What says more, words or images?

As a communications professional I often have the privilege of working with talented designers, artists, photographers and illustrators. I love to see how communicators and their companies pair words and art and/or photos to tell a story.

I was reminded of this today when I opened a copy of the WPP 2010 Annual Report. It features some fabulous, colorful, fanciful illustrations, all the work of Czech artist Kvĕta Pacovská. (Click on the previous link to see the interactive art in the online version; see the artist’s Facebook page here.)

(Disclosure: I currently work with one of the 150 communications consultancies that comprise the international WPP family, which is how I happened to see WPP’s new report.)

Annual reports are interesting (and sometimes ulcer-inducing) projects. Their primary audience is investors. They  may be as different as snowflakes but generally share a common purpose: Companies want to convey where they are headed and how things went the previous year, hopefully in a way that sets the stage for future success.

Aside from brand-consistent design, and meeting regulatory requirements, what makes for a successful annual report? Well written, compelling, insightful text, or compelling, insightful illustrations? Yes. Is it what you say, or how you say it? Yes again.

Some companies commission original art or photography; others use text as art, which is more challenging and often less appealing; some use no art. These choices convey a message beyond the text. Look, our people are caring, our products are appealing; look, we are interesting, without peer. Like the outfit you choose to wear to work or a special event and what you say while there, the words and illustrations in an annual report combine to express who you are. Hopefully the messages are ones the company meant to convey – but not always.

To me, WPP’s choice of Pacovská’s illustrations says creative, interesting, not opposed to new perspectives; the book’s solid financials and insightful discussions are a counterbalance, showing me they understand their business and their clients.

Companies such as WPP that generate interactive web versions of their annual reports in lieu of posting a static PDF, also are saying something about their understanding of paper and the Internet as different mediums… an indirect nod to Marshall McLuhan.

There are seminars, books and websites that purport to share the secret of producing annual reports that build investor confidence – the general goal of most annual reports. A Google search for “annual business reports advice” found more than 19 million results. Even if you had time to skim each of those posts, the truth is, knowing your company, its business, and the needs it meets, is the best preparation for telling its story… assuming you already understand what the financials are really saying.

So: Is a book that attracts and holds your attention, and leaves a positive impression, always a success, or does success depend on how well you convey the messages you hoped to convey? Yes. And are the words more important than the images, or do the images make the stronger impression? Yes again.

Food for thought as we enter season of annual reports.

Respond with a link to your online favorite – if you have one.

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