Mirella von Lindenfels: Reining in the closet creatives is the best way to improve annual reports

The director of Communications Inc says criticism by Deloitte missed the point

Mirella von Lindenfels
Mirella von Lindenfels

Most annual reports are "dull to look at", according to business advisory firm Deloitte (Third Sector, 6 July). Perhaps they are, but throwing in more graphs, photos and colour won't solve the problem.

Some of the most boring things I've ever looked at are full of graphs, even though Deloitte highlights them as a key desirable, and some of the most pointless documents are full of colour and beautiful images.

The design of a report is unquestionably of great importance - good packaging attracts readers and helps them to absorb the information presented. Poor design is undoubtedly a hindrance - but it is only one of the causes of failure.

An annual report is a work of many hands, involving contributions from trustees, directors, lawyers and accountants, each of whom often has strong ideas about what the report should be like. Their ideas tend to be based on individual preferences rather than what's right for the intended audience, and they often feel at liberty to rewrite and redesign.

No surprise, then, that so many reports miss the mark. How could they not when there appears to be no clarity of purpose, target audience, message or approach?

So what needs to change? There are legally rigid bits of a report that can't be altered, but these are of interest to a relatively small minority of people and can be dispatched dutifully without affecting the rest. The remaining content is an opportunity to engage a wider group of people and should be managed with absolute clarity.

An annual report is no different from any other creative project - it needs to be clear about whom it is addressing and what it wants them to know. Some discipline is required to achieve this - the person tasked with creating the report should be allowed to stick to the brief and contributors should limit their comments and input to their specific areas of expertise.

The agency technique of using a written brief, discussed and agreed between the consultant and the client, is a great approach that many charities could usefully adopt in-house. If purpose, audience and content are all agreed at the outset, it's a lot easier to manage those tempted to fiddle further down the line.

Of all the publications I've worked on, annual reports seem to be the most likely to bring out the closet designer and writer in the unlikeliest of people. Graphs are a good thing, sometimes, but it's controlling the closet creative that is the biggest challenge of all.

Mirella von Lindenfels is director of Communications Inc

FACT FILE

ANNUAL REPORTS

The Deloitte report Surveying the Sector is based on analysis of 50 annual reports belonging to the UK's 1,000 largest charities by income.

It criticises charities for using large amounts of text and few pictures, and says only 24 per cent of the reports in the survey used graphs to bring the text to life.

The Charity Commission requires every registered charity to compile an annual report.

The regulator says a report should be "a concise but comprehensive review of the activities of the charity prepared by the trustees for each accounting year".

Information on governance, finances, objectives and achievements should be included. Case studies and photography are not requirements.

Many charities now also produce an annual review to showcase their activities to a wide audience.

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