IntroductionSpelling It out with Text & TypefacesOrganizing with TablesCharts to Visualize DataLayout: Adding Organization & InterestVisual Storytelling with ImageryColors & Graphics: Show Don't TellNavigation: Finding What You're Looking For
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Beautiful Reports

The Non-Designer's Guide to Designing Business Documents

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An example template for an invoice.

Introduction

Congratulations. You’ve gotten the data you need and placed it into a well-organized report. Your job is done, right?

Not quite.

As any chef will tell you, it’s all about presentation. When creating any “composition,” whether it be a gourmet meal or a business document, providing the basics isn’t enough. The output must look appetizing, as well.

Let’s begin by looking at how to use text to make a beautiful report.

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Chapter 1: Text

Fonts

Every piece of text is displayed in a font, the complete assortment of type of a particular style and size. Fonts reflect the mood and tone of your document.

Fonts can be classified into two main categories: serif and sans serif.

The first line says "This is typed in a serif font, Times New Roman."  The second line says, "This is typed in a sans serif font, Arial."  Each sentence is typed in it's referenced typeface.

In general, serif fonts make words easier to read (readability) and sans serif fonts make individual letters easier to discern (legibility).

The Big Myth: Serifs Affect Readability on Computer Screens

So what font should you choose?

Choosing a font for readability or legibility is no longer the most important concern. Instead, you should choose a font consistent with the document’s contents. This includes looking at:

  • Tone and mood. If the output is a serious document, you’ll want to choose a classic font with clean lines, such as Garamond, as opposed to a decorative font such as Monotype Corsiva, which mimics handwriting.
  • Branding and logos. Is this a company report that includes a standard company logo? The rest of the report doesn’t need to use the exact font contained in the logo, but you should choose one that goes well visually with the logo or other elements.

Spacing between Text Elements

Did you know there are commonly accepted ratios for spacing of text elements?

Here are guidelines for:

  • Characters: The spacing for characters within words is taken care of by the font’s built-in spacing, so you don’t need to concern yourself with this.
  • Words: Unless you see a compelling reason to do otherwise, align text to the left. This is easiest on the eyes of the person reading the report.
  • Lines: Most report and document template interfaces automatically adjust the amount of space between lines of text. This is known as leading. If you have the ability to change the leading, a good rule of thumb is to set the leading to approximately 20 to 30 percent bigger than the type size.
  • Paragraphs: As with leading, most reporting software automatically adjusts the amount of space between paragraphs. The important thing is to take a hard look at the final spacing and if the paragraphs seem too squished or too spread out, experiment with adjusting the spacing.

Visual Aids

An example of effective subheadings in an investment document.
Well-placed subheads make reports easier to scan.

We read by scanning, so use visual clues to help your readers quickly grasp the content of a report (see what we just did there?).

Separate out key sections with subheads, such as the four main ones (Fonts, Text Blocks, Spacing and Visual Aids) you see in this chapter.

If you need to put text in one area, use visual clues such as:

• Bullets

1. Numbered Lists

Bold Text

Chapter 2: Tables

“Beautiful” probably isn’t the first word that comes to mind when you think about tables in a report. They’re great for displaying data, but they aren’t in the same class as images or other more exciting visual elements.

But don’t overlook them. Beautiful tables enhance the look of that key document you’ve worked hard to create.

Basic table with example of colors and shading.

Tables Versus Charts

Before you read any further, you have a key decision to make: whether to use a table or a chart to display the information.

If it’s important that the report reader see individual data points, go with a table. If not, you’ll likely want a chart.

Optimal Cell, Row and Column Dimensions

Okay, that was a trick subhead. There are no “optimal” dimensions.

As much as we’d love to give you a formula for calculating the height and width of each cell, column and/or row, there is none. It all depends upon the data you’re including in the table. Generally the cell with the most content will determine the height and width of the adjacent cells.

Justifying Data in Rows and Columns

The same table with left aligned text in each cell.
Here we’ve aligned most of the text to the top and the left of each cell,instead of the earlier center and bottom alignment, for easier scanning.The one exception is the column of numbers.

