How to…design a report
Author(s): Kat Marriott
May 5, 2022
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.