Think Tank, Policy & Governance Articles

A good designer does not just design and typeset a report to be aesthetically pleasing, they use their expertise to ensure there is nothing, within their control at least, that prevents its message from being effectively processed by its audience.

In our work as graphic designers at Rubber Duckiee there are several common issues we regularly encounter that reduce the readability of reports which reduces their impact.

In this article we have set out the top 5 so you know what to look out for the next time you produce a report.


By this we don’t mean the actual content of the report – we’ll leave that to you as the experts. What we mean is how the text is styled.

Most people either automatically left align or full-justify their reports based on personal preference, if you’re left aligning your text – great – please continue doing so and feel free to skip to the next tip.

If you’re full-justifying your text – hold up and let us explain why it might be worth you reconsidering.

It might look ‘neater’ but – it isn’t as easy to read – particularly for people with cognitive disabilities (including dyslexia).

Why? Because justified text affects readability and tracking.

Full-justified text results in straight left and right edges of a text block which gives you uneven spaces between words and letters within words.

The extra space between some words makes it difficult for the eye to correctly follow along the line, plus in some cases there will be less space between words which makes it harder to distinguish words.

Overall, the uniform shape of the paragraph makes it easy for the eye to get ‘lost’ when it’s going from the end of one line to the start of another.

Even if the eye is only missing the odd word it means the brain has to think harder about what the message is that it’s meant to be absorbing, which ultimately makes the experience more frustrating for the reader.

As ever, there are always exceptions. In a newspaper for instance the straight lines used as margins can be used to guide the eye.


A good layout can be the difference between a document which just ‘flows’ and one that is started but never finished.

Look out for how pages follow on from each other – aim to avoid wherever possible bullet points running over from one page to another for example and definitely avoid a sentence starting at the bottom of one page and ending on the other. This is often why people find themselves having to skip back and forth.

Also key when it comes to layout is paragraph styling, particularly when it comes to the use of Headings. Headings should be used to visually convey importance, to frame the argument not to replace it. They should be short and to the point – setting the scene – not duplicating the first sentence in the paragraph. Sub headings can be a little longer though as they’re building on and enhancing the main heading.


Design trends, like anything else, come and go as fashions change and evolve over time. A recurring trend is the use of muted, low contrast colours and text.

Low contrast can be impossible to process for people who are colour blind thereby excluding a significant number of people (approximately 3 million in Britain) from understanding a report. For example, if white headings are used on a pale green background the headings will be difficult for many to pick out.


There are two major issues to be aware of when sourcing images to illustrate copy: licensing and resolution.


The key issue here is copyright and when and how it applies.

In the UK copyright arises automatically when an image is created.

And don’t assume that just because you own an image it can be used as you wish. It’s only the copyright owner, generally the creator of the image, that has the right to reproduce the image as and when they wish.

It’s also not safe to assume that just because an image doesn’t have the copyright symbol that it’s not protected by copyright. As the Government points out in their guidance: Sometimes uploading and downloading images causes the associated metadata to be removed accidentally. Metadata is embedded within the image and can give details of the copyright owner.

So where to find images?

One such place is Creative Commons Search, there is also Google Image search which allows filtering by usage rights but – Google doesn’t accept responsibility for the reliability of the results!

There are then stock image agencies. Using stock image agencies can reduce a lot of the work in checking copyright and the relevant image licence. However, be careful of the difference between what images you can be used for.

The two key types are creative and editorial. With editorial images more care is required as they generally can’t be used can’t be used for commercial, promotional, advertorial or endorsement purposes. Instead they’re usually only to be used in connection with events that are newsworthy or of general interest (for example, in a blog, textbook, newspaper or magazine article).


Ever sent a report to print that looks fine on screen but has blurry images when printed? This will be down to the resolution being too low. For printed reports images must be high resolution.

So, what counts as high res? This is 300 DPI. You can find this information when right clicking on an image and selecting ‘Properties’.

Screen versus print

Before finishing a report it is crucial to consider whether it’s available in print or online or both. If printed then the colours need to be CMYK but if online then RGB.

Also, for print – be careful to count pages – bound printed pieces must always have a page count that’s a multiple of 4. This is because the pages of a booklet are created by printing four pages on one sheet of paper and then folding that sheet in half.

This obviously isn’t a problem for reports being published online. What is key for reports being published online is their file size – no-one is going to appreciate their laptop coming to halt as they try to download an uncompressed pdf file.

And finally, it is also worth noting that pdf files, unless specifically checked against accessibility guidelines – do not meet all the WCAG guidelines. One of the main issues being images with text overlaid which cannot be picked up by screen readers so ensure at a minimum such images are described in the body text so people aren’t missing the data.

