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10 Tips for Redesigning Reports

Ann K. Emery of Depict Data Studio is holding a rotary phone and smiling into the camera. The text reads, "2011 called. It wants its 100-page reports back."

2011 called.

It wants its 100-page reports back.

My wish: Limit yourself to just 30 pages (or less!).

It wants its portrait reports back.

Are people printing your doc… or reading it from their (landscape) computer?

It wants its text-heavy reports back.

We need visuals on every single page.

Ready to revamp your technical reports?

10 Tips for Redesigning Reports

Here are 10 quick wins to improve your next text-heavy document.

You don’t need to apply all 10.

Even one of these techniques will make dense reports more readable for our non-technical and busy audiences.

Design a One-Pager 

The 30-3-1 Approach is the bare minimum for designing reports that actually inform decisions. You can read more about 30-3-1 here.

When you’re creating one-pagers, don’t forget to add at least ½ inch of white space between each graph so the page doesn’t feel smushed.

It’s tempting to try and fit everything into a one-pager. A one-pager is just the highlights; the full report can go into more detail.

Use Brand Colors and Fonts 

Never, ever, ever use your software program’s defaults. 

I’m looking at you, Calibri.  

If you’re using Microsoft Office programs, like Excel, Word, or PowerPoint, then Theme Colors and Theme Fonts can save you hours of time.

Start with the “So What?” 

The Key Findings and Next Steps deserve to be shared earlier (not buried in the last few pages of our docs).  

Use Landscape Orientation 

Will you pay to print your reports and mail them to your recipients? 

If not, they’ll probably read in on their (landscape) computer screen.  

Add a Cover 

We can make beautiful, engaging report covers in 20 minutes or less— inside software we already have.  

Here’s one of my favorite before/after transformations from Sara DeLong:

An example of an eye-catching cover that only took 20 minutes to create.

Chunk with Dividers 

Begin each chapter with a dark, visually-striking divider page to help break up the content into small bites.  

Size your fonts according to their importance. A text hierarchy tells your viewers which information is most important (headings) and which information is least important (the regular ol' paragraphs).

Add 1+ Visual Per Page 

Think of a recent report: how many pages had visuals? 

The Text Wall takes too long to read.  

Add a Variety of Visuals 

Not just charts.

Not just tables. 

Humanize reports with photos, too.  

You can grab my Checklist of 15 Types of Visuals from this podcast with Alli Torban.

Go Beyond the Bar Chart 

My old reports: bars, clustered bars, stacked bars and columns charts.  

Zzzzzzzzzzzzz… 

Let’s escape the bar chart.  

Lower the Reading Level 

I suggest writing two levels below (e.g., a Master’s degree audience would get Grade 9-12 writing).  

Your Turn 

Which tip will you apply to your next technical report? Comment anytime and let me know.

More about Ann K. Emery
Ann K. Emery is a sought-after speaker who is determined to get your data out of spreadsheets and into stakeholders’ hands. Each year, she leads more than 100 workshops, webinars, and keynotes for thousands of people around the globe. Her design consultancy also overhauls graphs, publications, and slideshows with the goal of making technical information easier to understand for non-technical audiences.

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