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Love ’em or hate ’em

Lately, annual reports have been a large part of any given conversation I have with designers. Since November they have become my bread-earning creative obsession, and in these conversations I have discovered that annual reports is an area of extremists.

Designers either love working on annual reports, or can’t stand them. Now, I have not been in the area long enough to really understand the reasons behind the sentiments and I am looking for some insight. Granted, it is a stressful and taxing 4-6 winter months, in which your kids forget what you look like, and the downstairs deli takes messages from your wife. The rest of the year tends to be much lighter, and considering it is the summer, rather nice.

The best known firms that come to mind for annual reports are Addison, Cahan and Associates , Louey/Rubino, SamataMason and VSA Partners among others. Most places are like the designers, they either devote all their energies to annual reports or they take on one or two each year. Considering that they can be highly conceptual and strategic, with big budgets for original photography (or illustration) and many times are used as marketing pieces, why is it that so many designers run in the opposite direction? And why are some of us so smitten by the practice?

Is it the ultimate strategic branding and messaging project? That is created in a pre-set period of time? There is no way you can drag the project for months-on-end, and there is no possibility of it falling through the cracks (as a project, not as a creative direction), or is it a form of book that does not require years of work?

And, on the flip side of the coin, are annual reports on their way out? Do you think it is true that companies are going for a Form 10-K filing-only any time soon? Or that online annual reports are the future? Leaving the appeal and interest generating traditional annual report in the gutter?

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PUBLISHED ON Jan.30.2005 BY bryony
Gunnar Swanson’s comment is:

One of Tibor’s more interesting questions: “Why don’t they just fax everyone the financials?”

On Jan.30.2005 at 09:26 PM
Tan’s comment is:

This is a topic near and dear to my heart.

One of the first design firms that I worked at right out of school was a little shop in Minneapolis called the Nancekivell Group. The shop had about 14 people, and they did one thing very well — annual reports. In my first year there, I believe TNG designed and produced 27 full-fledged annuals — in every season too, with FY-ends from December to September. By the time I'd left there for warmer climates, I had more than 30 annuals under my belt — and was completely smitten by the work and utterly convinced that it was the most challenging and rewarding type of print design there was.

That was during the hey days of annuals, which was from about the late 80s to 2000. Firms like F/G/B, the Samata Group (before Dave joined), Leimer Cross, and Pentagram were breaking new grounds each year — redefining the art of the annual report narrative and corporate storytelling. It was a time when the market still had trust, when shareholders and investors were truly interested in the mission of a company not just its ratings, and when CEOs were brave and bold enough to set forth visions in writing. To me, it was the golden age of the annual report.

What was true then and still today is that an annual report is the ultimate test of project management for a print designer. Some have cycles of 10-months, some have to be done in less than 10 weeks. Neither are easier to solve than the other, and all require a commitment of time and energy that's seldom seen in any other type of design projects. It also requires accountability due to the fact that back then, an annual report was an official financial document that was scrutinized by the SEC for accuracy and timeliness. Missed deadlines and mistakes meant sanctioned fines and direct consequences.

Not everyone could produce a well-designed annual either. Out of thousands of annuals produced a year in the US, only about a hundred are of a quality worth recognition — and thus was born the AR100 Show. To make the AR100 was to join an elite, exclusive circle of corporate designers. Similarly came the Mead AR Show, which was an even smaller circle, as well as the Potlatch Show. Cumulatively, these shows elevated the presence and value of design in corporate America. It gave credibility to our profession by recognizing that a designer can master and bring value to the highest, most complex level of corporate communications.

But alas, all good things must come to an end it seems. Technology, the internet, the dot-com bust, day-trading, along with a number of other factors have irrevocably changed the annual report as we know it. It's a dying art form. Many veterans in the business saw it coming years ago.

I want to mention a few other notable firms (aside from Cahan, and those mentioned) whose masterful AR work I've admired and been inspired by through the years: Weymouth (Boston), EAI (Atlanta), Lana Rigsby (Houston), and Nasnady/Schwartz (Cincinnati), among many others.

And I've already stated this in a previous thread, but it bears repeating — in my opinion, the 2001 IBM Annual Report by VSA was the single most compelling, well-written, and well-designed example of an annual report ever. We should've all agreed as an industry to stop after that book, and go do something else — to end on a high note and leave the genre with grace and dignity.

We should've pulled a Seinfeld.

On Jan.31.2005 at 01:43 AM
Nick’s comment is:

You have used the wrong marks for the apostrophes in your headline.

On Jan.31.2005 at 08:47 AM
Armin’s comment is:

Nick, the backward apostrophes are a setting from MovableType where it converts straight quotes into curly quotes. But it doesn't recognize them when they are at the beggining of a word.

So, with that out of the way, back to annual reports.

On Jan.31.2005 at 09:30 AM
Tan’s comment is:

What the hell is wrong with the readers on SU lately?

Can't people be mature enough to have intelligent, reasonable, non-petty discussions about the topic at hand without it driving into some sort of other bullshit?

On Jan.31.2005 at 09:47 AM
Darrel’s comment is:

Need a coffee break there, Tan?

Here's my question: Today, what is the purpose of an corporate annual report? I've worked at firms that did a lot of AR's but I was never on that particular focus myself. I have done the odd small-time report for the odd non-profit and such, but those typically seem to act more as 'thanks for donating, here's what we did with your money' type of things.

Do AR's (the narrative/visuals...not the financials) really influence stockholders these days?

On Jan.31.2005 at 10:04 AM
Darrel’s comment is:

Also, since we're on topic, any examples of great ARs from this past year?