Should your data be aligned to the left in a cell? The right? The center? The top? The bottom?

It depends.

Horizontal Alignment

In general, left-justified text is the most natural for the reader. Center-justified text should be used sparingly, perhaps for elements you want to stand out from the rest, such as column headers and subheads.

One major exception to this rule is when the data is currency or other numbers. You’ll likely want to right justify content so decimal points or base digits line up vertically in each cell, making it easy to scan and compare data.

Vertical Alignment

Also, don’t forget to consider how text is aligned vertically within a cell. Vertically, center-justified text typically is the easiest to read. The major exception here is when cells in one row contain significantly different amounts of information. In this case, top-justified text tends to be the most readable.

Visual Interest

Line after line of black and white data in a table can wear down the reader, so show a little mercy by adding a few visual elements.

Color

One common technique is to add background color to your chart. Choose two complementary colors, light enough so they don’t interfere with the text readability, and alternate colors for each row.

You can also use color to help best represent the data. For instance, if a chart contains numbers, you can display negative numbers in red.

The same table with colors in the header and separating each line.
What a difference color makes! We also bolded column headers, readjusted horizontal cell size and removed vertical borders.

Borders and Subheads

Cell borders are another way to add visual interest. This is another area where there are no hard and fast rules, so experiment with the size of borders both horizontally and vertically.

Also, don’t be afraid of using subheads within a table. If a table contains a large amount of data that you can sort easily into logical groups, use subheads to allow readers to quickly jump from group to group.

Avoid Temptation

A word of caution when it comes to visual interest. You don’t want the enhancements to interfere with the purpose of the table: displaying information so that it’s easy for the reader to grasp.

This means avoid any funky shadows, shapes, textures, etc. that detract from the look of the table. The visual elements should make the table easier to read, not more difficult.

Ordering Data in a Table

Lastly, be sure to give some consideration to the data when determining how to organize it in a table. There are almost as many ways to order data as there are tables. This may not add to the aesthetic beauty of the document, but it can make the report significantly more readable. And readable = beautiful.

Is the data showing change over time? If so, your readers are most likely interested in seeing the most recent data first, so order your table thus.

Will a reader want to search for a particular entry? Then consider organizing the table alphabetically or by date.

Does that table contain data showing various quantities for comparison purposes? If so, you may want to sort the columns in ascending or descending order.

Chapter 3: Charts

Charts can be some of the most beautiful elements of a report, especially when compared to plain black and white text or tables that are jam-packed with data.

Even if your strength is data and not report design, you can create informative, beautiful charts that wow your audience.

Before You Begin

Step away from the keyboard and ask yourself two important questions.

ONE: Am I conveying individual data points or am I trying to show an overall trend instead?

As we discussed in the previous chapter, if it’s important that the report reader see the individual data points, go with a table. If not, you’ll likely want a chart.

TWO: What is the purpose of my chart?

Is it to enable the report viewer to identify one key trend? Compare a variety of information points? Allow for many layers of data or just a single one? Once you’ve figured out the chart’s purpose, you’re ready to dig into designing beautiful charts.

Place Elements Appropriately

There are standard conventions for placing elements on a chart. For example:

  • Numbers along axes typically go from small to large, or from oldest to newest in the case of dates.
  • For pie charts with dozens of tiny slices, group the tiny slices into an “other” category so as not to overwhelm the reader with irrelevant information.
  • When labeling data points, don’t show them all; show just a few where notable events happened.

When you don’t follow these conventions, bad things happen.

Think Small

With a smaller chart, the person viewing the document can pick up key information and see the chart in context with other report elements around it.

A good rule of thumb is to make the chart as large as it needs to be in order for the text to be legible and not much larger.

Use Effects Sparingly

You’re probably using some sort of reporting software to generate your charts, which means you have some cool visual effects you can apply with a button push. And you probably have.

Remember that visual effects should enhance your numbers, not detract from them.

Highlight Key Data

A chart, just like a paragraph, should focus on one main idea. If that idea can be conveyed in one sentence, great. If not, use visual cues to highlight key information. (See what we just did there?)

