What Business Cards Can Teach Us About Evaluation Reports

After 5+ years, which started as Michael Scriven’s assistant, I’m departing from The Evaluation Center at Western Michigan University on August 31 to accommodate the major increase in my consulting around data visualization and evaluation reporting. I began the tedious effort of cleaning out my drawers and came up the ubiquitous stack of business cards I’ve accumulated over the years (why do we do that?). I saved a few because they reminded me of great graphic design principles that we should all be applying to our evaluation reporting.

The best business cards (and evaluation reports or slides) look organized. Notice how well the Lansing Community College one is aligned:

business card from Lansing Community College

Mary’s name and everything underneath it are all in line. You’d think this could be common but it’s actually pretty rare. Doesn’t it just look and feel professional and organized? (Admittedly, though, I do want to nudge up the LCC logo so it is top-aligned with her address.)

In this one, from MATEC, note how Lara’s name and info align under MATEC, even though the company name is stylized as part of their logo:

Business card for MATEC

Strong alignment between text, headers, and graphics communicates professional competency. Work it!

The most important thing on a business card is the name of the employee. Yet on most business cards, the employee’s name is small, put in the corner, and camouflaged by less important location information (let’s psychoanalyze what that means about employer-employee relationships). Great business cards showcase the employee’s name.  Think about how this supports user cognition: If you’re anything like me, you’ve forgotten someone’s name within 10 seconds of introduction. We inevitably trade business cards before departing. I want to call this person by her name when we say goodbye, so I sneak a glance at the card. In the best case, the name leaps out and saves my day. Good design supports the needs of the end user.

Here is the nice emphasis carried out by Indiana State University:

Business card from Indiana State University

See how Gerald’s name has been visually made the most important part of the card by it’s large size, color, and italics? In the hierarchy of importance on the card, Gerald’s name is at the top and the information of lesser importance is deemphasized. Mary’s card, way above, also achieves in establishing a hierarchy by making Mary’s name darker than the rest of the text and placed at the top of the card.

Our evaluation reports and slides should strive for the same communicative power. That which is most important should be set off in some ways, through color or placement or size or what have you.

Orientation is actually one of those aforementioned emphasis techniques that can help establish a hierarchy on certain bits of text, but layout orientation of an entire business card is also a really powerful way to communicate unique, fresh, youthful, everything you are. Check out how New Latino Visions used orientation:

Business card from New Latino VisionsThe difference is eye-catching and eyeballs-on-cards is an important step leading to the goals of fingers-on-keyboard and name-in-memory.

Now, changing the traditional orientation of a report page or a slide would actually be fairly disruptive in that it would both distract and impair legibility. But the same idea can be applied to a picture or short bits of text like a heading to grab attention.

Our evaluation reporting tools are our business cards. Represent yourself well.

This is What Alignment Looks Like

Ideal alignment is when everything on a page or slide lines up with something else. This sounds pretty simple, right? But there are a lot of implications to consider.

First, let’s examine a weak layout. I drew in some red lines, based on the start and end of the title, down the page in order to illustrate how the rest of the content does not line up well.

page with misaligned text

You can see that the red line on the left doesn’t touch the byline or the main body text or the graph. The red line on the right cuts across the main body text and doesn’t touch the page number at the bottom. Now, some audience members *will* easily detect that this is the result of unintentional formatting. Others, who are less nerdy than me, tend to just get a general sense that the work is sloppy, without being able to put a finger on why. And that should be scary. No evaluator wants to give off the impression of doing sloppy work.

Below is an improved layout with better alignment.

page with consistent alignment

You’ll see here that content all lines up on the left, as it should. I simply adjusted the tabs and margins on the byline and body text to align under the left side of the header. I nudged the graph title’s text box to the left, and the axis as well, so it similarly aligned. On the right side, I shrunk the margin of the body text to get it to line up with the end of the title line (this is especially important if using full justification on body text). I even moved the tab on the page number to get it in line with the right side. Now the page looks more crisp, thoughtful, and professional (just as an evaluator should).

Of course, all this is made more complicated in slideshows, where content is presented via text boxes. Also, I’m really only addressing vertical alignment here. In slides, with text and pictures side-by-side, there’s horizontal alignment to think about too. But once you start looking specifically for alignment, you’ll see it everywhere. Make sure everything lines up with something else.