On Jan.31.2005 at 10:06 AM
Matilda’s comment is:

I feel the same way you do, Tan (but I'm referring to your first post), about AR work.

I unfortunately started working as a "real" graphic designer in 2000, basically at the beginning of the demise of the form. I had been so excited to cut my teeth on ARs: to test my mettle, to make a larger statement with the longer, more sustained medium of annual reports. The studio I was hired at was once a great corporate AR specialist: there were about 8 designers who'd take on 10 ARs a season (per designer!). By the time I was hired, there were 3 designers and one AR per designer. By the time I left, there were still 3 designers but only 2 ARs.

On Jan.31.2005 at 11:03 AM
Pesky Illustrator’s comment is:

Tan, your point about the heydays of annual reports parallels an era of very intelligent illustration work too. Daniel Mafia, Alan Cober, Jack Unruh and Brad Holland among so many others. (Brad and Jack still do amazing art today.) But it was inspiring to see fresh assignments before the Stock Art phenomenon swallowed it up. I was working as a newbie illustrator in Atlanta at that time when everything was more than merely gold plated, but thoughtful and challenging. Before art directors bought art like it was pre-chewed food, ADs of annual reports tended to be the most thorough individuals. It was like watching someone land ten airplanes at the same time with no room for error.

Excellence in design, or so we thought, echoed excellence in their corporate culture, (pre-WorldCom and Enron). The market's velvet embrace - a phrase Anthony Inciong used in Emigre's magazine - and had designers believing that they were "on the team", was sacrificed for the expediency of expanding multinational corporations via newer, faster communication technology... where images became as cheap as dirt. Ah well, onward...

On Jan.31.2005 at 11:12 AM
Bryony’s comment is:

>It was a time when the market still had trust, when shareholders and investors were truly interested in the mission of a company not just its ratings, and when CEOs were brave and bold enough to set forth visions in writing.

Do you really think you can’t find that anymore? Maybe not as often, but this sounds bleek…

>What was true then and still today is that an annual report is the ultimate test of project management for a print designer.

And the production manager! For us she is an angel! So patient and nice, even when we keep changing everything on her.

>2001 IBM Annual Report by VSA

Download Here

>what is the purpose of an corporate annual report?

For many the question should be refrased to:

what is the purpose of this year’s annual report?

And who is you main audience?

Many corporations are creating a hybrid annual, one that speaks to the direct needs of the project, while also functioning as a marketing piece. With this in mind, many are turning to printing a 10-K separate from the annual, but shipping them together to their investors. That gives them the opportunity to ship only the annual when targeting potential investors or customers.

But, in essence, an annual should talk about what The Company does, what happened that year (what is so specific and special about it, good or bad), goals and accomplishments and future steps. This can be done in a few words on through lengthy letters.

On Jan.31.2005 at 11:22 AM
Derrick Schultz’s comment is:

sadly, it feels more and more like annual reports are headed the way of poster design—where only creative CEO's will try them...why are all the fun mediums disappearing?

Tan, I think Nasnady/Schwartz is out of Cleveland. No big deal, just don't make us in Cincinnati look better than we actually are!

On Jan.31.2005 at 11:31 AM
marian’s comment is:

I've been hearing dire warnings about the death of the AR for years ... and continue to hear them. Many companies already resort to the 10K, and there's no doubt the budgets for ARs are down ... way down from what I've heard. My gut feeling, though, is that it is a downswing that still has to hit bottom, but will eventually be resurrected.

Surely we can't be in a state of investment disillusionment forever? I think a time will come (and it may be quite a while yet) when companies that are doing well will want to show it off, and they'll turn to the AR to do it. Personally, as an investor, I detest getting a 10K: it sends me an immediate message of "Oh shit, they're not doing well."

I have only worked on one true AR (plus a few Corporate Responsibility Reports), and I found it thoroughly enjoyable. But I got along well with the client, it was a smooth process, and I come from a book background, so that kind of production comes easily to me. And the result was one of the few pieces from my corporate portfolio that I am still proud of.

I've never understood why one designer would ever want to handle (or be required to handle) more than 2 or 3 at once. It's the stress that kills ya.

On Jan.31.2005 at 11:35 AM
Tan’s comment is:

>Do AR's really influence stockholders these days?

Good question Darrel.

The optimistic answer is yes — there are many investors still looking for the real deal, a place they can believe enough in to invest their hard-earned cash. I believe that a well-written, fully thought-out annual report is key in joining those types of investors with the companies that they're looking for.

But the realistic answer is no — investors today are different, and to a large part, no longer find value in a document that's only printed once a year. Long term investors are a rarity these days, but you can hardly blame them. Immediacy is the name of the game in today's financial world — where there are five or more 24-hour financial cable channels (that I can think of), hundreds of up to the minute financial/investor websites, not to mention the individual online presence of every public company out there. In this new world, the traditional annual report is becoming a relic.

...and yes, thanks, I just had a cup of coffee and feel much better.

>there were about 8 designers who'd take on 10 ARs a season (per designer!)

This may sound facetious to many, but I've been there. At the height of the AR era, I used to work on 9 to 11 annuals a year, with always 2 or 3 annuals concurrently going at the same time. It was insane. Leimer Cross used to take on 24 annuals a year with just a staff of 5, including the two principals and an admin. And I think at one point a few years ago, Cahan had 40 or so annuals in their shop of 12 people.

Crazy as it sounds, I sort of miss those days.

>parallels an era of very intelligent illustration work too

Great point, PI. I'd also add Craig Frazier to that list of prominent AR illustrators.

And let's not forget AR photographers. I had the privilege of working with a number of amazing AR photographers that were a breed apart.