Pay Close Attention to Color

There are millions of colors out there, which means either:

  • You have zillions of wonderful possibilities to create (for you glass-half-full types), or
  • You have zillions of ways to screw it up (for you glass-half-empty types).

Fortunately, there are several principles to help guide your color choices. Here are three key ones:

  • Conventional color combinations. Data can immediately convey information based solely on color choice. “Red light, green light” ring a bell? When used together, green means go, yellow means slow and red means stop. Red and black ink when used with numbers/currency is another charts convention. (But remember that those with color blindness may have difficulty with certain combinations, especially red/green, so use helpful cues such as text.)
  • Predetermined color combinations. The software you are using to create your chart likely offers a range of options you can choose from.
  • Company logos. Ever wonder what your marketing department does all day? One thing they’ve likely done is create a company logo – and they paid very close attention to colors and color combinations when doing so. Take advantage of that knowledge by using those colors, when appropriate, in your charts to reinforce your brand.

By now, you may be asking yourself where you should place these awesome charts in your reports. So let’s move on to document layout.

Chapter 4: Layout

The right report layout does more than make the output beautiful; it also makes the data and information contained within much easier to grasp.

But for a data reporting expert such as yourself, the thought of trying to lay out a good-looking document can be — let’s face it – distasteful. You’re no graphic designer, so the theory goes, so your reports are destined to be limited to a basic layout aesthetic.

Not so. Release your inner designer with the help of the following tips.

Create Beautiful Report Margins

Yes, you need margins. They help focus the reader on the document’s content and make for clean, more readable reports.

There are some accepted guidelines, and you will find them as close as the word processing program on your desktop.

For standard reports – printed on an 8.5 by 11” paper or viewed onscreen – in many cases the output will look great with Microsoft Word’s default values of 1” margins for top, bottom, left and right.

We prefer this to Microsoft Excel’s default values of 1” for top and bottom and 0.75” for left and right, because multiple elements on a page can make a document look too busy; a wider margin helps make the content it contains easier to view.

Three notable exceptions to these guidelines:

  • Reports with elements that need more space. If you have content that you’re trying to fit on a single page you may want to shrink the margins.
  • Onscreen documents. If you know your report or document will be viewed onscreen and not printed, you can sometimes safely shrink the horizontal margins a bit.
  • Bound reports. If you’re compiling multiple pages into a bound report, you’ll probably want to use more margin space for the inside margins so that binding doesn’t obscure the elements.

Lay Out Individual Elements Properly

Report layout tools in Microsoft Office.
Report layout tools in Microsoft Office.

One of the biggest mistakes we see in report layout is when individual elements break in awkward places, such as when one row of a table is placed on the next page, when a paragraph of text has a hyphen on nearly every line, or when a caption is on a different page from the image it describes.

Your template software likely has some built-in tools, so take advantage of them to eliminate these problems.

You can set these tools to apply globally across your document, but that won’t guarantee you the best report layout. Be sure to tweak the output afterward.

NOTE: The names above are the names of the tools in Microsoft Office; your template-design software may give different names to these tools.

Accurately Space and Align Elements with One Another

Remember earlier when we said you don’t have to be a graphic designer to create beautiful layouts?

That’s true, but alignment and space among elements is one area where many of us struggle when laying out reports. Graphic designers have extensive training and experience in learning what looks best on a page, and you won’t be an expert after simply reading this blog post.

But take heart; you can fool just about anyone by employing a couple techniques.

Technique #1: Use white space to increase comprehension.

Technique #2: Deliberately align elements to increase page balance.

Make the Report Skim-able

The bad news: Despite all your hard work, few people will actually read your document.

The good news: They will skim it instead.

Skimming lets readers jump to the parts that interest them AND it helps them get an understanding of the overall report before they decide which portions to go back and scrutinize.

An example report with good subheadings that help the reader skim.
A nice use of subheads for “skim-ability” and individual report element alignment.

Some tools you can use:

Headlines

Subheads

• Bullets

1. Numbered Lists

Bold Text

Titles for Tables and Charts

Numbers Instead of Words: 10

Get Rid of Unnecessary Distractions

When laying out a document, include the elements that need to be included and don’t include the elements that don’t need to be included.

