Your Guide to Achieving an Exceptional Annual Report

The best reports are read not because they have to be, but because a reader wants to know more – from the cover to the back page.

An annual report does more than document company activities over the last financial year. It’s a statement about your business, about how you do things, how you operate, your strategic vision, your culture, the value you place in shareholders, and stakeholders – be they individuals, institutions or government.

A quality annual report can set the pace of your company, help define your market and encourage participation in your organisation. Conversely, a poorly-produced annual report may discourage investors or stakeholders. 

Great annual reports come from great ideas that are well executed. They allow time to finesse the concept, write to the brief, commission complementary words and imagery, and for any specialist printing if required, well before delivery to the mail house, the Board or Parliament. 

Great reports are not rushed out at the last minute. Like all great things, they are at their best when time has been taken in their preparation.

A great report will stand out from the crowd.


Ask yourself: why are you producing a report? Is there a legislative imperative to do so? Do you have a small number of interested shareholders who read all company information? Is it a legal requirement as a listed company, or are you a not-for-profit that uses it for marketing purposes? How often do you communicate with this audience and get an opportunity to explain your organisation and its activities?

Perhaps you have a new CEO, or want to answer public criticism of your company. The annual report is a great opportunity to signify change, growth, security and vision. It sells your organisation and the staff behind it. It reflects what you have achieved in the last twelve months, and what you stand for.

As such you need to make every post meaningful. From the president’s report, previous year’s achievements, internal engagement initiatives to future vision, all information must cohesively work together to provide a 360O overview of your business or organisation.


Your annual report theme can come from a number of directions. Has your organisation had a strategic priority for the year? Can you define the year by any particular theme? Has there been an outstanding achievement that can set the direction? Or have you developed new visionary aspirations? The CEO may want input into the theme, or provide some insight into how they saw the past year.

Many outstanding stories within your business can provide the inspiration for creating a cohesive and compelling theme that can be carried throughout your report. The best results will come through workshopping ideas with both your marketing team and your designers. An external perspective can often help. 

Once a (or a few) concept themes have been developed, they then need to be incorporated within the brief.

Award winning reports have a strong theme that continues with imagery and words to draw the reader in and keep them engaged throughout the document.

The brief

This takes the form of some key information to pass on to the design team. It should include, but may not be limited to the following:

  • Background
  • Audience
  • Format
  • Mandatory inclusions
  • Past year highlights
  • Concept / tone / feeling / theme
  • Style guide requirements
  • Delivery deadline
  • Distribution means

A well-timed briefing session about five months before your deadline allows plenty of time for design development and finessing, this allows more time to write your report rather than rushing through the whole process close to the deadline.

Report types

Just as there are many different types of organisations, there are many types of reports, purpose-designed to fill the brief.

Annual reports, annual reviews, financial reports: the options for stakeholder communication of your bottom line are endless. All listed companies are required to produce audited financial statements for shareholders, and all public sector organisations must report to Parliament. It is the extent to which you choose to augment these statements with further information that dictates the type and size of your report. 

With opt-in clauses now in place, the days of providing full annual reports to all shareholders are diminishing. Many companies send either an annual review or summary of activities to all shareholders, and provide electronic copies of the full financial statements online.

Your designers are the best resource in helping you choose a compelling and cost-effective format for your report.

While many believed the move to digital media would mean the death of the printed report, digital printing has opened up a world of possibilities in terms of smaller, cost-effective print runs. 

The concept

The designer uses the brief and supplementary information including your style guide and translates them into a coherent, visual concept.

The design of the annual report incorporates a number of aspects. The first step is producing design concepts. 

Depending on timing and budget, there may be a few design options to choose from. This stage includes resolution of all design issues, and includes font and colour selection, imagery style and format of the report.

Words that work

Using an external copywriter can ease the burden on your department and assist with timely production of the report.

Once the concept has been approved, it is time to consider the editorial. The editorial goes hand-in-hand with the design and is written to support the concept.

You may be handling it in-house, or wish to employ an annual report specialist to assist with the copy. Many clients choose to produce raw copy internally, and then work with an editor to fit the copy to the concept and make the language uniform throughout the document. This includes editing all provided copy for plain English, adhering to your organisation’s style guide, and sub-editing pages once they are designed so that the copy fits cleanly.