The work brought the best out of everyone.

>It was like watching someone land ten airplanes at the same time with no room for error.

That's exactly how it felt. Through the years, I've had times when I've been more busy and have managed more non-AR work— but that sense of responsibility and demands of commitment has never come close to a full-scale AR season.

On Jan.31.2005 at 11:54 AM
Mahalie’s comment is:

Hopefully this isn't too far off topic, but I'm glad the topic of annual reports came up for an off-topic reason: proposals. I do graphic design (and just about everything else) for a landscape architecture firm and it is pretty dang hard to get your hands on inspirational material for creating new proposals. It never occured to me until today to look to annual reports. They're very similar in size and content (about the firm, our firm's projects). Thanks for the IBM annual report link and all the firms in the post. If anyone has a favorite annual report on hand that they'd like to share I would love to see it! (No worries about competition, I'm not a 'real' graphic designer, and my firm only does proposals for park projects and other small projects in Seattle!) Oh...uh, mail at mahahlie dot com - cheers!

On Jan.31.2005 at 11:56 AM
ps’s comment is:

i think the "hate em" factor is a left over from the past. it used to be a nightmare to make last minute changes to text or numbers, but lets face it: nowadays that is a non-issue. but for some reason we still act like an AR is such a big deal. sure its a usually substantial piece of marketing material with a set deadline. so while the reports might be overwhelming work, it might be more of an issue of the design firm taking on more work in a short timeframe than can be handled comfortably.

back to my annual report.

On Jan.31.2005 at 12:00 PM
Bryony’s comment is:

i think the "hate em" factor is a left over from the past. it used to be a nightmare to make last minute changes to text or numbers, but lets face it: nowadays that is a non-issue.

Because it used to be a nightmare, and it no longer is, what is the problem or issue to be found in making changes and more changes and another round of changes up to the very last minute? It is easy right? So we can keep the printer, the designer, the project manager, etc on the job until 500am, because it is now easy to make changes?

in one click you can change the font...

in another the color...

and you can also change the orientation...

No biggie. Right?

On Jan.31.2005 at 12:07 PM
Armin’s comment is:

For me, this year is the first time I have worked on annual reports. I like it. It's a corporate brochure — of which I have done a few — on steroids. As fatigue-filled as the process is I think the reward can be as fulfilling as running a triathlon… not that I have ever done that. One of the books I'm working on goes to press -�supposedly and luckily — this week. I can't wait to see it finished, I haven't been so eager about a finished piece in a while. Another book which prints soon, we don't have copy yet. Ha!

There is a certain thrill about doing annuals, I guess it's because if you fuck up something you can really screw up your client and your bank acccount.

I kind of like what is going on with some online annual reports, where interactivity and animation can add one more layer of communication, but overall they are not as exciting.

> Also, since we're on topic, any examples of great ARs from this past year?

Jack in the Box's 2003 annual is pretty good.

On Jan.31.2005 at 12:08 PM
Tan’s comment is:

>Do you really think you can’t find that anymore? Maybe not as often, but this sounds bleek…

Well, it may sound bleek, but the truth is that the corporate world of investing may be fundamentally changing.

But to marian's point — yes, I agree that this age of investor skepticism will eventually subside back to more normalcy. But technology will continue to affect corporate media, and by the time the market recovers, the corporate financial landscape will have changed for good.

But let's wait and see. I'd be more than happy to be wrong.

>I think Nasnady/Schwartz is out of Cleveland.

Thanks Derrick. Please forgive me Cleveland, and you too Cincinnati.

On Jan.31.2005 at 12:10 PM
Tan’s comment is:

>If anyone has a favorite annual report on hand that they'd like to share I would love to see it!

If you're looking for copies of current ARs, there are some really good online resources for printed annual reports.

PRARS is an ugly site, but it's dependable and free. They'll send you a stack of ARs within about a week of your request.

I used to teach an AR design class, and always sent students to this site. They seem to somehow source ARs that you can't even get directly from the company of origin.

Shit...gotta get back to work — have fun guys.

On Jan.31.2005 at 12:32 PM
Zoelle’s comment is:

There is a certain thrill about doing annuals, I guess it's because if you fuck up something you can really screw up your client and your bank acccount.

Do you or other designers have contracts that are specific to the creation of annual reports?

On Jan.31.2005 at 12:35 PM
DesignMaven’s comment is:

As an Identity Designer it is impossible to commit to both disciplines. I prefer Identity Design as opposed to Annual Reports.

In that respect, I don't do any print work at all other than poster(s).

I don't hate annual reports. I'm not crazy about them either as a project. Never touch them; as a general rule. I do appreciate a well Conceived, Developed, and Designed Annual Report.

Nothing satisfies my SOUL more than picking up a pen or pencil and making marks on paper. Solving a clients Identity and Image Issues. Which, the public will see before the Annual Report.

Often times the Annual Reports never reach the hands or homes of the General Public.


You mentioned some decent Historic Annual Report Designer(s). Allow me to add to your list.

1. PAUL RAND Every last one, a milestone.

2. Robert Miles Runyan, The GrandDaddy.

3. Jim Cross

4. Cook & Shonosky

5. George Tscherny

6. Arnold Saks

7. The Richards Group

8. Sheldon Seidler

9. Corporate Graphics

10. Johnson Pederson Herichs & Shakery

11. Frankfurt Gips Balkind

12. Tolleson Design

13. A Design Collabrative

14. Nenandey & Schwartz

15. The Van Dyke Company

Honorable Mention goes to the inhouse Design Team at CBS and Herman Miller.

