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7 August 2020

Designing annual and sustainability reports for online readers

By Staffan Lindgren
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Public companies put considerable effort into producing corporate reports each year. Typically, these are designed with magazines as inspiration with exciting design patterns that work well in professionally printed productions. We recommend taking a step back and thinking about how you design, package and distribute your report in a way that takes advantage of how it will be consumed.

We can all feel the excitement when holding a printed report. Feeling the paper, looking at the pages that have been exquisitely laid out and designed, appreciating how the content flows and how the images add emotion and personality to the communication.

However, that is not how most people will view or experience the report. In fact, in most cases neither will we as we don’t print corporate reports anymore.

In digital design, we do user tests and map audience journeys to understand how real users consume content, with the goal of improving their experience. For corporate reports you can very easily do this test using your phone by trying to locate the annual report on your website (hint, it isn’t always as easy as it should be) and reading it. Yes, read your annual report on your mobile.

That is how a lot of users will, or would like to, read your corporate report. If it is an awesome experience, good! If it is not, let's do something about that!

The PDF document isn’t the problem – the design is!

We have curated a few examples of print design that doesn’t translate well online to give you an idea: 

Page layout that spans two pages

One of our favourites. In a magazine a big, bold two-page spread designed for impact is amazing. However, reading page by page on a desktop or trying to make sense of what you mean on a mobile is virtually impossible.

Texts in columns

When you design pages to be printed, using columns is a good way to manage a lot of copy. When you move to a small screen, however, that no longer works.

This used to be a problem in digital design as well but since the introduction of responsive design and a more fluid approach between different screen sizes, this is no longer an issue. The fixed format of PDF documents, which is a strength of PDFs, is now what's causing problems. 

Horizontal reading flow

On a printed page it is easy to understand the intended reading flow and we sometimes use a horizontal flow. Timelines and processes are good examples that are used extensively with boxes of content or key facts that are designed to be read horizontally. 

However, on a screen you read vertically. Always.

Make it extraordinary

Let's face it, PDF documents are not designed to be the optimal delivery format for content online. Its strengths are also what makes it limited. 

Take a step back and think about how you should design, package and distribute your corporate report in a way that takes advantage of where and how it is being used. In the same way that websites with a mobile-first design have a better user experience for visitors across all devices, an annual report designed with a screen in mind will result in a better overall experience. There is still a place for a PDF report, but we recommend starting with a screen-first approach and then defining what role a PDF should play. When your content is in a CMS first, creating a PDF becomes a simpler, secondary process and we have the tools to do this for our clients. 

Designed for reading on screen

If you only create a PDF, make sure it is enjoyable to read on screen. By avoiding some of the pitfalls highlighted in the examples above and by testing it yourself, your PDF will come a long way. We would argue though that you should make the leap and produce the reports screen-first and digital-first with the PDF as the supporting format, not the other way around. There are several advantages of this:

  • A less painful process for corrections and sign-offs as all internal stakeholders can view and approve things in the one place and comments and corrections can be tracked.
  • A bigger toolbox to illustrate and tell your story. Video, infographics, audio elements, animations and zoom-in/out interactions give you a much more versatile toolbox as a communicator to tell the story. The time and effort you save on a more efficient process allows you to spend this on what matters most, making your content awesome. 
  • Happy stakeholders. Removing pain points and creating a smooth and intuitive experience will make your stakeholders happy. 

Don't forget to press 'send'

We used to post annual reports to stakeholders and when we stopped printing them, we saved a lot of money and trees. We also stopped spending on distribution, assuming that anyone interested would come to us and download it or that Google would graciously deliver the audience to us. 

When the report is published, it deserves to be read by as many people as possible and get as much attention as it can. Don't expect that all stakeholders will come and find it or that Google will automatically deliver your audience to it. Shareholders appreciate being sent the report by the company rather than having to find it themselves. Build a list of recipients, let people sign up for it and use Google and other media to tell the world that it is available. Compared with what companies used to spend on postage, investing in this type of online distribution will yield a lot of bang for your buck.