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How To Design Your Online Annual Report


Annual reports have undergone a transformation: companies no longer publish them only to comply with regulations, but publish them online to reach out to a broad audience. This extra effort of online annual reports as an interactive website or microsite has the power to return your investment in the form of additional attention, coverage and marketing opportunities.

How To Structure Your Annual Report?

Less Can Be More

Lastly, don’t overload your online annual report. Of course, you have to include everything that’s necessary to meet compliance requirements, but don’t design for slow page load times. Check how much of the story you want to tell or the information you want to convey is already related in images, captions, and headlines. If a reader were to skip all lengthy text and articles, just how much would they retain of your report?
Call-outs, quotes, highlighted facts, CTAs, and other bits of information should also be employed sparsely enough to remain special and powerful to draw attention whenever they occur. Likewise, every design element you introduce should serve a valuable purpose and contribute to the unified whole of your report.
Even in the age of digital transformation, the term annual report carries the connotation of a print document that is produced out of necessity, not opportunity. While an annual report is indeed an obligation for many companies, there is every reason to also utilize it to showcase brand and identity, instill confidence not only in shareholders but also potential investors, and tell a story of lasting impression to all readers.

Readability And Accessibility Considerations

Each of these are a subject unto themselves, but in all brevity, design for readability. That means choosing legible fonts and font sizes and clear, concise typography and styling. Keep mobile readers of your annual report in mind and define font sizes for smartphones and tablets as well. Don’t compromise on legibility through hindering background colors or pictures–maintain a high contrast instead. Accessibility considerations include text-to-speech support for modern browsers, high contrast color schemes for colorblind and visually impaired readers, as well as image descriptions for visual material.
Dimension Data uses a striking visual for their “cover page” while making it clear what they’re about at the same time–followed by a clear overview of important sections.

The Need For Annual Reports

Take full advantage of the capabilities an online annual report offers. Use design to tie the disparate pieces of information together and link to the full sections from the introduction.
As a best practice, you should decide on a structure before you begin to gather and assemble the content for your annual report. Write the section headlines on index cards, then shuffle them around to play with different options. Keep in mind that hardly any reader will read your through your report from start to finish, so have neither too few nor too many sections. Short and exact titles help readers find what they’re looking for.

Structure For Your Annual Report

The structure for your annual report is a chance to either experiment and try something new, or to offer readers the same traditional and familiar thing each year. Whichever you choose in the end, be sure to question your structure nonetheless: is it the best way to make information available for your diverse audience?
  • Chronological order: If you need to highlight a lot of events throughout your annual report, consider placing them in their logical order. This approach might also fit best if you want or need to report each quarter individually or focus on year-on-year growth and results.
  • Organizational structure: The structure of your online annual report can also reflect that of your company or organization. Dividing by geographical location, departments, business units or product lines illustrates how your business functions.
  • Success stories: Your report can tell a cohesive story through mission-driven accomplishments. This is a great way to highlight how you delivered on your vision, and to profile the human side of your business as well as the people behind the success.
Structuring your annual report also means deciding on a clear text hierarchy (which feeds into easier navigation). Text size choices guide viewers and facilitate understanding of importance for readers. Styling enables skimming as well as glance and speed reading. At the very least, consider three distinct sizes and styles for your text hierarchy:
  • Header text
  • Subheader text
  • Paragraph text

Intuitive Navigation

An interesting table of contents with a visual teaser will entice readers to jump in. Logical and accessible navigation aids the audience in following the flow of information and takes away the fear or feeling of getting lost or missing out. Here are best practises for functioning navigation:
  • Use descriptive headlines for sections and in a uniform style so readers will recognize the transitions as such.
  • Consider color coding, numbering, or even both for marking your report sections.
  • Have your navigation follow your structure; settle on a structure first, then match it with the right kind of navigation.
  • Images or visual cues can punctuate text-heavy blocks and help readers who use fast scrolling or jump around a lot.
  • Your introduction with highlights can already be a table of contents used to “sell” the rest of the information in the report and prioritize certain sections.
From the complexity of your report’s structure, you can then derive a fitting navigation. Readers should be able to understand it intuitively, so make it simple; yet all important sections should be accessible in as few clicks or taps as possible. As we said above, people will want to jump back and forth between sections, so the easier your navigation allows them to do just that, the higher the interaction and the lower the bounce rate will be. Don’t rely on just a text-based table of contents with links as sufficient navigation. Your introduction with highlights that’s supposed to pull readers in can already link to the relevant sections for a deep dive. You can also supplement very long or dense reports with an index where necessary.
The navigation bar in the Deloitte annual report stays present at the top and also highlights the current section.

Set The Theme

Your annual report likely has a theme–it can be the year in review and stay the same each year, or it can be a changing narrative angle and varied themes throughout the years to distinguish each report. Let the topical theme such as going green, reaching major milestones or a (business or digital) transformation inform the design choices. The look and feel for your online annual report will reflect your company or organization as well as the industry or sector. Stability, responsibility, innovation, trust, growth, leadership, research and development, or customer satisfaction are all great themes. From there, you can make choices regarding the color palette, style of photography, images, or illustrations, level of detail in graphs and schematics, as well as use of fonts and typography.
The UNC Children's Hospital uses a visual cue and headline to establish a clear theme for its annual report.