Beer Delivery Visualization

Time to tackle some of the more important parts of life. I saw this delivery schedule in a cooler at a DC Whole Foods. Bell’s Beer is from Kalamazoo and we take pretty big pride in our hometown beer. So we (I mean, I) get really geeked when Bell’s shows up during travels. But this delivery schedule? It’s not working for this data visualizationist (I just made that term up – how does it sound?).

chart of delivery for various Bell's beers

I couldn’t put my finger on precisely what bothered me so much about it, so I took a snapshot and mulled it over for a few weeks. Here is the revised chart I settled on.

Revised chart of Bell's Beer delivery

The revision still isn’t sitting right with me, but I’ll tell you what important changes I did make:

1. I reversed the order of the listings. Previously, the beers that are delivered year-round were closest to the headers listing the months. That meant that the ones that were the most narrowly distributed were furthest away from the month listings, making them the hardest to decipher. In the revised version, I also just put the month listings across the bottom of the chart, too. Why not?

2. The beers are in a very slightly different order, now depicted by the length of months they are on the market. Just adding a little more logic.

3. The labels over the bars make for less seek-and-find. Previously, the viewer would have to locate the desired beer label, trace the bar to the right, and then simultaneously locate the months across the top, traveling that information down the graph, to find where the paths crossed, just to determine if Favorite Beer was in stock. Too much. This way, we remove one element of difficulty in decoding the chart. Still, I’m unhappy with how I had to abbreviate the top two beers to make them fit in the label.

4. White background. The textured orange background (intended to be beer) was too busy and conflicted with the colors used to differentiate each bar. I’m not totally in love with my new color scheme, but it’s a step up.

If I had access to the beer label icons, I would have still placed them along the left side of the chart. That visual cue is important for the viewer to quickly identify the beer in question.

Eye Gaze & Image Placement

I went to my favorite city in the world a couple of weeks ago – Washington DC. Of course, I didn’t have enough time to explore everything I’d wanted, which included the new Museum of African American History and Culture. But I did catch the promotional signage in the Metro (and one for the Museum of African Art). Let’s pick them apart a bit, shall we?

In this first photo (sorry its so dim around the edges, but I was in the Metro after all), the designers used the power of eye gaze to both draw in the viewer and then direct the viewer’s attention toward the supporting text.

The photo of the artifact was taken at a slight angle, which gives it directionality and a bit of warmth. Think about how much flatter the ad would be if the photo had been taken fully face on. The directionality of the picture and the smart placement of the image so that eye gaze can support the text really unite the ad. When graphic designers say a design should have “unity” this is part of what they mean.

Now check out the eye gaze and directionality in the second ad.

What struck me about this one the most was that the eyes gazing toward the text seemed to belong to white people and that the black people in the ad were facing away, in a bit of an oppositional stance. Perhaps that’s on purpose, to underscore the struggle that the museum is honoring. Yes, let’s suppose that’s the case.

Whether intentional or not, these two ads remind us that there is power in the eyes. When we feature people in our evaluation reporting, position the photo so that the subjects are facing the text, focused internally, rather than literally having their backs turned to the content.

Releasing the Evaluation Report Layout Checklist

So I made this lovely checklist of graphic design best practices as a product of my dissertation (Standing Rule: If you want to know the details of my dissertation, you’ll have to buy me a drink). It included input from a panel of graphic designers including Peter Brakeman, Christy Kloote, Chris Metzner, and Kevin Brady.

I’ve been having such a great time travelling around the country, giving workshops on the checklist and using graphic design to improve the way we communicate in evaluation. But I’ve gotten overwhelmed with requests for the checklist, so I’ve decided to make it freely available:

Enjoy! And do post comments on your use of the checklist. (Well, your nice comments anyway.)

Evaluation Report Layout Checklist

A graphic designer, I am not. A laborer of long words and awkward sentences structures, I am. That’s why I became super fascinated by the world of report layout and formatting. Maybe the geekiest hobby, I hear you. But so important!

I’ve detailed the importance of good communication elsewhere on this blog. For evaluators in particular, the packaging and presentation of our content are often dealbreakers. Indeed, at times our choices in font and line length actually impede our clients’ ability to comprehend our findings. Yikes! Not our goal!

After reading a bazillion books and getting input from a panel of graphic design experts (Kevin Brady, Peter Brakeman, Christy Ennis Kloote, and Chris Metzner), I’ve compiled a checklist of graphic design good practice specifically for written evaluation reports.









Want a copy? Send me an email.

But be warned, I’m about to use the checklist on roughly 90 evaluation reports as part of my dissertation. Surely in there I’ll find good reason to make a tweak or two. I’ll post the revised version then. But in the meantime, go forth and make good work!