Use Conditional Visibility When Appropriate

Here’s one layout technique that, when done right, your report recipient may not even be aware you’ve used.

Conditional visibility is when items in a document display only under certain conditions. These can be user-driven, such as when a user chooses to drill down to see more detail, or content-driven, when certain content displays only under certain conditions.

Create a Master Template

Lastly, if your template-design tool allows you to create some type of master slide or master template, be sure to take advantage of it when possible. You can set some of the layout properties once (such as margins and footers) and apply them to the entire document, giving it a cohesive, polished look.

There’s another way to add polish to a document. And this leads us to our next chapter, on images.

Chapter 5: Images

Ahh, images: the quickest and easiest way to add beauty to a report.

We’re not talking about charts or tables (although those also add visual appeal). We’re talking about logos, screen shots, photos and the like. They’re often colorful, usually informative, and always wise to consider.

Finding Images

If you (or your marketing team) already have images at your disposal, great. You probably don’t have to look far to find appropriate company logos, product photos or screen shots, employee and office life photos, and images of events relevant to the document’s content.

You can also find and easily download images from the Internet, but a couple words of caution:

  • Keep your images real.
  • Pay attention to copyright.
Image of Shutterstock search bar.

Storing Images

When it comes to images in reports, the most important decision you’ll make is WHERE to store them.

Embedded Document Images

One option is to embed the images into the document. A copy of the image is stored in the document, so it is always available. The bad news is that it’s always available – even when you don’t want it to be.

Images Stored in a Database

Another option is to store them in your database. This limits the size of the report definition, allows you to change an image once and have the change replicated across all reports, and lets you keep records together.

And if you do store images in a database, you may decide to store them as BLOBs, or Binary Large Objects. (NOTE: This video shows how to use Windward to insert BLOBs stored in a database into your report.)

Images Stored in a File System

File systems are great for storing images because you can easily back them up, update and manipulate the images, and move them to a bigger hard drive if you need more disk space.

And remember, if your images are stored anywhere other than in the template, be careful how you reference them. You’ll need to give as much of a complete path to the image as necessary.

Sizing Images

Obviously, images don’t do much good in a report if they’re blurry or much too small, so let’s talk for a second about resolution. Here are a couple general guidelines:

  • If the document is printed, images should be at least 300 dots per inch (dpi).
  • If the document is online, you can get away with a much lower dpi, such as 72 dpi.

Positioning Images

When working with a dynamic reporting solution, positioning becomes crucial. You don’t want to end up with images pushed off the page or in another funky spot.

So at first glance, “pixel-perfect,” absolute positioning, where you place an image at a specific point on the report, sounds great.

But as your report expands and you get a waterfall effect, images in the body of the document can end up in places you don’t expect – or want.

That’s why we recommend you use relative positioning for most images. Here you use some part of the image (top, bottom, left or right) to align the image with a specific element or point on a page.

Final Image Tips

Before we move on to discuss colors, we leave you with a couple tips:

Tip #1: Use non-traditional images. Basic shapes, stylized text, etc. are also images. Keep in mind that images don’t have to be big and colorful to add beauty to your document.

Tip #2: Follow your brand guide. If your company has a brand guide, it likely has a section on using colors that “match” your brand. A simple change to an image — such as editing the color of an icon in the report — can tie the entire report together beautifully.

Chapter 6: Colors

There’s no rule that says your business report or document has to be boring in order to be professional. Using color is a fairly simple and quick technique that will give your reports the brilliance they deserve.

Where to Use Color

First, keep in mind that you don’t need to go overboard. Just a touch of color here or there can add needed “oomph” to your output.

A short bulletpoint list with color added.
A report displaying touches of color.

Obvious places for color include table rows and chart data. You can make a document more impressive with background colors in headers and footers. And inserting a company logo is another great way to insert a splash that isn’t overwhelming.

When using colors in a report, think about how to best represent the data through commonly associated colors.