I'm in the process of downloading the IBM Annual Report by VSA Partners. Haven't seen it. I'll put the Annual Reports Frankfurt Gips Balkind Designed for Time Warner against your favorite any day. Not sure who'll win. Doesn't matter.

FYI, I think Mr. Shinn was honestly not Nit picking. However pointing out what appeared to be a typographical error. If I caught it. I would've said the same.

eh, we all have those days. Last Monday it was me !!!!! Let's not start a trend, Monday Morning Blahs.


"Paper is still the best way to deliver high thought content".

written by: Alfred North Whitehead

Written several light years before the invention of the internet. I'm still inclined to agree.

On Jan.31.2005 at 12:57 PM
ps’s comment is:

Because it used to be a nightmare, and it no longer is, what is the problem or issue to be found in making changes and more changes and another round of changes up to the very last minute? It is easy right? So we can keep the printer, the designer, the project manager, etc on the job until 500am, because it is now easy to make changes?

in my experience. the last minute changes are due to the financial auditors and not because the client had a change of thought last minute. maybe giving your clients a realistic deadline would eliminate that problem. and yes, changing a number last minute -- no biggie anymore.

On Jan.31.2005 at 01:04 PM
Darrel’s comment is:

Tan...good answers re: optimistic/reality. That's what I was thinking myself.

On Jan.31.2005 at 02:16 PM
Armin’s comment is:

> no biggie anymore.

But the stress, peter, the stress!

Seriously. It's no biggie techically. But it racks up the bill, specially when changes are being made on press. Then when it comes to billing time, watch out.

On Jan.31.2005 at 02:25 PM
Darryl Brown’s comment is:

Speaking of the death of annual reports, has anyone seen Microsoft's 2003 report? It is black and white, on newsprint (or something close), even the front section, and has the ugliest cover I've seen on an A.R. It has caused some consternation at our design firm since a client has glommed on to it as the future of reports. I'd love to hear some feedback on it from anyone who has seen it...

On Jan.31.2005 at 02:45 PM
DesignMaven’s comment is:

Forgot to mention Erik Nitsche.

His Annual Reports for General Dynamics were a Text Book and TESTAMENT for AR Design. Second to none of any AR's Ive ever seen.

One needed a Secret Clearance to view them.

back to my Brian Eno CD.

'taking Tiger Mountain by strategy'.

cued up next is Weather Report.

On Jan.31.2005 at 03:29 PM
anonymous’s comment is:

Attn: Namedroppity McDropperson. Pick up a white courtesy phone....

On Jan.31.2005 at 03:55 PM
Armin’s comment is:

OK… enough with the anonymous posts today.

Thank you,


On Jan.31.2005 at 04:13 PM
Tan’s comment is:

>has anyone seen Microsoft's 2003 report?

Microsoft isn't the only notable company that just produces a 10K wrap. A bunch of other large Fortune 500 companies follow suit, including Amazon and Apple. Yes, our beloved Apple.

But what these companies that cite MS as an example don't understand is that they're not Microsoft. Everyone knows who MS is and what they're about. There are thousands upon thousands of analysts whose sole job is to keep track of Microsoft and report, analyze, and predict what MS and its stock will do next. So by the time the annual report comes out in September, it's old news to most of their investors.

Also consider this. Microsoft prints more than 4 million copies of their annual report. Most public companies produce less than 50K copies for their shareholders. So the cost of reducing just 4 pages of text and paper in a MS annual could mean literally hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings in printing, paper, and mailing costs. That's also the reason why MS's annual is on 40 lb newsprint stock.

Next time, just remind your clients that they are not anything like Microsoft — and that they don't print 4 million annuals. So they shouldn't use MS's annual as an example of best practices for their own.

On Jan.31.2005 at 04:24 PM
Kevin Lo’s comment is:

Excuse my ignorance, but what is a 10K wrap?

On Jan.31.2005 at 04:40 PM
Tan’s comment is:

>what is a 10K wrap?

Sorry Kevin. I forget that not everyone knows these jargons.

The SEC used to require that all public companies must produce and file a number of financial documents every year. These documents include a fancy annual report to shareholders, a basic b/w Form 10-K, and a similarly dry Form 10-Q. The 10-K and 10-Q are detailed, comprehensive financial disclosures that's wall-to-wall text and numbers lacking even a fancy cover. An annual report contains financials that are basically consolidated and abbreviated versions of 10-K information (that's why ARs have statements that are titled Consolidated Balance Sheets, Consolidated Cash Flows, etc.), but with more approachable, narrative analysis that the average investor could understand.

Before the internet, public companies were required by the SEC to produce an annual report that was separate from a 10K — probably because they felt that most investors could not interpret the highly complex financial information in a 10K. But since then, the internet has helped disseminate that information, so the SEC softened its requirement on separate documents.

So nowadays, to save costs, more and more companies are opting to skip the formal annual report altogether, and just produce a 10k that has a nice cover on it. That's what known loosely in the industry as a "10K wrap".

On Jan.31.2005 at 05:19 PM
Kevin Lo’s comment is:

Thanks Tan! Learn something new everyday...

On Jan.31.2005 at 06:39 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Here is a nice online iteration of a printed annual. I'm pretty sure VSA did it.

On Jan.31.2005 at 07:01 PM
Dino’s comment is:

Thanks so much for bringing up this topic. This discussion brings back memories of designing, the typesetting and blue lining mechanical boards for the annual reports. Gee, I remember those last minute changes to the numbers and how we would run to the stat camera room and take another picture of some numbers from another page (to save cost of sending out typesetting) then we would cut and paste, by a X-acto knife, to update the page. Proofing was critical during the mechanical, blueline and press run stages. We never leave the proofing to the production artist, that would have been fatal, especially when the artist was up all night pasting copy.

