How to create an exceptional Annual Report

Great reports come from creative ideas that are well executed, and like all great things, they are at their best when time has been taken in their preparation.

A snapshot of recent reports designed by Celsius Design

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.

This article offers our pearls of wisdom from having produced over 160 reports as design partners to organisations of all kinds. We hope it provides you with some insights, helpful tips and guidance on how to plan and create an exceptional annual report.

1. Purpose

Ask yourself why you are producing a report. 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 the intended 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 section meaningful. From the President’s report, to previous year’s achievements, to internal engagement initiatives, to future vision – all information must cohesively work together to provide a 360O overview of your business or organisation.

2. Theming

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?

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 concept theme has been developed, it then needs 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.

3. 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.

4. 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 a great resource in helping you choose a compelling and cost-effective format for your report (read more about this under Printed formats and Going digital). 

5. 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.

6. 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.

TIP: 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. 

7. 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 report. It tells its own story, providing a taste of the information contained within.

A picture can tell a thousand words and 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. 

8. Printed formats

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.

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.

Size often dictates the best binding method for your report. Larger reports work best with perfect binding (with flat spine), which allows room on the spine to include the name and year of your report. Saddle stitching (stapled) works well with reports or reviews that run to around 40 pages or less.

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. 

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

9. Going digital

Tempting as it may be for annual report traditionalists to stick to tried and true formats, it’s hard to deny the benefits an online report can offer.

For one, a digital report expands the type of content that can be used to include video or animation, which dramatically increases audience engagement (hello Facebook). This might be in the form of a CEO’s welcome message, a year in review video compilation, footage of an event that has taken place over the year, or a milestone achievement or success story.

An online report also allows readers to easily choose what they read and how they navigate their way around the content, in much the same way as a website. This in turn allows you to capture (through analytics) what content from your reports is of most interest to your audience and use these insights to help inform next year’s report.

Other advantages of taking your report online are that it eliminates the associated cost and environmental impact of print and freight – not to mention that the content is always live and editable so if figures need updating or spelling mistakes corrected (which let’s face it, they always do), it can be actioned instantly.

10. 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.

Well, that just about sums up our advice for things to plan for and consider when it comes to Annual Reports. We know they can be mammoth tasks with lots of moving parts but, given careful planning and a knowledgable design partner 😉, they also represent a great opportunity to reflect, inform, inspire and acknowledge the achievements of your organisation.

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.