The Purpose Of Your Storytelling

More Online Annual Report Best Practices

Illustrations can be difficult to match with existing visual guidelines, but whenever you have some leeway, consider the advantages: illustrations can convey personality and emotion and often are able to communicate a concept better than a photograph. The many different styles of illustrations allow you to create the required image to your specific needs.
This Deloitte research report has all the necessary information in a few compact sections.
Let the following design principles guide you in the production of your online annual report.

Pull The Reader In: Start With A Bang

Printed annual reports feature an enticing cover and an inside spread (the first two pages after the cover) designed to pull the reader in. The same principle holds true when you present your audience with an interactive website: make your audience want to read on, scroll on or click through. Don’t present them with a splash screen, company logo animation or video presentation that causes unnecessary delay. Put all your important content up front, but not in the form of a jargon-filled abstract or a text-only summary full of filler words. Do summarize your year in a fitting way: a bold statement, a key graphic or photograph, highlights as bullet points or one infographic. Communicate your critical message as early as possible so it will reach all your readers, even those who just skim or go for the “helicopter view” and hardly dive in. Don’t think of it as giving away the good bits too early, but rather use them to raise interest in further details.
The Deloitte online annual report uses a very clear and high contrast contents page to convey its structure.
This FCCI annual report uses both font size as well as styling to communicate text hierarchy.

Branding

However, with the theme being set, don’t go off-brand: if your website is conservative and conveys strength and leadership, your online annual report cannot be edgy or overly modern. Use your existing brand guidelines and style guide to your advantage and follow established usage of logo placement, colors, fonts and typography, white space, as well as naming conventions. Readers will perceive your consistency as authentic and reliable, whereas a great difference between your company’s website and online annual report creates dissonance and dissociation.
FCCI uses corporate colors for branding as well as a fixed logo, which also serves as a shortcut back to the beginning.
What is the story that your online annual report should tell? The message of the year in review stays the same with updated numbers each year, but in addition, what other narrative did your company or organization follow? What epic story of the past will impact, predict or inspire the future–for your shareholders, for investors, for your employees, for your customers or users? Storytelling is an opportunity for brand-building supported by phenomenal design which conveys the voice of your company and tone of your brand. Unify your message through a composition of text and visual elements, as well as dynamic content such as embedded videos, audio or interactive elements.
Through stories, Deloitte gives people a voice and conveys the importance of the human aspect to readers.
Images draw readers into articles, and their attention then flows to the image caption and from there to the headline; craft these just as well to increase engagement. Supplement sections with call-outs: these can be quotes, personal profiles, highlighted or illustrated facts and figures, or vision statements. Don’t forget your CTAs: while too many placements of a call-to-action can overwhelm readers, a concrete CTA can conclude your storytelling and harness the emotion, inspiration or motivation you’ve just instilled.

Visualize Your Data

From bar to bubble to line to pie, charts are the go-to means when it comes to data visualization. Especially with financial data, having numbers come to life as a graphic representation is a great help for readers to understand and compare different datasets. Explain your graphics without overdoing it, both in terms of design as well as captions. Infographics are highly valuable for online annual reports with lots of numbers and datasets. They can showcase complex developments and simplify analysis for viewers. In addition, readers can share infographics as links or posts on social media. Visualization works well for achievements, revenue, investments, spending, impact and metrics. Keep it simple, clear, and easily digestible. Don’t switch between different types of data visualization between datasets your readers will want to compare to each other to avoid confusion.

Follow these guidelines to keep your charts simple and avoid going for something “too fancy”:
  • Consider a bar chart or bubble chart to show differences, for example among categories
  • Line charts work well for highlighting trends over time
  • Charts with big numbers make your KPIs stand out
Where necessary and appropriate, provide clarification and context as a header or caption and help readers how to interpret the date and its visual representation, especially when it comes to trends and forecasts.
Corporate highlights in visual form in the FCCI annual report.
An appealing CTA at the bottom of the page of the UNC Children's Hospital annual report.
With an online annual report, you have the option to create interactive tables or graphics as well as animations. Dynamic data visualization over static representation can drive engagement, make numbers more accessible, and highlight important numbers. However, this kind of reactive content that follows the principle of discovery can also confuse readers or hide the results from viewers. What you want to show and what is important to you should already be there so viewers don’t have to reveal it first through interaction. However, interaction can add a dimension or comparison, trigger an animation, zoom, or forecast, and provide more context or data. That way, interactive elements don’t become a barrier or attention blocker.
Dimension Data highlights revenue by region with a map–a tooltip alerts the reader that the element is interactive.

