Title: Company reports: the fiction of fact
Author: Ken Campbell
Text: Company reports: the fiction of fact
Annual reports, says Ken Campbell, have got themselves "designed" but in the process have often become PR exercises from which it is difficult to extract relevant information
Some 100 public companies, selected almost at random, were asked to supply a copy of their current annual report along with relevant information and comments on the design. Of the 80 samples received the majority were sent with minimum information and no comment at all. The longest reply was the most negative, hinting at those dark cul de sacs of mutual miscomprehension to be found along the bright, modern motorway to the city of shining image. "The last report was designed by an agency that had not worked on previous reports but had convinced certain people that a completely new image was required. The final result was the subject of much adverse criticism and, in fact, the front cover of the report was changed at the very last minute because the art work submitted was considered entirely unsatisfactory. The final result was probably the worst we ever had and a special effort will be made to ensure that next year's report returns to a higher standard."
On reading this some designers may mourn the profession betrayed by incompetence and. more practically, another client lost. Others may sniff out reaction in "returns to a higher standard". Some clients may bare old scars and commiserate while others may feel that the opportunity for image polishing had been discarded. The letter reveals a gulf between ideas of what a designer should do and what a company report should be. This confusion was consistently repeated in the reports sent in.
With the 1948 Companies Act all firms were obliged to publish consolidated accounts. Since then holding shares has become an activity that is beginning to span social classes. People now buy and sell; they have to be convinced. The outbreak of fiscal cold catching that started in the stock market around 1968 can only have increased a company's accountability to nervous shareholders who might want not only to get out of shares but to get out of money altogether and into objects, property - anything that might retain its value. So keeping the shareholders happy is not done just by showing the right sums. The old firm where the Brigadier (Chairman of the Board) owned 98 per cent of shares and his deaf Aunt two per cent is rarely seen, and then through a confused welter of misplaced Gill Sans. The majority of reports are now public relations exercises and, in differing ways and degrees of success, have got designed.
The word report is a contraction of the more accurate annual report and accounts; and this is the way booklets tend to divide in design terms. The accounts are an exercise in tabulation with attendant notes - constrained, hopefully, by laws of good typography and habits of accountancy both functional and ritualistic. The report can vary from a simple statement from the chairman to a multicolour PR selling operation. Indeed this graphic cuckoo in the nest has sometimes grown into a separate pull out and, in the case of British Rail, into a "popular" version sold to the public - the shareholders at 25p. Here, apart from an etiolated balance sheet of a half page, the style and tone is of a vast package tour
Far left: Unigate, The adman's touch. Inside, surprisingly low key and clear Unilever. Very interesting attempt to make Univers legible successful apart perhaps, from the three-column text. But manages to reveal substructures within the accounts. Below: British Rail More holiday brochure than, accounts. Sells at 25p The look of the future?
Top left and left: Real and Leasehold Estates. This report three years old, is the only one which makes a serious attempt to give accounts and their attendant notes a coherent unity. Bound asymmetrically so one set of folds reveals the consolidated balance sheet, another reveals the balance sheer itself. Good tabular typography, printed on Conqueror, an apparently extravagant fragile letterhead paper Real and Leasehold are now part of Star (Great Britain) Holdings whose report left is very ordinary
Left: Monotype Corporation. Very drab. Nasty mix of high white litho cartridge oppresseed with slabs of grey and comparatively yellowing glossy art carrying letterpress snapshot halftones. Unlike most reports, Monotype interestingly haven't used their very own Univers. Not up to former standards
Above and right: National Westminster. Shows a lot of typographic care in spacing, arrangement and the subtler elements of production, though the text would accept a little more leading. PR is kept cool and to a minimum
Above: Berk. Wild overproduction. Inside, a clutch of overlays company executives, blown up paper end signatures The cover is blind embossed - a common attempt at "dignity". Figures (not in this case, consolidated accounts) are in tables and cake diagrams, set out well enough but printed in awful schoolbook colours
operator; that can't be right, isn't BR a public service?
This split in function between accounts and PR is, on the whole, badly managed. The worst excesses of vacuous colour supplement layout clash with ill considered functionalism between the same covers: while those least "designed", or in the hands of the printers, go for sobriety, listen to tradition, and finish with bad typography; and some, never having heard of the soft sell or the Tower of Babel, go for noise, manic overproduction, vapid colour snapshots of tycoons looking at glum piles of sand, all amid tired agency tricks.
There are exceptions, and they are discussed separately in captions accompanying illustrations. Before that let us look at the accounts section itself. Those that are badly designed because the art director looked to the more ego enhancing graphics of the
Left and right: Fisons. Promisingly simple cover but the contents page has no less than ten different typefaces and colours, a trick retreated in ugly dollops throughout the report
PR section, or are otherwise neglected, are very often not significantly better than the cheap and cheerful efforts of a jobbing printer who may have a good compositor in liaison with an accountant holding firm views. Despite an absence of spatial niceties, style and concept the jobbing printer's approach can work because of conventional correctness and, being cheap, is devoid of tricksy rule and colour work. There seems to be a general allergy to red as a second colour (the most common choice for printers under other circumstances). Red suggests insolvency, it is argued. But red is an aggressive colour and when blue is substituted (why blue? any guesses?) its feebleness is too often compensated by warming it up or using a bronze blue, which on white paper is ugly. Another unnecessary hangover from bad traditional practice is that of using excessively long line measures, justified or unjustified, in accompanying notes to the figures. The reason given to me by an accountant was that it embraced all figures within the measure and therefore acted as a sort of spatial bracket. A well set out table will be asymmetric and should show its structure; attendant notes of a proper measure will clearly relate if the whole is separated from another table by space. Distorted text is a symptom of bad arrangement, never a solution to it.
Companies are clearly willing to accept change. Over three quarters of our samples were bound in A4 size. Considering the resistance to A sizes generally, and the reputation accountants have for conservatism, this is encouraging. For many of the traits of design being abandoned in the rush for a modern image were indefensible. Good "old fashioned" typography was mostly very bad; a product of a printers' sensibility degenerated at least since the Industrial Revolution and, I suspect, before that. Good printers who have maintained flexible, intelligent composing rooms and house styles are as rare as good typographers. The best accounts and reports will be produced by those companies and printers/designers who regard the presentation of information as first priority, and their images will be as bright as they are willing, with discreet production design, to polish them.
Companies determined to sell themselves to future shareholders with messages other than the printed results of their performance perhaps ought to shake off the accounts altogether, as British Rail have almost done, discard sobriety and go for package tour promises, full colour photographs and Sunday mag layout: but they won't get a penny out of me.
Left and above: Rotaflex. Swiss-like mania for patternmaking and imperious numbers cunningly disguised as functionalism comes off here because there's little function involved. More blind embossing for a bit of class. Inside, shoddy and out of character