When the computers came into the graphic design industry I was involve in packaging, web and marketing-- far far away from the annual reports days.

With budget cuts and environmental concerns companies are asking themselves what’s the value in producing a glossy 4-color annual report? Electronic via PDF is convenient, fast and cheaper. I also noticed that some printed annual reports are smaller and 2 color—printed on cheaper paper.

On Jan.31.2005 at 07:05 PM
Pesky Illustrator’s comment is:

Design Maven,

An article I just came across that you may find interesting: a fascinating interview with Brian Eno on a big theory of culture, memes, etc.


On Jan.31.2005 at 07:32 PM
DesignMaven’s comment is:


May the Heavens smile upon you.

I'm a BIG Eno Fanatic. Way back when he co-found ROXY MUSIC. Brian Fury was Crooning Ballads the equivalent of Smokey Robinson. And Phil Manzanera(801 Live) was giving Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, and Robert Fripp a run for their money; as Worlds Greatest Guitarist. Albeit the status of Classical Guitarist Andre Segovia.

Those were the days.

On Topic:

It's unfortunate the State-of-Art of Annual Report Design. Similar to Identity Manuals, AR's have succumb to the internet. Other than Identity Manuals. Their isn't another Print Design Discipline that command the fee in a four to six month period as Annual Reports and Identity Manuals.

Thanks for the links Guys. I'm collecting as many AR's as I can obtain. Sad, the better Designed AR's are as difficult to acquire as obtaining front row seats to major sporting events.

On Jan.31.2005 at 08:21 PM
D. Glaze’s comment is:

I'm wondering if anyone has more good links to interactive annual reports. I am currently working on an interactive (and accompanying print piece) for an arts organization and it is so fun. I'm lucky in that the client wants something creative and interesting.

I've been surprised to not see more interesting interactive annual reports. Annual reports have often been the finest of the fine in print design and I'd expect that trend to carry over to interactive. Doesn't it seem like the perfect medium, really?

On Jan.31.2005 at 09:03 PM
Bryony’s comment is:

As I write this, I am waiting for copy changes from a client, knowing that my drop-dead deadline is 330am, when the last currier is to be sought to deliver my boards…

The most common cutting costs, while still producing a printed annual report that I have personally encountered are:

1. print 8 pages, 2 or 4 color and the financials in one color. No fancy frills, no fancy papers of blowing whistles.

2. Print a small annual report (in number of pages) and a 10K under separate wrap

3. Combine your marketing and annual report budgets and produce a marketing piece with financial information and a pocket folder (or similar) in the back for the hard-core stuff

4. Go for a very “graphical” solution. Read, no photos.

To learn more about annual reports, I have found http://www.addison.com/annualreports/handbook.aspx" target="_blank">this book really insightful.

On Jan.31.2005 at 09:55 PM
Bryony’s comment is:

it seems pathetic now, that after initiating this discussion I pull my first all nighter of the season...


On Feb.01.2005 at 08:16 AM
sheepstealer’s comment is:

I too agree with Tan that Microsoft is a trendsetter in the area of the 10-K wrap. But deep in my heart I hope he's wrong about the AR disappearing forever. Yes, companies are gunshy right now, but I think it will be temporary. As long as there's a reason to send something to investors, there will always be a reason to send something better to investors.

I am right now in the middle of teaching an annual report class. I admitted to my students that they may be learning a dying art. But there are many aspects of the AR that will always be alive and should always be a part of the design process, no matter what the project. Here's what the AR gives to a designer:

1) The chance to dig DEEP—No other project requires that the designer be more informed about company, strategy, market position & value proposition.

2) Many messages, one voice—An annual report designer builds the skill to take completely different elements—wall-to-wall financial tables, long text, short text, sexy images—and tie them together with a visual common thread into one cohesive unit.

3) Long-range pacing—AR design is like writing a song. Loud parts/soft parts, repetition/variety, harmony/dissonance. And at the end you want the audience to feel good about what they've heard, but leave them wanting more.

Understanding design at levels this deep applies to all projects.

And when it comes to the love/hate of the AR? I have only love, no hate.

And my students' nickname for the lesser version of the AR? 10-KRAP

On Feb.01.2005 at 11:47 AM
DesignMaven’s comment is:

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention this.

Last year our own Michael Surtees send me a copy of the Annual Report he Designed for Matrikon Inc. For my personal perusal. It is the highest compliment any Designer can pay me.

Needless to say. I was in total Awe. I think I may have deficated in my shorts. The sheer Magnitude of the project was unbelievable.

Although, it was sixty four (64) pages. Every Illustration and Schematic was Designed by Michael. Certainly a human hand was felt in this project. Who cares the origin of the photography.

When Illustration and Schematics are that exceptional.

The Matrikon Inc. Annual Report is the best I'd ever seen from a Designer without a Worldwide Reputation. Bar None !!!!!!!

Definitely an Award Winner.

Michael, believe me when I tell you. I'd still be working on that Annual Report today. That you finished in three to four weeks.

The date on the pdf is January 23, 2004. Yeah, I'd still be working on it. That's no exageration.

On Feb.01.2005 at 12:18 PM
Robin’s comment is:

Annual Reports as a discipline are not necessarily disappearing, but they are shrinking! This argument always reminds me of the "paperless office" - there will always be paper in the workplace just as there will always be Annual Reports (in some form or another).

