Behind the Scenes: Producing Communications Pieces


In my work at a not for profit hospital foundation, I was heavily involved in the production of our annual report. It was a somewhat grueling process each year, requiring not only the complete list of donors to our organization but also accurate facts and figures, compelling storytelling, and beautiful visuals to accompany it.

And, every year, what did we argue about the most? The size and color of the text.

I love graphic design. The way text, color, white space, images, and graphics combine really has an impact in how well your story is received by your audience. As a foundation, we had to keep in mind the demographic profile of our donors when we were designing our report. Most of them were older, and with age comes a host of issues, one of which is diminished ability to read small text.

The major lesson I took away from my many years of work on annual reports: it doesn’t matter how amazing your mission is, how profound your gratitude to your donors, how incredible your images are — if your audience can’t read or see them, they don’t exist.

There is a design trend these days toward small, thin fonts and low-contrast text on patterned or photographic backgrounds. My advice is not to fall into this trap. Sure, it’s beautiful, but if your message isn’t coming across, why bother? The process to produce our annual report typically spans about six months from start to finish. There are weekly meetings with the designer as well as internal huddles with all the staff responsible for contributing content (there were eleven of us contributors last year, out of a staff of thirty-five!).

When you put out a communication, whether print or online, with your organization’s name on it, you have a powerful opportunity to determine how the public views and receives you. Six months and eleven staff to produce an annual report? Sounds crazy until you realize that this is perhaps the most important piece many donors get from us during the year. It’s worth the effort.

Follow a few simple guidelines for maximum clarity, in both print and online communications:

  • Make your titles stand out. Clear titles in an eye-catching font help guide the reader through your main ideas and messages.
  • Keep it simple. You don’t need dozens of fonts or colors. Select one sans-serif font for your titles and a different (serif or sans-serif) font for your body text. One primary color, preferably one that is part of your organization’s logo, and two accent colors are enough for most publications.
  • Keep it short. Tell your story with as many words as necessary, but not a single word more. People are not going to spend a lot of time on your material, so grab them early on. Use images and a clear call to action to round out your material.

In addition to print copies, my organization began putting the annual report online about three years ago. I think the 2013 annual report really showcases how we’re hitting our stride — a few well-told stories, good original photography, embedded videos, and web-friendly graphics. Not every piece you work on is going to be this involved, but the principles hold true whether it’s a one-page flyer or a multi-layered website.


One thought on “Behind the Scenes: Producing Communications Pieces

  1. Kristen,
    You hit the nail on the head with your advice. However, that does not mean that I have always obeyed the rules 😉 Like yourself I love graphic arts. Every year I make books for my kids (showing the journey they have taken in 12 months of their lives) and I get tons of compliments because their is not a lot of text (however, I like to use elaborate fonts), the colors pop, and the graphics enhance decent photos.
    On another note, I am amazed that it takes 6 months to get the annual report out. There must be a lot of number crunching.

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