Design of an Award Winning Report

Design of an Award Winning Report

So long as we are going to write reports, we might as well make them heavy on the visuals and do everything in our power to make the report easy to navigate, especially in a mobile reading culture. There are lots of ways to do this but one of my favorites comes from a team I got to work with at Drexel University. I’ve written about this crew before, but they are worth a deeper dive, especially considering that this report was just named one of the top 20 advances in autism research.

On a regular basis, Drexel reports on autism indicators in a lengthy report because, come on, we’ve got a lot of aspects of life to discuss here. We made the report easier to navigate by leveraging color as an organizing principle.

We introduce this idea by modifying the typical table of contents. We inserted a tiny colored dot next to each major chapter of the report, each aspect of life with autism to be discussed. This essentially color codes the contents and tells the reader what to expect later on.


Then, within the body of the report, we used that color throughout the respective chapters. It’s the dominant color in the data visualizations, the background color of the callout boxes, and the fill color for the bands that stretch across the top of the page.


Using color as the organizing principle makes it easy for a reader to make their way. For example, if I’m looking at the table of contents and I’m mainly interested in Postsecondary Education, I can see the green circle and then just hit my scroll wheel until I see green again. And then readers love us because we’ve made their lives easier. And they’ve learned something. And they can handily pass this info and love on to others.

We also took the smart route and broke out what would be complicated graphs into a set of small multiples. (Here are my instructions on making slopegraphs.)


And we used strong titles for both graphs and section headings.




Rocking your titles in this way makes it so that your audience gets your main point at a glance, instead of feeling frustrated with you that your points are buried.

So this is what an award winning report looks like. When you are ready for the big leagues, contact me to talk more about how to get there.

11 thoughts on “Design of an Award Winning Report
  1. Tyler Lubben says:

    Thanks for sharing!
    The usage of different colours that represent distinct chapters makes it very easy to find a particular chapter.With the help of colours it becomes very easy to distinguish between several chapters. And through strong titles both for graphics and section heading makes it quite interesting to analyse and interpret various aspects.

  2. Rob Owens says:

    Love this. One question: It seems obvious that using colors for each section would come in handy for a large report, are there other reasons? I’ve been keeping it simple with color, usually one color sometimes 3 or maybe 4 shades when contrast is needed and then gray. I will sometimes use a second color for a comparison group. Are there times to use 4 or 5 different colors in a 3-5 page brief? What about a 1 page document?

  3. Akin-Awokoya Emmanuel says:

    This is a wonderful presentation on how to write a report that is easy for your reader to navigate. How about if you could add density to the number label to allow the reader know if the content of that topic is lengthier in comparison to the others?

  4. Tim Jansen says:

    Well i do understand the logic behind color coding different chapters but why on earth someone decides to place Green, Purple and Orange in a single page is mind blowing. Why use ugly staturated color combinations instead of a single color with different depth like olive green, lemon green?

    • Stephanie Evergreen says:

      Ugly is certainly a subjective call, Tim. Research shows people can only distinguish between 4 shades of one color before it gets tricky, so that would be one solid reason to use different colors rather than “different depths” as you suggested.

      • Aaron says:

        For what it’s worth, I have found a lot of success using Cynthia Brewer’s color swatches that she designed for cartography purposes. Usually her qualitative sets given the work I typically do, but the sequential ones have come in handy for showing minor variations in one variable. They are also incorporated into an r-package for use with ggplot2 grpahs, but I suspect they can be recreated in Excel as well.

  5. Deven Wisner says:

    Hi Stephanie!
    This is a great post, and I really see the benefit across disciplines. However, I did a search for how to do something like this in MS Word, and I was unable to find anything. Could this be done by applying a color scheme to different sections? Or, would I need another word processing software?

    • Stephanie Evergreen says:

      Hi Deven. The color coding was not an automatic process, it was all done by hand. While you could do this in Word it would probably be easier in something like Publisher.

  6. Deven Wisner says:

    Thanks, Stephanie!

  7. Diatta says:

    Thank you very much. Very useful for me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

RT @LizTweets: Use the free StateFace font from @ProPublica to incorporate tiny US state icons into your text. How cool is that?! https://t…

RT @EvanSinar: Using The Gauge Diagram for Qualitative Data Visualization @evergreendata #dataviz…

@cisey you're welcome! So fun!

5 hours of detention by immigration cannot keep the #dataviz from #Canada.

RT @net2van: #Qualitative Data Visualization: The Gauge Diagram When numbers aren't a fit for your #dataviz @evergr

Audible groans when this slide came up at #evalYOW17

RT @katiedrumm: Excuse me, GMG is hiring a graphics and data viz editor. Please RT and tell your talented friends:

So much fun keynoting & workshopping #dataviz at #evalYOW17