How think tanks raise funds and how much they reveal about their financial sources have been the subject of much discussion. The recent survey by Smart Thinking showed a broadly even split between those who think all donations should be declared; those who believe it should only be for any donations over £500 and those who do not think any donations should have to be revealed. While accepting that there is always room for debate about funding mechanisms and levels of transparency, this article focuses on the functional techniques for encouraging funders to support a think tank, and also provide tips on maintaining that support.

As for many types of organization, think tanks’ funding can be fickle. Interest in think tanks can be affected by a range of factors such as the political climate and election cycles. Resources can be stretched when demand for reports, events and insights into particular topics gains momentum. Think tanks provide a flow of ideas over a period of time and are uniquely placed to provide steady challenges which help to inform policy. This expertise is special in the information ecosystem and is why the financial sustainability of think tanks is crucial, along with the partnerships that they form.

Think tanks have to be nimble to deal with a range of stakeholders. Economic cycles play their part too. An economy-wide recession will lead to a downturn in donations to think tanks. The opposite can also be true: when the chips are down, interested parties ramp up their spending on think tank work as part of a strategy to help bring about better times. Finally, specific groups of funders or individual donors may increase or reduce their spend depending on their own fortunes.

Given these potential changes in circumstances, it is critical that every think tank has a strategy for raising funds, a contingency plan and robust operations to ensure success.

Seek advice and model different scenarios

It is well worth seeking advice on different funding models and types of funders at the outset, and then undertaking periodic reviews with the help of advisers not involved in the day-to-day running of the think tank. There are a many consultants who offer such services and can take a deep-dive or light-touch review of the possibilities, depending on budget and stage of development. There are other sources of help too such as think tanks’ own advisory boards which often include individuals with a lifetime of business experience and contacts. Groups like Smart Thinking which offer networking, exchanges of ideas and informal get-togethers for people working in the sector are also very good places to pick up tips.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket

A quick survey of a handful of the UK’s think tanks reveals that there are many possible sources of funding. Some rely largely on specific individual donors, others on funding from businesses. Many draw on funds from charitable foundations and also from stakeholders who share the vision of the think tank, or who benefit from consuming the think tank’s output. Event and party conference sponsorship is a significant revenue stream for many. Consultancy is also an option. Having all your eggs in one basket can be risky and diversifying your funding streams helps to offset this.

Invest in staff and training

Employing staff dedicated to developing and maintaining funding streams with partners is a key step. Professional fundraisers and partnership managers come from a variety of backgrounds, so it is worth keeping an open mind as to who will succeed. Many think tanks actively seek new recruits through internships, for example. My think tank, the Higher Education Policy Institute, has offered paid internships to students for a number of years, and also recruited new graduates into full-time roles. While these roles tend to be policy-focused, in a small organization like ours, some fundraising and partnership work is often also involved.  In addition, all employees benefit from training and on-going professional development; allocating some resources to training staff in how to develop and maintain partnerships and fundraising are investments that will pay later.

Adopt a systemic approach

Anyone who has had any commercial training, and particularly sales training, knows that almost all the widely adopted methodologies involve a systematic approach, starting with goals and a plan of action, and following up with logical steps to achieve those goals. Many organisations adopt customer relationship management (CRM) systems such as those provided by Salesforce ( is geared towards educational and charitable organisations), Oracle and the like, which help you structure your fundraising through scoping, pitching, nurturing and closing partners, and then support subsequent account (partner) management.

The art of persuasion

Persuading a new partner to support your think tank is as close to sales as it gets. While a hard sell is probably never appropriate in think tank land, if at all, the art of persuasion through developing relationships, understanding potential partners’ goals and challenges, and explaining the vision and work of your think tank, and how they align with your partners’ aims, are key. I’ve drawn on sales’ approaches like Miller Heiman and Challenger Sales as well as various techniques developed in-house in corporations for emotional selling and persona-based pitching in sourcing new partners for HEPI. The really satisfying part of pitching for think tanks is that the currency is ideas so it is always very interesting as you search for the policy area, values and beliefs that will hook the right funding partner for the think tank. Supporters of HEPI have told me that they like the insights that we provide, particularly about the direction of travel in our sector (higher education). Our partners have not always got time to track every policy development and understand the related context, let alone horizon scan or delve into particularly thorny topics, so are happy to support a think tank that can do all these things.

Develop a modus operandi with the policy team and other staff

Most think tanks are predominantly staffed by policy experts and researchers as well as communications and events’ professionals. Many have separate business development professionals who are responsible for finding funding. It is essential that all staff are aligned and have a way of working that is mutually supportive. Most think tank employees are likely driven by the same thing: curiosity. As Rudyard Kipling wrote, “I keep six honest serving-men (They taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When And How and Where and Who.” This ethos is as important for business professionals as it is for researchers and writers.