It is in your interest to provide fully-approved copy to your designer in order to minimise the time and cost of author’s corrections as the deadline looms.

Similarly, sending your report out for proofreading prior to printing will ensure any last minute changes don’t result in last minute expenses. 

The wow factor

Great imagery can provide the pick up and read factor on the cover that everyone is looking for, and guide the reader through the document. It tells its own story, providing a taste of the information contained within.

A picture can tell a thousand words. A few words can also form a great picture. Imagery can make or break a report. Creating something truly original means commissioning imagery for your report. 

It is important to plan imagery ahead of time, as photography or illustrations need to be commissioned early.

Good compelling imagery doesn’t have to cost a lot. The best results come from when the designers are involved in choosing and managing the photographers or illustrators and where everyone works as a team to a budget. You may also consider ways to utilise any commissioned imagery or photography (subject to approval of the artist or photographer) in other media throughout the year. 

Your design team will work with you to choose the best fit for your report. 

Format and printing

Gone are the days where reports were all printed to A4 size. Pocket-sized, oversized, A4, quarto, landscape: all reports are custom made and designed to best meet the brief.

If printing your report, you can choose to have them saddle-stitched (stapled), burst or perfect bound (with flat spine) or ring bound (when including a spine it is commonly referred to as Canadian or half-Canadian binding). Size often dictates the best binding method for your report. Larger reports work best with burst binding, which allows room on the spine to include the name and year of your report. Saddle stitching works well with reports or reviews that run to around 40 pages or less. Specialist binding such as ring binding is also an option, and allows for more flexible pagination than saddle stitching or perfect binding.

Paper stock (using coated or uncoated paper), weight (the thickness of the paper measured in grams per square metre – GSM) are also important printing considerations, and specialist treatments such as embossing or foiling can add real impact to your report at a minimal additional cost. 

Determine your print run by taking into account the number of reports required for shareholders/stakeholders, and then factor in those used for marketing purposes, in your organisation’s foyer or at company presentations.

Environmental impact

Environmental awareness in the production of your report is a high priority.

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is the independent body globally that determines the origin of the raw materials used in the production of paper. The FSC evaluates the management practices in the forest itself and accredited providers need to meet specified ecological and social performance measures, and commit to reduce the impacts of logging. In short, the FSC certified forests must be managed in an environmentally sound, socially beneficial and economically viable way.

Other environmental considerations include whether the stock is processed chlorine free, the carbon footprint of the paper processing and printing, the use of soy-based inks, and ensuring an adequate but not wasteful print run. 

If you are using your own printer, be sure to check whether they are FSC certified and using environmentally sustainable paper.

Avoid the time trap

The best way to avoid an annual report headache is to think about it early when you can, rather than when you have to.

Listed companies and government departments have strictly mandated times for delivering reports to shareholders or stakeholders. Unlisted or not-for-profit organisations often choose to produce an annual report, but are often not bound by specific dates to mail the report.

5 months before

  • Meeting to define concept

4 months before

  • Design concepts signed off
  • Editorial commissioned
  • Illustrations / photography commissioned

3 months before

  • Editorial signed off 
  • Audited financial statements finalised and sent to designers

2 months before

  • First draft of fully designed report to client

1 month before

  • Final version signed off by client
  • Files to printer for proofs
  • Proofreading of report
  • Client sign-off of proofs


  • Report delivered to client / mail house

Getting started

First and foremost a brief assessment of the previous year’s annual report process and outcomes will assist in developing a checklist of requirements for this year. This will allow you to build on your success and improve weaknesses within the process. This can be done internally or preferably in partnership with your designers.

Choosing the correct design partner will be paramount. Here are some points to consider when appointing them: 

  • Experience
  • Accountability
  • Reputation
  • Ability to meet tight deadlines
  • Ability to adapt processes to meet your requirements
  • Creative ingenuity
  • Approachability of staff
  • Access to staff
  • Result focus

Through collaborating with your design partner you should be able to develop an achievable process and timeline that allows you to maximise the end result.

If you’d like to talk to us about producing an exceptional report for your business, send us your details and we’ll be in touch.