There are many reasons why ARs are shrinking down to the infamous 10-K wraps:

- government policy: the SEC is changing guidelines and shortening the amount of time corporations have from their filing date to distributions date. This shortening will only further promote the use of 10-Ks instead of full financials.

- organizational structure: in good times, the AR project is shared by the corporate communications and investor relations departments. In lean times, this is the responsibility of only one department, and if that dept is IR, then there could be a good chance that they don't see the full value provided by a well-designed and messaged narrative, and will want to focus more on the numbers.

- investor breakdown: there aren't as many retail investors in a down market. If your company caters mainly to institutional investors, then they may see less value in a full annual report since the institutional investors are typically very educated already about their corporate strategy

- budgets: this is another downside to 10-K wraps - they are thicker which may mean more printing and postage costs. If a company has a fixed budget for their AR, and costs in two areas increase, then you know what will get cut (hint, the design, photography, etc)

As a designer, wraps are frustrating because you never have enough space to fully tell a good story, and you always spend just as much time coming up with a good concept as you might for a full annual (only for much less money).

Our shop does quite a few annuals, and in fact I just came back from an AR meeting, so this is timely (it's a wrap format, in case you're curious). But I will have to say that the ones we do that people really talk about and draw the most attention and results are the full annuals.

On a side note, I have also had a client use the Microsoft 10-K only version as an example of what other companies should be doing. This particular client admires MS and sees them as a "trendsetter" in investor communications. We have to consider that there are clients out there that are not sure what is right for their company, so they are looking to companies they admire for direction. The challenge here is to get them to understand that they need to look to Annual Report "experts" for that advice much in the same way they might hire a branding "expert" to determine brand direction.

On Feb.02.2005 at 06:24 PM
Tan’s comment is:

>the SEC is changing guidelines and shortening the amount of time corporations have from their filing date to distributions date. This shortening will only further promote the use of 10-Ks instead of full financials.

But Robin, 10-Ks are the full financial disclosures. It's AR financials that are consolidated and truncated.

And sorry to correct you, but SEC filing dates do not determine the distribution deadlines for ARs — it's the set date of the shareholder meetings that actually triggers the distribution timeline for annual reports. The SEC has always required that 10-Ks and 10-Qs must be electronically filed within 45 days of fiscal year ends. Then, when the company determines a suitable day to hold a public shareholder meeting (usually within 120 days of FY-ends), the SEC requires that printed copies of annual reports (and printed 10-Ks) must be distributed to the top 20% (or close) of principal shareholders with no less than 30 days to review proxies to be voted and decided when the shareholder meeting occurs.

So once the meeting gets set, everything gets worked backwards from the 31 day mark prior to the meeting. Each company sets different meeting days, depending on their corporate schedules and conference site's availability. Some years, the schedule is shorter than the other just because the hotel that the company chose for their meeting is booked for the later week. It's sort of arbitrary if you think about it.

SEC requirements for filing, disclosure, certification, and distribution of shareholder and IR information — both electronically and printed — is quite complicated. But in short, as the internet grows in usage and acceptance, much of the SEC's requirements for printed IR material and their distribution will continue to be replaced by their online electronic equivalents. In fact, I predict that soon, the formal shareholder meeting itself will also become superfluous, and will be replaced by virtual webcasts or other online alternatives that will allow shareholders to cast votes and conduct dialogue with the corporate hosts. I bet it will happen in less than 10 years.

I still maintain that technology and the internet is the number one cause of imminent death for the printed annual report.

On Feb.02.2005 at 07:33 PM
Robin’s comment is:

>the SEC is changing guidelines and shortening the amount of time corporations have from their filing date to distributions date. This shortening will only further promote the use of 10-Ks instead of full financials.

Sorry, I need to correct myself. I meant to say that the SEC is proposing guidelines that shorten the amount of time from fiscal year end to the filing date of the 10-K under some circumstances. (See related news article.)

We do need to be aware of how government regulations affect the way our clients approach their annual report process. A compressed timeframe to prepare financials = a more time- pressed IRO = less time that they are willing to work on consolidated financials = more reliance on 10-Ks only. We saw this happen a few years ago when the regulations changed, and we'll see it happen again - regardless of the stockholder's meeting deadline (which yes, I am very much aware of)

I know I didn't make this one point very elegantly earlier today, which will teach me for trying to post while working at the office the same time (too many distractions!)

.. Remember four years ago when everyone who was anyone was putting full interactive Annuals online, versus just posting PDFs? And the same with opting in for electronic-only distribution... I think that's when I heard the most discussion about printed ARs going away. But they didn't, even though the technology and the distribution network was there - part of the resistence is not the lack of technology, it is the habits, preferences and emotions of the investors that don't want to let go of the printed piece.

On Feb.03.2005 at 12:51 AM
Tan’s comment is:

>I think that's when I heard the most discussion about printed ARs going away. But they didn't...

But they are Robin. How many full-sized annual do you do now compared to four years ago? How many comprehensive online annuals do you see compared to four years ago. And it's not just Savage — every single annual report firm across the country has been seeing the exact same trend. I challenge you to find a firm that's actually seen the reverse, or even a slowdown in either trend.

So far, that prediction and timeline is right on track and points to the inevitable.

I loved designing ARs as much as you do. I know they're better for investors. I know that they bring value. But I'm not certain if they are irreplaceable or whether they will rise from the ashes like we all hope they would. I get a sense that our industry's confident optimism that they will return is becoming more and more delusional.

>A compressed timeframe to prepare financials = a more time- pressed IRO = less time that they are willing to work on consolidated financials = more reliance on 10-Ks only.