Good routines – especially on communication

It’s vital to keep in regular touch with your donors, funders and partners. Developing relationships is essential and fine-tuning that for individuals or institutions is infinitely interesting. Some want details of your work, others the policy landscape, and others something entirely different. Some supporters like to be low-key and light-touch; others appreciate regular face-to-face catch ups and more active involvement. Then there is the need to maintain your think tank’s profile more generally through things like newsletters, social media, blogs, media appearances, guest articles and partner events to maintain the flow of insights and keep your supporters engaged.

Believe in what you do

Ultimately, it is a belief in what you do and the passion for ideas and stimulating debate, along with the quality of a think tank’s output which will be attractive to partners and fundraising bodies. From this you can build out the practical steps to connect and maintain those important stakeholder relationships.

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The growth and extent of world trade is staggering. In 1950, trade accounted for just 8.6% of world output (GDP). By 2008 it accounted for an astonishing 60% of world GDP, involving $20 trillion in goods and over $5 trillion in services. Despite setbacks — financial crises, wars (including Trump-style trade wars) and even pandemics — trade seems set to expand, bringing yet greater interaction between the world’s peoples, ideas and cultures.

Trade has always existed. That is because, as Adam Smith noted in The Wealth of Nations, both sides benefit from it: they wouldn’t bother if they didn’t. David Ricardo went on to observe that by specialising on their ‘comparative advantage’, countries can overcome the bounds of geography and climate. It’s why we can enjoy bananas in December.

Like all progress, the long-term impact of trade is positive; but in the short term all change produces winners and losers. Thus, people in rich countries complain that cheaper foreign workers are taking their jobs, while developing countries complain that their fledgling industries cannot compete against transnational giants. But consumers everywhere benefit from greater choice, and from the competition that bids down prices and bids up quality.

And the boom in trade since 1990 — brought on by reforms that brought China and South East Asia, India, Eastern Europe and South America into the world trade network — has produced history’s biggest and fastest rise in prosperity, particularly for the world’s poorest. It has taken roughly a billion people out of $2-a-day poverty. And it has made the world culturally richer than ever before.

Yet governments still face fierce lobbying from producers who see foreign competitors eating into their markets. Tariffs, quotas and other trade barriers are the result. But while these might give temporary comfort to a few producers, there is a cost. The imported goods that their consumers want, and the inputs their manufacturers need, become more expensive or even unavailable. That is why almost all economists agree — uniquely — that protectionism is a mistake.

Realising how two world wars had stifled trade and prosperity, the major trading countries sought, through the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and its successor the World Trade Organization (WTO) to limit protectionism and promote, easier, freer trade. And indeed, though high tariffs do remain (the EU, for example, imposes taxes up to 30% on imports of agricultural products), average world tariffs have been brought right down.

As a result, value chains today have become truly global. The iPhone, for example, is assembled in Taiwan and includes parts from South Korea, India, Brazil, the UK, China, Singapore, the US, Switzerland, Indonesia, India, France, Japan — and others.

The gains are not just economic. There is good evidence that trade promotes international trust, cooperation and understanding. It is also associated with political freedom, the rule of law, honesty, free speech and other liberal values. It helps defuse nationalism and ethnic conflict, and promotes peace, fairness and equality. After all, if people are to reap the many benefits of trading with each other, they have to cooperate.

Of course, the expansion of trade has thrown up new issues. One is a rising focus on security. For example, the US and UK ban mobile providers from importing new Huawei 5G equipment, fearing it could be used to spy on their networks. Another issue is the export of counterfeit and pirated goods, including clothes and shoes, electronics, perfumes, toys and medicines, which the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates at a chunky 3% of world trade. Services (such as banking, accountancy, legal services, healthcare and education) have become a much bigger part of world trade, leading to questions about whether the qualifications of one country’s lawyers, bankers, doctors and other professionals should be accepted by others. Another big concern is the environment, with countries resisting imports with high carbon footprints or banning the importation of certain fertilisers and pesticides. And more generally, the growth of ‘emerging’ economies (such as Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Morocco, the Philippines, South Africa and Turkey) is tilting the traditional economic balances between regions across the globe and bringing new challenges of its own.

However, most policy on trade is driven by domestic politics rather than economic logic. To work well, therefore, trade needs an international framework, and a global rule of law. This is no easy task, given the many pressures on countries to protect their own industries and raise barriers against others. But we have no way of knowing where trade will take us, or the new benefits it will bring in quite unexpected areas.

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