After working 15-hour days for a month to meet deadlines for two annual reports, I can say that the market for ARs isn’t dead, though I may be.
I had heard from many designers that AR work had dried up with diminished budgets as the reports went online, reducing print runs dramatically. What once had been a design stable with eye-popping budgets had become a pain in the ass no longer worth the nail-biting deadline pressure.
Yet the reports I worked on this year on were far from cursory. Both had compelling stories told over many pages. One, for a Canadian university, relayed the tales of its students, graduates and faculty, celebrating and encouraging the support of its alumni and justifying the school’s importance as a driver of the local economy in an era of government cutbacks. I worked as a second writer on the other, an AR for an overseas bank. We produced more than 30,000 words of copy about how the financial institution had met its corporate sustainability objectives, covering environmental, societal and economic goals.
Scott McFarland knows how vibrant the AR market still is. His firm, The Works Design in Toronto, designed 15 ARs and corporate sustainability reports this last season. “Yes,” he says, “the annual report of 10 years ago is no longer here. This means a lot of times you wind up using supplied photography as opposed to doing a major photo shoot. Designers used to really get juiced about that. If a client hands you 20 average-quality photos and asks you to make a rose out of that, it can be disappointing.”
On the other hand, McFarland points out that ARs aren’t as much about dry financial reporting as they once were. They have larger stories to tell, especially when it comes to corporate sustainability reporting – an opportunity that Works Design has embraced. “We’re now considered the thought leaders in the CSR arena,” he says. “We’ve even hired a director of sustainability in order to help us out with the package that we can offer our clients.”
For his part, Scott Thornley, founder and head of Scott Thornley + Company in Toronto, agrees that ARs offer new opportunities for storytelling. In the bad old days of lavish budgets and gratuitous special effects done on press, the clients would supply dull copy that designers would have to dress up with great visuals. “Many people cared about how their reports looked and not what they said,” explains Thornley.
But today many companies and organizations are open to “complete storytelling.” “We’re constantly looking for ways to bring their stories to life, to find new ways to move people,” he says.
In his quest for superior storytelling, Thornley has been aided by his firm’s focus for many years on arts, cultural and institutional clients, ranging from the National Arts Centre to the University of Toronto Scarborough. He points out that without the regulatory need for financial reporting that these ARs are more annual reviews, conveying tales of their “noble pursuits” to their supporters and tightfisted government overseers.
In designing ARs today, studios also have more tools to draw on. Making the move to digital doesn’t just save money (though it does do that), it provides new ways to tell stories. Yes, some online ARs are just PDFs of the print design. But more and companies are issuing HTML or hybrid reports that add interactivity and rich media and to the mix.
In some cases, companies are only doing short printed summaries of reports, with the complete versions online. But even here the printed versions can serve as the cornerstone of a larger marketing effort.
As the design market for ARs evolves, some things remain the same, however, including the punishing timelines. McFarland, at the end of his annual report season, says with a sigh: “There’s always that hard deadline. It’s a legal document. That part never changes.”