This still doesn't quite make sense. If a controller has to file a 10-K earlier than 45 days, that means he/she will have even more time to source and produce consolidated financials for the annual report. Because as I explained earlier, the electronic filing deadline for 10-Ks does not drive the mailing distribution deadlines for annuals.

Furthermore, the SEC allows companies to re-file amended 10-Ks at a later date. Just like how you can file an amended tax return anytime after the April 15th deadline. I know this, because I've seen numerous AR financials that have updated and corrected numbers from their previously filed 10-Ks. It's a very common thing.

On Feb.03.2005 at 04:18 PM
Kelly’s comment is:

I am just wondering how design firms get their first annual. We have been trying for years and no one will even look at us b/c we have never done one before. Any advice?

On Feb.03.2005 at 05:49 PM
Robin’s comment is:

Tan, I admited earlier that annuals are shrinking, and I can only speak most truthfully about my own personal experiences. So my "theoretical" example of an overworked, understaffed, NIRI card-carrying IRO who's reluctant to take on a full AR because of the perceived risk involved to their workload and timetable is not actually that theoretical. :)

Kelly, I'm not familiar with your firm, but one tactic for you might be to solicit more investor communications work in general to build up those contacts and capabilities. Then a public company might be more trusting that you understand that type of communications and those audiences, which could lead to an AR project.

I will also need to look this up, because I can't remember who did it, but a firm that was trying to break into annuals did a self-promo that was an annual itself. I hope someone at my office can remember who that was, but at the time I remember reading that it was a successful promo and they did get a project off of it.

On Feb.03.2005 at 11:05 PM
Darrel’s comment is:


Have you considered going after some non-profits and doing a pro-bone piece or two?

On Feb.04.2005 at 10:24 AM
Tan’s comment is:

Kelly — it's who you know that will get you in.

First, join NIRI (National Investor Relations Institute). Attend some of their events, sponsor some stuff, maybe even host an event.

Get friendly with the decision makers in the investor relations community, and eventually, you'll find a company that might give you a chance. Maybe.

It's incredibly tough to get in the game — and just like you pointed out — it's especially so if you've never done one before. There are a thousand and one details that you may or may not know about designing ARs and no IR director will risk their head on a firm that doesn't have that experience, no matter how nice their other work may be.

Darrel's suggestion of nonprofit ARs may just get you more nonprofit ARs. Public vs nonprofit ARs can be as different as night and day.

On Feb.04.2005 at 02:01 PM
Steven’s comment is:

The most depressing thing to see is a 10-K (wrapped or not) that isn't even touched by a designer. They're "created" in Word and Excel by the accounting department and "art directed" by investor relations. Yuck!

Ya know, efficiency is an admirable goal, but there does come a point where efficiency no longer translates into efficacy, IMHO.

I also lament that shareholders have become more important to companies/corporations than their customers and employees, which is antithetical to its core functionality. (Not to mention the inherent self-serving interests thereby created; e.g. World-Com, Enron, McKesson, etc.) Business strategy based on enhancing short-term stock prices does not necessarily promote healthy evolution or sustainable growth. In the longrun, companies need to be true to their own needs rather than the whims of market analysts.

Okay, stepping off my soapbox now.

On Feb.04.2005 at 03:01 PM
Amber’s comment is:

Ya know, efficiency is an admirable goal, but there does come a point where efficiency no longer translates into efficacy, IMHO.

I definitely agree with you, Steve. I worked in-house for a company that went from strategic investor relations to a 10-K wrap in Word and a postcard saying "contact us if you need something more than this". Nothing says financial sucess like a postcard printed on the office laser.

I always liked RedHat's first annual report in 2000. It was a folded poster with the financial info on one side and the original Linux kernel printed on the back. I know RedHat shareholders who still have the thing hanging in their offices.

Here's the link. The PDF really doesn't do it justice.

On Feb.07.2005 at 05:02 PM
Tan’s comment is:

Ok, some questions that need truthful answers:

Would you think of Apple differently if they had a "real" full-blown annual report instead of just a 10K wrap? Why? If you had $20,000 to blow and was considering stocks — would you buy Apple eventhough it only churns out a crappy 10K wrap?

What about Amazon (10K wrap)?

Jones Soda (10K wrap)?

Microsoft (10K wrap)?

On the flip side, what do you think of companies that have huge, comprehensive annual reports year after year — companies like Ford? Would the fact that they still believe enough in their investors to produce a legit AR influence you to buy their stock over say, Apple?

What about ExxonMobil? Altria? Proctor and Gamble? Nike?

My point is that despite our professed love and dedication to annual reports — do we really care or is it just because we miss the work?

On Feb.07.2005 at 06:49 PM
clayton’s comment is:

I think part of the movement towards bound 10-Ks (another word for the 10-K wrap, whereby the up front designed feature area section is physically bound together with a raw looking-un designed-10-K) is in part a response to the recent corporate accounting scandals at Enron and Worldcom. At least that is what the principle proposed at the design firm where I work (this year we are type setting two of three ARs).

For a designer there is nothing more challenging than beautifully set financials. It is a real art form. The problem is, in the eyes of some they can have the appearance of looking too “slick”.

I believe the investment community and general public alike are more skeptical of corporate malfeasance than ever before.