Tips for Color Combinations

  • Use colors consistently throughout a document. Ask yourself if a particular color is being used to represent more than one thing in a single report. For example, did you use green to represent a competitor’s market share in an internal document? Check to make sure you don’t use that same green for text emphasizing recommended courses of action for your company.
Monochromatic green.
Monochromatic green
  • Monochromes are your friend. Monochromatic colors are great for indicating intensity – think shades on a weather map representing temperature – and for alternating row background colors in a table, among other things.

NOTE: Windward customers can find many monochromatic options for charts and tables right within Microsoft Office.

  • Emphasize your company colors. Your hard-working marketing team has researched colors that combine well and represent your brand. You can use these colors with confidence and get the added benefit of some subliminal messaging.
  • Be understated. Please, don’t confuse “color” with “colorful.” Adding color via muted tones can make your point without overwhelming the report viewer.
  • Use logical and readable combinations. If you’re using colored text on colored backgrounds, keep this basic principle in mind: In general, the lighter the background and the darker the text, the better the contrast — and the easier it will be to read.

Color and Print

If your report will be printed instead of read onscreen, remember that color can get expensive. You may want to cut down on that cost by using fewer colors in your document. One recommendation is to use colors that work well in various shades, such as darker and lighter blue, to give you more flexibility in design.

Final Notes on Color

Lastly, one piece of advice: Don’t rely solely on color to convey information.

No matter how clear and consistent your document colors are, some readers are bound to ignore or misinterpret them. About 8-10% of the U.S. male population has some form of color blindness, so these readers may not be able to see the colors. Older readers tend to struggle with pale blue. Even those with “perfect” eyesight may be viewing your report as a black and white photocopy.

So our final recommendation is to use text and shapes to give context to any color information.

Text, tables, charts, layout, images, color – it seems like there’s a lot you need to take into account when creating a stylish report. We have just one final item to add to the list: navigation.

Chapter 7: Navigation

Navigation is the final touch that can turn your informative document into an informative and beautiful one.

Subheads/Section Titles

An image from Shutterstock with understandable links.
Navigation aids help users quickly grasp a report’s contents.

We mentioned this concept in our earlier chapter on text, but it’s so important that it’s worth mentioning again:

We read by scanning, so use visual clues to help your readers quickly grasp the layout content of a report.

This means separating out key sections with subheads or section titles, such as the four main ones (Subheads, Tables of Contents, Page Numbers and Appendices) you see in this chapter. You allow readers to quickly get a sense of the entire report and to easily navigate to the data or sections that most interest them.

You can also use other “signposts” throughout your report, such as bold text, italics, • bullets and the like to make key information stand out.

Tables of Contents

Tables of contents are for books and not business reports, right?

Not so fast. We’re big fans of tables of contents when used in appropriate cases, such as when the report is on the longer side or the reader might want to skim to see what it contains.

A table of contents is especially useful when the report is viewed online and the reader can click on each listing to jump directly to the content.

Page Numbers

Page numbers resemble tables of contents in that it’s easy to overlook including them when designing your document, but in some situations they can greatly improve that report.

Appendices (and a Note on Footnotes)

You’ve worked hard to collect meaningful data, but sometimes the best place for your data isn’t actually in the report; it’s after the report.

Appendices are also great places for supporting information that is too large for a footnote and for information that is outside the scope of the report but still useful.

Your Report Design Toolbox

We hope you’ve found these tips useful. As you put them to use, remember to let your template creation software do as much of the work for you as possible.

If you find that your current reporting software makes for a clunky design experience, we invite you to see how easy it is to design reports in Windward.

At Windward Studios we believe that reporting and document generation should be simple—not overly complex, tedious and technical. Your reports deserve to look as impressive as the information they contain.

Why can’t designing documents linked to your data sources be as easy as creating a Word document, Excel spreadsheet or PowerPoint deck?

It can. Windward creates software applications that simplify how businesses design and generate professional reports and documents. Windward provides a unique experience using Microsoft Office to format and edit report templates, and the sophisticated engine pulls data from multiple sources and merges that data into those documents. It’s a hassle-free experience that can actually make generating reports fun.

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