How to Design a Report People Actually Read

A decade ago, before advertising made a sizeable push on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, client deliverables were just that — reports given directly to a client and its various stakeholders. And while design was important in these deliverables, data was king in driving the relationship.

But the game has changed. The public hangs out on social media talking about brands, exchanging ideas, and sharing what they like. The key there, of course, is the “like” part. Brands cannot hide, but can be drowned out in a sea of information and visuals vying for attention. So, what’s required to stand out? How do you design reports that are both parts data-driven and interesting.

As part of our tips on how to incorporate design into your marketing strategy, we have a few more ideas on how to create fascinating reports your audience will want to read. Whether your report is geared toward informing investors, recruiting volunteers, reaching potential clients, wooing donors, or educating the general public, every report can benefit from these core principles.

Communication Strategy Building

Vague, right? Let us explain.

Your report, whether it be an infographic used on social media, a quarterly report, or a proposal to prospective investors, needs to assert direction and confidence to your audience. Jessica Bellamy, an Adobe Creative Resident and master of the infographic, calls this process communication strategy building, of which there are three parts.

First, is what she calls advocacy facing, also known as active voice.

“This is making sure that you are being assertive and passionate about the way you are relaying your message versus being objective,” says Jessica, who holds degrees from the University of Louisville in Drawing (BFA), Graphic Design (BFA), and Pan African Studies. “The materials you are creating are sharing data, yes, but you are also advocating for your brand.”

Second, in addition to driving an assertive, passionate voice, it’s important to frame your assets positively, instead of focusing on the problems, or potential roadblocks.

“If there are negative findings in your data, be transparent, but you want to take that as an opportunity to focus on the future and be solution oriented,” Jessica says.

Third, focus the report on highlights and points of interest. Reporting that scratches the surface of all areas is less effective than tapping into what your audience cares for and what you care about. If you have more information to share, you can always put together a longer, more expansive report and link to it in your original document.

Focus on Visuals

There’s virtually no better way to capture the attention of your audience outside of impactful visuals. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need pictures or images, but they boost engagement when appropriately used. Using typography and whitespace is just as likely to create the response you want if done correctly. Learn one design technique for accomplishing this in this video tutorial on data visualization in action.

“Have images that directly relate to the content. A photo or a graphic should add to the content and allow viewers to immediately know what the report or the specific section is about,” suggests Jessica. But be careful to incorporate images wisely. Using an image because it is beautiful or aesthetically pleasing can throw people off to the point of not actually receiving the intended message.

Try to show, not tell.

Use a graph or chart in place of a paragraph of data. Create a graphic to share your information and then highlight it in the text. Think of text as a limited commodity, not an endless supply.

If you’re going to use one color, stick to one. If you want to use multiple colors, use no more than three outside of black. Be clear and strategic in the ways you use color.

When composing your report, think about composition. Heavy text blocks or too much information on a page can be daunting and stress your audience out. Give your page space to breath.

“Don’t be afraid to have a page that has minimal text and mostly an image that’s really hitting the point of what you are trying to make,” Jessica says.

You may think you want to recreate the wheel with your design template, but that’s not always possible or cost effective. Try one of the many free artist-created templates in InDesign.

Clarity Outweighs Design

Much like a novel or textbook has a chapter page, introduction, or both, so should your report. Make clear what information you’re about to present with a summary page and/or cheat sheet type page with clear titles and headings before each section.

“One thing that I have learned from the reports that I have made is that people may think a report is beautiful and they love it, but they always want to know what the main point is, or else it isn’t worth their time,” Jessica says.

Getting to the point is part two of clarity. Readers tend to want the highlights — paramount concerns, relevant data, and action items. Most reports are skimmed to find these specific bits of information. “When people feel overwhelmed by text, they put the report down,” Jessica says. “You can always make additional information available for interested readers to research more deeply on their own.”

Cut down wherever possible and keep each section to 500 words or less. If you think you can get the information across in four pages or less, do it.

Typography and Summary Sentences

A serif font, in general, is easiest to read in text heavy paragraphs, but that’s not to say it’s required. San serif fonts are what we’re getting more accustomed to, and that’s great, but think about your audience when deciding your font.

“If this is something that is just highlighting overviews — say for an entertainment magazine — why not san serif. If this is an editorial news magazine, go serif,” Jessica says.

Choose simple fonts and forgo more stylized typefaces.

“Legibility is key, especially if there is a long walk through content. If it’s more than one page, I would not use a stylized font. It can be a nice font, but it needs to be legible,” Jessica says.

Not sure if your font is too stylized? Jessica suggests printing it out and taping it to the wall. Walk away from it for a while and return and try to read it from a distance. You’ll know quickly if you can read it or not.

Pull quotes, the likes of which are found in magazines and editorial pieces, are excellent when trying to drive a point home or to emphasize crucial information. People tend to scan documents — pulled quotes can ensure the reader’s attention is grabbed where and when you want it.

Remember, reports like case studies, infographics, and brand presentations provide the critical social proof consumers need to engage with your brand. It’s all about creating content that is equal parts visually-engaging and data-driven. That’s powerful, and that drives engagement.

Make All of It Happen With Adobe Creative Cloud

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