AIGA Medalist Dana Arnett is known for his high standards, especially when it comes to using design to help brands communicate their message. In his early years at the now highly distinguished design consultancy VSA Partners, designing annual reports was bread-and-butter work, yet the form challenged and intrigued Arnett, sparking a fascination that would lead him to later revolutionize of the form.

Today, Arnett tells us the story of the first annual reports he worked on at VSA between 1990-1995 that significantly challenged the status quo of corporate communications, and led the way to radically redefining the genre of annual reports.

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“At VSA Partners in the early ’90s, we were just beginning to establish ourselves, and part of how we were evolving during ‘The Age of Print’ was in the corporate communications work we were doing. During that formative period we had an opportunity work with the Chicago Board of Trade. They were publishing an annual report but it really wasn’t being designed as an expression of their brand. Instead, it was being treated mainly as a financial reporting document.

“It didn’t take a trained eye to see there was a real opportunity to dial-up the energy of the report. In essence, tell a more dynamic and human-centered story about what the CBOT was all about. There was so much more that could be expressed, so why not take advantage of this opportunity? Through some pleading and prodding we were able to get management to hear our case and give us a shot at creating something that would do those things.

“Stepping back, Robert Miles Runyan was given the title of ‘Pioneer of the Modern Annual Report’ in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and during that time he began to treat that particular communication vehicle as a dynamic expression of a company. In the decades that followed, corporate reports became more regimented and watered down, often retreating to safer conventions and formulaic approaches. Conversely, VSA felt compelled to challenge how annual reports worked, how they looked, how they felt, how they functioned, and how they communicated. At least from my perspective—annual reports were probably one of the most coveted assignments you could get as a designer so why not take advantage of this opportunity to do something great?

“We weren’t so much looking at changing the world of annual reports at the time; I think that was a by-product of what happened. Here we had, in our own backyard of Chicago, the largest global futures and options exchange. A historic institution where markets were made and open outcry trading was invented. It was still one of the most dynamic financial environment you could imagine, and when you went down on the trading floor, you just felt it.

 

“There was an air of enchantment from the noise, the human interaction, the visual chaos, and we felt from the beginning that we had to harness that energy.

“Today with annual reports being primarily online, you can capture that type of energy through more dynamic content. But the trick back then was: how do you capture the essence of an organization two-dimensionally in a printed document through the use of type, words, pictures, scale, tactile paper, and great writing?

“The breakthrough was the ’93 report (our third one for the Board of Trade), when I began collaborating more closely with the photographer Francois Robert and my VSA colleague, Curt Schreiber. We began problem solving together and our working relationship fell into a tight rhythm.

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Dana Arnett and Francois Robert. Courtesy of Francois Robert

“I remember a late night dinner session with Francois where we were sharing a sketchbook and iterating over a good bottle of wine. We’d sketch out a concept, pick it apart, and see how we could stretch the potential of the idea. We were always pushing each other, having a real enlivened and bold conversation about how design and photography could come together more seamlessly.

“During one of those conversations I recall saying: ‘Why don’t you bring down all of your various cameras to the Board of Trade tomorrow. We’ll get on the floor and we’ll just do an experiment in how to visually capture the environment in all formats. Then we’ll take those findings and begin to assess how those images could best visually express some of the key moments of trading.’

“In the end, I think we probably shot 1,000 to 2,000 images. Curt, Francois and I then began to have inspiring conversations around how that photography was expressing the mood and attitude of trading. As a result we started to see the real thread of the narrative emerge. We also began to see the power of the entire organization come into view through the eyes of a trader—this documentary of getting to work at 6 a.m. and then finishing an exhausting day at the close of trade. It was magical.

“We took a photojournalistic approach knowing that the images should be real, gritty and human. We didn’t want to glamorize trading or make it look elitist and staged. We wanted the reader to feel what it was like to roll up your sleeves and be a trader.

“What happened after that was pretty remarkable. The report started to get notoriety in the design and communications communities, and a new conversation started to emerge around the power of corporate narrative. It also began to shine a ray of light through the cloud of convention which had hovered so long over annual report design.

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“At the same time, it also helped break ground for VSA on a number of levels. As a design firm, it helped us engage in new conversations with clients that focused more on ‘brand expression,’ and how dynamic story telling can change how the world sees an organization. And it helped inspire our team here at VSA in terms of what we believed design could be. We won some important awards, the work got published quite a bit, and as a result, it gave VSA much needed publicity and credibility.

“And from a internal perspective, since it made a substantive mark in the design world, it helped VSA begin to attract design talent who wanted to work at a firm that stretched the boundaries and took risks.

“Personally speaking, the process gave me a real appreciation for how I could work with my collaborators. I think the reason Francois and I got along so well and ended up doing some of the greatest work of our careers together, is because I didn’t treat him like a hired gun. I set out to make him feel like he was a design partner, and not simply a photographer.

“And then there was the brilliance and fearlessness of our senior designer, Curt. He was still cutting his teeth as a young designer, so he had that fire and tenacity that pushed us all. Curt helped Francois and me step back and see things in a whole new light. The client fed off that collective energy and began to trust us more as a team. Ultimately they became a champion of the process because they saw how vested we were in doing something so meaningful.

“The project also reaffirmed some of the traditional teachings I learned from my college days, where I learned how to explore and experiment. You get out into the corporate world and some of those genes become restrained. This was like revisiting those classic exercises I learned in design school where you’d scale and interpret typography in the purest and most powerful ways. And I suppose that’s still the trick today—finding greatness through the basic truths and purity of design.”