quotes to highlight information? (Pick these when you are editing your content!)
- How will I present my data?
By February 13th, we had a fully produced annual report with texts from more than 15 internal and external collaborators. We had gathered data, analysed our performance on social media through the year as well as the OTT’s platform performance, and had a good idea of what the next couple of years would look like.
OTT has 14 core team members and more than 200 contributors. We also partner and work closely with other initiatives, and our network of support is, well, supportive. Our 2016 annual report is 64 pages long and there were no “legal” guidelines for the content- we chose what to publish. It does not compare to what a government agency’s or a policy research institute’s report might look like in statistical and analytical content, length, and detail of reporting. However, there is a skeleton of a process that I feel applies to most publications of this sort.
- Outline your content: this might seem obvious, but you really have to nail this down from the start. Have a clear sense of what you want your report to tell, and what you want the reader to get out of it.
- Focus: it is an annual report not an organisational memoir. Look back at the year you are reporting on. It is OK to refer to other years in the context of what has happened on the year in review, but best to focus on the results of the year you are reporting on.
- Define the tone of your report: we wanted our report to have many voices. If you have more than one writer for the content of your report, be sure to give them guidance on what you want from them. Match this to the outline of your content, and decide who will write about what.
- Choose your numbers well: if you are not an expert on interpreting numbers, find someone that is. How you word your results in numbers is key.
- When it comes to design, less is more: assuming you cannot afford a swanky design studio, be honest with yourself: how good, really, are your design skills? Do you think it is OK to use Clipart and Comic Sans in the design of your report? If your answer to the latter is yes, then I hate to break it to you but you should not be designing your annual report. There is a lot of great talent out there looking for the opportunity to add portfolio pieces. Look for freelance junior designers or recent graduates whose rates might be lower than more seasoned designers. They might need more guidance, but it is is probably worth the investment. There is also a wealth of online platforms that have pretty neat (and sometimes free!) templates for your use. Keep it simple, make sure the main messages are clear, remember to follow the basic rules of typography, and choose good images. Decide early on what your output will be- a PDF? A printed version? A microsite?
- Find a good editor: this is perhaps the biggest lesson learned from my experience putting together the OTT annual report. It makes all the difference and takes the pressure off the person who is producing it. We brought on an OTT team member and communications expert, Carolina Kern, towards the end of the process. I would suggest including your editor in at least three stages: at the start when you are designing your content outline, once you have all your content down, and at the end for a final proofread.
- Timing: unless you are legally bound to launch your report at a certain moment in the year, choose the right time to release it. We decided to release ours during our first On Think Tanks conference, in February 2017. It was a great moment for us as we discussed the future of OTT.
- Create some buzz around your report: The reality is that most people will not read your full report. Some will, but most won’t. Choose the content you want to highlight strategically, and make sure you target it to your audiences. Use social media to lead people to your report, and give them a sense of what they will find in it. Remember this report is part of your communications strategy, and should be a part of ongoing efforts to increase the visibility of your organisation’s work.
As I said before, this is the skeleton of a process. Some organisations will have more complex plans in the production of their reports, while others will have some that are closer to donor reports.
If you are thinking of putting together an annual report for your organisation, and would like more tips and advice, drop us a line!