Design For Impact And Emphasis

Don’t let the term report put any artificial limitations on the concept or design for your online annual report–it can be as appealing and exciting as your company website. Emphasize through design all the important elements you want to highlight by using larger fonts, striking colors, visual cues and intuitive content arrangements. Use contrast sparsely to make a few important elements stand out. Repetition of design and content is helpful in tying things together. Create order and unity through alignment and placement of content and keep together what belongs together, be it related sections or pieces of information.
Neatly aligned visuals in the Manatt research report.

Arrange Content In Chunks

Similarly to the grouping of related content, the way you arrange things should always facilitate understanding. Breaking things down into bite-sized chunks facilitate viewing especially on mobile devices where users will prefer scrolling to jumping around using links. Chunks can create containers for information that feed into your visual organization and enable skimming.
Instead of a lengthy executive summary, this Mannat research report offers bite-sized chunks of information.

Pictures

As we’ve mentioned under branding, a consistent style in line with established visuals is important; this goes for your pictures as well. Avoid placing (stock) photos just for the sake of including something visual. A careful selection of a few well-coordinated, edited and arranged images goes a long way and is more meaningful than plastering your online annual report with photos that only have a loose connection to the actual content.
Photos go a long way in illustrating a subject or point and are a straightforward way to evoke emotion in readers (source).
Where necessary or appropriate, you can embed videos and multimedia content or offer a PDF download (source).
Online annual reports allow you to include a range of other media, but limit yourself here as well to make these elements stand out where you employ them. You can use background videos or images in a non-intrusive way to set an atmosphere or draw attention, but make sure the benefits outweigh the extra load time. Embedded videos can deliver essential messages, showcase production in a montage, give customer or employee testimonials in interviews, or include a personal speech from the CEO or other officers.

Other Media Content

Don’t Rely On Visuals Alone

Overly visual design can be a trap. Keep your visuals useful and complementary to the rest of the material and don’t overdo it. Otherwise, the text of your annual report will lose appeal or look insubstantial. Key details in text should not be sacrificed for visual form; strive for the matching balance between blocks of text and images instead.
Text-only content with a clear structure and hierarchy can be visually appealing without any images or graphics (source).
Baker McKenzie uses their brand color for highlights in their annual report.
Color as an accent is a way to draw the reader’s attention to key facts and other highlights. For the sake of consistency and simplicity, consider using only one or very few highlight colors in your online annual report. It can even be your brand’s signature color. Using restraint for highlight colors avoids bold, screaming pages which only confuse and distract viewers.

Limit Highlight Colors

Plenty of white space prevents information overload or confusion regarding hierarchy and flow (source).
Busy pages create sensory as well as information overload. Large blocks of text overwhelm readers, so employ ample white space to balance your content. Think of “empty” blocks as a design element of its own that you can use to make your design feel pleasing and appealing. The more information and content you need to present, the more thought you need to give to white space. Too little and your annual report will seem heavy, cramped, inaccessible or even unfinished. You’re less likely to turn off viewers with too much white space than with too little, so when in doubt, go for more. Just as with text hierarchy, establish a proximity hierarchy where you define just how much space you’ll place between certain elements.

Use Of Space

Tips for your annual report cover page by sector

Many people struggle with the cover page or are unsure what kind of information they should present first in their annual report. The result is all too often a crowded coverage or a case of ‘burying the lead’ where important or interesting facts come way too late. Here are a couple of useful tips for various sectors and industries on what you can place first or how to design your annual report cover page:
  • Healthcare: Your annual report is a great opportunity for compelling storytelling, so take the chance to pull your readers in with a personal, human touch and an individual example of how you’ve made a difference in the world in the past year. Highlight the ‘care’ aspect of healthcare. From the positive change aspect in one life, you can then lead to the general and continue with highlights, the overall success story of the company or organization, or the mission statement or executive summary.
  • Banking & Finance: You need to report the numbers, so dive right in. Present the highlight up front in a visual way as one large infographic or as selected individual charts. Neither of these should be too complicated but visualize achievements or KPIs. Each representation will compel readers to dive deeper into that specific section.
  • Insurance: When the numbers line up, highlights are a great way to begin, visualizing growth or expansion. Yet you can also make it personal with a message from the CEO, a success story, or a summary of the difference you’ve made in the past year.
  • Academics & Education: Traditional institutions will want to speak to their history and values, whereas modern education startups outline their vision for the future. For an academic institution, you can open with a personal statement, a highlight of the events in the past academic year, or a success story such such as the number of graduates. A company focused on learning, education and educational material might want to report reach or growth first, but can also begin by highlighting the personal touch with a learner’s story.
  • Non-profit & NGOs: Highlight your mission statement at the beginning and let readers know how you’ve delivered on that in the past year. Personal stories are ideal to showcase the work you’re doing on the ground. It’s also a great way to thank your donors by letting them know how their contributions have made a difference and have helped you to keep going.
  • Real estate: Similarly to finance, a highlight of the most important numbers is generally a good starter. Use charts or visual cues that are easily comprehensible as a sort of index which will link to the relevant sections. Where appropriate, you can also begin with a market overview, a personal statement or a past performance summary.
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