Mark Archbar’s controversial 2003 documentary “The Corporation” reveals “an elaborate psychopathology of dishonest, unscrupulous and predatory behaviors” of corporate malfeasance. (See A. O. Scott’s New York Times movie review here)

In my opinion, U-2’s “BONO” has shown himself to be way more visionary about the international AIDS crisis than for example, any executive at Bristol-Myers Squibb. The annual cost for a single HIV infected patients medicine in the U.S.A. is in excess of $25,000.00. (See related news thread from NPR on the AIDS crisis in Thailand here)

That said, so long as “visionaries” speak, I hope to continue to help them find (as a designer) an appropriate voice weather it be annual reports and or CD jackets…

In my opinion, in the American marketplace (as opposed to Holland, where graphic design has shown new kinds of messaging) good-looking design is synonymous with marketing "spin". In short, until I start seeing Corporate America act like visionaries, I will be skeptical at best of there practices (and annual reports). For the time being, I feel safer diversifying my investments with Mutual funds as opposed to stocks from a single Corporation

On Feb.08.2005 at 01:17 PM
clayton’s comment is:

My apologies if my remarks seem out of place in your discussion, I appreciated many of the thoughts posted here but corporate malfeasance is deeply troubling to me.

On Feb.08.2005 at 04:20 PM
clayton’s comment is:

When I speak of Holland I am thinking of the book commission by SHV Holding Company of Dutch designer Irma Boom. The book, published in 1996 is not in fact an annual (it does however include snap shots from annual reports) but a centennial. The commission in my view was visionary in that the Corporation (SHV) didn't impose any design constraints or over-riding corporate marketing. Absolutely none.

The result, a preposterous 2,136 pages (devoid of page numbers or index) unabashed visual journey of the company's history.

Albeit controversial, this is kind of thinking which is in stark contrast to "the American Marketplace". I just can't fathom an American Company making a statement like this. The closest thing that comes to mind is the 2002 Progressive Annual Report, featuring bare all (nude) photographer John Coplans (1920-2003).

On Feb.09.2005 at 03:36 PM
Tan’s comment is:

So Clayton, what do you suppose is the purpose of SHV's book? Who was their audience, and what was the goal of the book beyond being a design artifact intended for coffee tables?

>I just can't fathom an American Company making a statement like this.

A statement like what? A statement that "We have so much damn money, we can just arbitrarily print nude art photos in an investor relations financial document. Nevermind addressing operations or corporate issues to investors." Is that the sort of statement you'd like to fathom seeing more of?

On Feb.10.2005 at 06:02 PM
Tan’s comment is:

>is in part a response to the recent corporate accounting scandals at Enron and Worldcom.

I've heard this conjecture before. But let's examine this further.

The Enron debacle resulted in the SEC passing the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOA) of 2002. According to PriceWaterhouseCoopers, the SOA is "the single most important piece of legislation affecting corporate governance, financial disclosure and the practice of public accounting since the US securities laws of the early 1930s."

In reality, what the SOA meant to every annual report firm was an additional 30-40% more financial disclosure text and at least 20-30% more legal "safe-harbor" language in narrative text, including most importantly, the CEO's letter to shareholders. The SOA changed the language of CEOs around the country, and for annual report writers — immediately curtailed any "forward-looking" prose they might have written in annuals past.

That's basically the most tangible SEC regulation that fell out of the whole Enron scandal. I'm not certain how this has any direct part in the growing trend of 10K wraps and decline of annual reports though. It definitely affected consumer confidence around the country. But you'd think that it would actually have the opposite affect, by increasing the importance of a more thorough annual report — which has a more detailed, plain-speak analysis of the year's financial operations compared to a 10K, which just has straight numbers and accounting-speak.

So to blame the SOA and Enron for this trend is perhaps a little misdirected — if you understand the issues correctly.

You can still blame or hate Enron for a lot of other things though.

On Feb.10.2005 at 07:50 PM
clayton’s comment is:

If annual reports are a thing of the past, what will replace them? I don’t know that this has any place in the discussion of annual reports (love’em or hate ’em) it was just a connection I made in my mind.

The purpose of the SHV book was to publish a history of the company (an annual of sorts) as self-promotion but significantly it was an artistic commission because they (SHV) didn't have a specific agenda. It was up to the designer, http://www.designmuseum.org/design/index.php?id=75" target="_blank">Irma Boom to come up with one. (This is discussed at some length in False Flat : Why Dutch Design is so Good).

Your connection between nude photography, big dollars and marketing (Abercrombie & Fitch comes to mind) is a vulgar one and not my intended reference, my apologies for lack of clarification.

The 2002 Progressive Annual report (designed by Mark Schwartz/Joyce Nesnadny) is however one of the most breath taking examples of an annual report I can think of. The denuded photos of 84-year-old artist (and founder of Artforum Magazine), John Copelan are anything but sexy or racy. They are rather a stark and reminder of human frailty and our own mortality (the perfect message for a life insurance company). Moreover, the photography has an unconventional sense of honor and dignity and transparency in the context of fiscal accountability. The unconventional use of photography challenged me, in a way that was refreshing (again my apologies for the lack of clarification).

If for example, annuals are a thing of the past, what might take their place? I think the SHV book commission, quintessentially Dutch Art for Art’s sake is a visionary example of corporate self-promotion without the "slick" marketing agenda.

On Feb.12.2005 at 10:27 PM
Tan’s comment is:

>If for example, annuals are a thing of the past, what might take their place?

For fiscal disclosure and financial reporting — annual reports are being replaced by their online versions and thousands of up-to-the-minute financial websites.

For corporate storytelling and vision — nothing so far has seemed to take its place. But like I said, long-term investors are a thing of the past. Investors today aren't interested in long-term vision, only buy-ratings and short-term performance. Storytelling and vision don't seem to matter as much anymore.

And your example, The Progressive Corporation, is definitely an exception. The company and its board has always been dedicated to supporting the arts — which shows in its unconventional commitment to showcasing a particular artist in each of its last annual reports.

On Feb.13.2005 at 02:36 AM