10 Things NOT to do in Your ESG, CSR, or Annual Report

Design Positive
5 min readJan 27, 2022


With the turning of the calendar year, individuals charged with completing their company’s ESG, CSR, or annual report shift their focus to preparing this important communication tool.

But before you replicate what you did last year or emulate a competitor’s report, review these top 10 things to avoid to ensure your final deliverable offers the greatest benefit and is easy for your target audience to read and digest. (Strapped for time? Learn how to prepare an annual report when your team has limited time.)

1. White Text on a Complex Image

Readability always trumps design. Never put body copy over a photo with a complex background because it makes your message challenging to read or even impossible for those with low vision.

The same goes for putting black text on a dark photo. You should have a high enough contrast between the text and background for ease of reading. The better option is to use a single-color background with high contrast from your text color.

2. Full Page Width Text Columns

Do not let your body copy span clear across the page. Text that is full page width is difficult to read and is more likely to intimidate your reader from exploring the content.

Instead, consider narrowing the column width or switching to two or three columns. This makes for a more attractive, approachable design that delights readers. As a rule of thumb, keep your column widths below 88 characters wide.

3. Typos

Do not ever have a typo anywhere. Ever!

And in all instances, put one space after periods. Two spaces is a carryover from typewriter days and are no longer needed.

4. Complex Visuals

If you’re going to include infographics, keep them simple. Infographics should convey a complex subject with minimal elements or illustrate how something works. Try not to write explainer copy. Let the visuals do that for you.

Tables can provide important information in a readable format. However, don’t put tables on a 90-degree angle to make them fit on the page. Your designer should be able to make any table fit in its original orientation.

Likewise, do not show fewer than five years on a chart or graph, unless you’re a new company. Stakeholders need at least five years of information to see a trend. If not, it looks like you’re trying to “fake” the data by only showing a few years.

5. Lack of Corporate Branding

Do not forget to use your brand colors appropriately. Most brands have primary and secondary colors, and some even have tertiary or accent colors. Use your colors wisely so anyone reading your report knows what brand it is.

Never use a templated report or standardized look and feel. Tailor the entire design to your brand’s style guide and help elevate your company’s message.

Keep in mind that branding isn’t just about what the report looks like. Don’t forget your company’s voice and tone. This should be self-evident as soon as the reader sees any page.

And don’t use the same copy for repeat sections from year to year. Find ways to breathe new life into every facet of the report.

6. Formatting Errors

DO NOT make your report larger than 9 x 11.5 inches. Any larger and the type will be hard to read when it’s printed out on an 8.5" x 11" sheet of paper.

Don’t add a table of contents if you have less than 24 pages or if you have less than six sections to your report, and even then you may not need a table of contents. Only use it when you’re solving a reader’s problem.

Never force justify your copy to stretch all the way to the right of a paragraph space. Especially if you have narrow columns. This creates odd kerning (space between letters) that is not only hard to read but makes it look like your brand doesn’t care about the reader. It’s just unprofessional.

Avoid filling every square inch of each page with copy and photos. White space prevents overwhelming the reader. Plus, your copy should be condensed to its core talking points without the fluff. Think about using large headlines, big quotes or full-page photos to lighten your report’s visual weight.

7. Ingenuine Executive Letters

Executive letters should NEVER even remotely sound like marketing copy. This area of your ESG, CSR or annual report should be conversational as if a stakeholder sat down and your company leader spoke casually and candidly. Let the reader know there’s a person behind those words.

Annual reports are a great way to manage your company narrative, clarify information and demonstrate your commitment to your stakeholders. This is not the time to market to them.

8. Overuse of Photos and Icons

You should not view photography as filler content. Images are paramount to helping communicate talking points, setting the tone of the report, and making you look like the professional organization you are! Use quality photos and don’t add type into the photo files.

Additionally, avoid going icon crazy and using them as bullet points. Icons should match your brand and help communicate the subject. They are NOT just artwork to fill the space. Too many icons can confuse the reader.

9. Accessibility

Do not forget to consider all your readers, regardless of their abilities. Do not put white text on a yellow or orange background. This makes for extremely difficult reading, especially when it’s printed. You can use this free color contrast analyzer to help make sure your text meets WCAG color contrast requirements.

10. Poor PDF Programming

Do not forget to add hyperlinks to sources, projects or evergreen pages on your company’s website once you create a PDF. Include in-document bookmarks so your reader can click around within the report.

And please start making your report PDFs accessible. It takes a little more time, but there’s a lot of great information in there for all stakeholders no matter their physical abilities. Plus, search bots will better understand the report’s contents!

Now that you know some things to avoid, be sure to read up on the Top 10 Annual Report Objectives for Best Results to learn more about what to do to amplify your report’s impact.

At Design Positive, we help brands make new friends by avoiding common pitfalls in annual reports, ESGs and CSRs, while doing it all in an access-to-all approach.



Design Positive

Design Positive is a strategic branding and accessibility agency.