Annual Reports Take New Forms as Brands Tout Their Accomplishments With Innovative Online Experiences
Annual reports are seeing a resurgence amongst a number of savvy consumer brands. Once only the domain of publicly traded companies and non-profits, annual reports began with humble roots to fulfill a fiduciary responsibility with shareholders and to file with the S.E.C. Typically, these reports were single-color, and had little to no design. During the 1950s, many large corporations turned this yearly obligation into lavish glossy catalogs, affording them an opportunity to tell rich stories of achievements to their most ardent supporters.
Annuals typically follow a “reverse mullet” convention of “party in the front” via photography and interesting production techniques, with “business in the back” where financial data was relegated. Many famous graphic designers throughout the 20th century created notable reports such as Paul Rand for Westinghouse and Bradbury Thompson for Westvaco. Some reports were ostentatious, others were profound. This trend grew well into the 1990s until Microsoft sounded the death knell by having their annuals available online, setting a steep downward trend in printed annual reports’ significance.
Then, in 2005, something interesting happened.
A New Sensibility
A graphic designer named Nicholas Felton decided to use his own life as the subject called The Feltron Annual Report. By using the mundane details of his life that occurred that year (e.g. number of photos taken, miles ran, web pages visited, etc), he created a brilliant mash-up of art, life, and TMI — all within the now-familiar conventions of a giant corporation’s annual report. The brilliance was in his obsessive detail, giving the sense that this was more than a clever idea. The execution of infographics, charts, and beautifully small typography was so exacting, it almost made one wonder if you were reading the diary of Raymond Babbitt from Rain Man. I found it interesting that a single person could create such a report which held its own next to the real deal.
Felton has since gone on to create seven more such reports, each with a unique theme and look. In doing so, he amassed a number of fans around the world, including a dream job at Facebook to design their Timeline.
A Strange Turn of Events
In the past year or so, I’ve noticed a wonderful trend: companies creating online annual reports just for the fun of it. No other obligation than to share their year’s experiences. These reports forgo financial data altogether, focusing on a mix of facts which tout achievements large and small. These appear to take design cues from the classic annual reports of yore, with a heavy influence from Feltron. In past two weeks alone I have received reports from the eyeglass manufacturer Warby Parker, the crowd funding website Kickstarter, and the email marketing company MailChimp.
The Warby Parky 2013 Annual Report
Warby Parker’s annual is a brilliant jumble of facts ranging from the profound: “500,000 PAIRS OF GLASSES DISTRIBUTED TO PEOPLE IN NEED” to seemingly insignificant: “Three team members—Niall, Lon, and Mary Beth— all (accidentally?) wear a very weird shade of yellow to work.” The report takes form as a calendar which, while hardly a new paradigm, works in a diary-like fashion. The result is an engaging mix of stories which are meant to viewed by users in a non-linear fashion. As a customer, I certainly felt happy to have received this, and learned more about Warby Parker as a result.
The Year In Kickstarter
Kickstarter’s “The Year in Kickstarter” has a straightforward format of individual pages which are navigated by clicking left or right arrows. Each page’s content builds on the previous, building up a series of tales of the amazing projects that came to fruition in 2013 due to the support of their project’s backers. Whereas Warby’s report mixed business achievements with the oh-so-hip-ness of their office culture, Kickstarter was able to use the wide-array of projects their backers helped create: from launching the ArduSat satellite into space, to a Delorean hovercraft that cruised around the San Francisco Bay. They even make use of full-screen video in ways which are never intrusive, and always appropriate (how else would you really believe there was such a thing as a human-powered helicopter?) The overall effect is comes across as more of a thank-you note to their community, and certainly conveys their love of what they do.
The MailChimp Annual report
MailChimp never misses an opportunity to have their marketing efforts reflect their über-positive and informal brand voice. Their take on an annual report is no exception. Using a very simple construct of a very long scrolling page with the number “0” (number of MailChimp softball team wins) increasing steadily to “70,000,000,000” (the number of emails sent), the further down you scroll. The content is quite similar to Warby’s mix of informal and meaningful. As someone who’s already a fan, I found it interesting to know that “5” was the number of web page designs that they designed and then scrapped. Or that there were “1,020” campaigns about BitCoin. Or that there were 8,084 campaigns sent which contained curse words.
The bottom line is that these companies each found engaging ways of appealing to their fans in honest ways, which never come across as overly slick. The The online format is ideal for engaging with such data-heavy information, and certainly helps their efforts of creating a viral marketing piece. This is a much better idea than holiday card which would only become lost in the holiday shuffle. I also love the way companies can become more endearing when you can sure in the dedication of the people who make it work — not just at the top.
I would love to see more companies try their hand at an annual report as a way of giving their audience a deeper sense of what they do, who they are, and what they stand for. Bonus points for making me laugh.