Sidebars are an unsung hero of reporting.
Sidebars are a way to offload details such as your methods or caveats about your data that are related but not a direct part of the narrative.
Sidebars are not call out boxes. Call out boxes are for giving a tiny shout out to parts of your content. Call out boxes are usually bright and attention-getting, so people will look at them. Sidebars formatted so that they hide a little. We use muted colors to deemphasize things like (and this might hurt a little) the details of your data analysis.
Other content that belongs out of the main narrative and in a place like a sidebar because, though it might be important for you to state, people don’t care as much as your primary points:
Data Collection Methods
Who Commissioned the Report
Background on your Organization
Put that ish in a sidebar!
In this report from OPE, sidebars are inserted on several pages to contain somewhat irrelevant information.
Gorgeous! But perhaps more important, this is also where the team defines acronyms that appear in that section. That’s one way to make reading long reports even easier. Usually what I see is a page in the front of the report listing the definitions of all acronyms. But this isn’t a great idea. Why? Well, because people read reports online these days. Back when we always read reports on paper, sure, it might have been handy to dog-ear the acronyms page so you could quickly return to it when you forgot what a certain acronym meant. But people don’t dog-ear PDFs. In PDF land, people scroll right past all those boring pages up front and then have to scroll back and forth, getting more annoyed with you at each scroll, to remember those acronyms.
A smarter idea is to define each acronym close to where it is actually used in the report using sidebars. So we have made it easier to understand our writing with better acronym placement, provided an appropriate line length for reading, and added in some white space? Yes, please!
Check out more examples of awesome sidebar usage and how to format them in my latest book, Presenting Data Effectively.