How to write an award-winning* annual report

Nick Asbury shares a technique for generating creative ideas for any brief – and how to programme your brain to think of ideas habitually

What if a creative writing centre looked like a shop dedicated to the imagination? Inspired by the work of 826 Valencia in the US, The Hoxton Street Monster Supplies in east London houses writing and mentoring charity, the Ministry of Stories. The shop was designed by We Made This. Photograph by Alistair Hall.
What if a creative writing centre looked like a shop dedicated to the imagination? Inspired by the work of 826 Valencia in the US, The Hoxton Street Monster Supplies in east London houses writing and mentoring charity, the Ministry of Stories. The shop was designed by We Made This. Photograph by Alistair Hall.

*I should start by saying I’ve never written an award-winning annual report, so don’t listen to me. Also, I’m using ‘award-winning’ as a shorthand for ‘creatively interesting and different’. It’s not the perfect shorthand, because a lot of good stuff doesn’t win awards, and a lot of bad stuff does. But you know what I mean. I use the example of an annual report, because it’s considered to be a routine assignment, which has been tackled countless times before. Imagine it’s an annual report for a fairly anonymous service company. I’m going to suggest how you can use a methodical process to turn that brief into at least six award-winning ideas. 

Now I’ll stand in front of my imaginary whiteboard and ask readers to shout out everything they would expect an annual report to be. For the purposes of this article, we’ll skip the awkward pause and assume someone shouts something straightaway.

— Annual!

— Yes, an annual report is usually annual. Good.

— Boring!

— Yes, boring. They often are.

Now the suggestions come faster. 

— Long copy! Brochure! Factual! Reliable! Positive!

— OK great, we’ll stop there for now.

The next step is to go through each of those points and ask – what would happen if you did the opposite? Ideally, this would be an open discussion and might lead to completely different ideas. But for the sake of this article, this is how a conversation might go.

NB Studio’s 2011 annual review for the British Heart Foundation, which came housed in a handy travelcard wallet containing stories of various journeys made by BHF supporters.
NB Studio’s 2011 annual review for the British Heart Foundation, which came housed in a handy travelcard wallet containing stories of various journeys made by BHF supporters.

1. Annual

Does it have to be annual? Could you do 365 daily reports? Maybe not as a substitute for the report, but as something extra? Or, could you structure an annual report to work across a day in the life of the organisation? One second in the life? A split second report.

2. Boring

Yes, annual reports are boring. So what would the most exciting annual report in the world look like? Could an annual report have car chases and explosions? Could the finance director summarise the profit and loss accounts while skydiving? Could there be a cliffhanger on every page?

3. Long copy

What’s the other extreme? Could an annual report be a single word? Maybe ‘Better’. You might have trouble selling that to the client, but it could lead somewhere else. Maybe you put that single word big on the front cover, then use it as a structural device for the rest of the content. Better people. Better products. Better results.

BHF 0009_final
Seven versions of an eight-page ‘wraparound’ leaflet were also created to highlight the BHF’s work in different locations across the UK. It also included instructions for how to give CPR.

4. Brochure

The question of format comes up in most brainstorms. Does it have to be a conventional brochure? Could you explore something else? This can lead to gimmicky solutions, but it works if it’s grounded in a rationale.

I worked with design company NB Studio on an annual review for the British Heart Foundation that was small enough to fit in a travelcard wallet. The idea was that you could carry it round, share it easily, and on the travelcard wallet there were instructions for giving emergency CPR – so it turned the annual review into a useful tool. Copy-wise, it had the positive effect of forcing the content to be minimal – and it was better as a result.

Other formats are available. Could you print the annual report on the side of a bus and drive it round the country? Or on the sides of a flock of sheep?

5. Factual and reliable

Let’s combine these. What if an annual report had an unreliable narrator? What if it was fictional, reporting on things that had never happened? What if it contained blatant lies? Or maybe the content is factual, but it takes the style of something fictional, like a fairy tale.

None of these ideas may fly with the client, but you still come out of the process with something interesting. Maybe it turns into another job for the same client. Maybe it turns into a job for someone else, or a personal project.

A diary is usually motivational – so what if it was demotivational? Asbury & Asbury’s Perpetual Disappointments Diary provides a neat, if downbeat, spin on the traditional week-to-view.
A diary is usually motivational – so what if it was demotivational? Asbury & Asbury’s Perpetual Disappointments Diary provides a neat, if downbeat, spin on the traditional week-to-view.

6. Positive

What if the annual report was unexpectedly downbeat? Even if the company has done really well, you could focus on the areas they want to improve. It could convey a restless sense of wanting to do better. Call it ‘Another frustrating year’.

You get the idea. Hopefully, you get lots of ideas. None of them are the finished article, some may be completely unrealistic, some may need scaling back or reframing to turn into something workable. But they’re all starting points.

And the interesting thing is, it’s a weirdly binary and mechanical process. You just list everything you would expect something to be, then explore the opposite. On this level at least, you could programme a computer to come up with creative ideas.

It’s not a bolt of lightning that comes mysteriously out of nowhere. It’s the result of a habitual way of thinking, and something you can teach yourself to do 

What you can certainly do is programme your brain to do it. If you’re used to thinking in an ‘oppositional’ way, then you start seeing these ideas regularly. And you recognise that other people are doing the same thing.

diary4

One of the best children’s books of recent years is BJ Novak’s The Book With No Pictures. Contrary to the conventions of the children’s book genre, it contains no pictures – just some silly words that force the adult reading it to make a fool of themselves. It’s beautifully done. But you can tell how the idea happened. BJ Novak thought ‘All children’s books have pictures, so what if you did one with just words?’

I’m certain he thought this, because he also has an Instagram account called Pictures of Text. It’s the result of the same thinking. ‘Instagram is for pictures, but what if you use it for text?’

That ‘oppositional’ way of thinking leads to other ideas. Like the time writer Dave Eggers and educator Nínive Calegari were setting up an inner-city literacy centre to get young people into reading. They found the ideal location on a main street in San Francisco (826 Valencia), but planning laws meant it had to be used for retail. The conventional response would be to challenge the planning laws or look for a new property. The oppositional response is to say – ‘so what if we make it a shop?’ And what if we make that shop fictional, so it represents the world of storytelling that we’re trying to get young people interested in? Then we put the literacy centre in the back room.

This page: What happens if you apply the Pantone colour-matching system to written tone of voice? Pentone is an ongoing project by Asbury & Asbury
This page: What happens if you apply the Pantone colour-matching system to written tone of voice? Pentone is an ongoing project by Asbury & Asbury

The result was the Pirate Supply Store in San Francisco and, later, the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company in New York. In London, the Ministry of Stories were directly inspired by Eggers and Calegari’s work, founding the Hoxton Street Monster Supplies in east London in 2010.

It’s a wonderful idea, but it’s not a bolt of lightning that comes mysteriously out of nowhere. It’s the result of a habitual way of thinking, and something you can teach yourself to do.

I’m sounding like one of those business evangelists or diet gurus who promise that this one simple technique will change your life. It won’t really. It’s a blunt tool that can lead to bad ideas as well as good ones – and 99% of the job lies in the way you follow the idea up. Plus, not all ideas work in this way. Many are looser, more to do with associations than binary opposites.

But it’s interesting to demystify the process of creative thinking. It’s not necessarily that different to maths or engineering.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the workshop – please take another Wagon Wheel on your way out.


Nick Asbury is a freelance writer, partner in Asbury & Asbury, and co-author of the new edition of A Smile in the Mind: Witty Thinking in Graphic Design (Phaidon). See asburyandasbury.com

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